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Holy cotton bales: ProPublica article missed the mark

Rick Lavis

Rick Lavis

ProPublica, a journal that purports to produce investigative journalism in the public interest, has published a series of articles under the term: “Killing the Colorado.”  Its first article is entitled “Holy Crop – How Federal Dollars Are Financing the Water Crisis in the West” (May 27). At the heart of this odd article is the notion that cotton subsidies, as provided to Arizona cotton farmers under the federal farm programs, are the culprit in the declining levels of the Colorado River.  Well, this is just palpable nonsense.

Arizona has been producing cotton since as early as 1893 when the Arizona Territorial Legislature offered a $500 prize to the first cotton producer to produce a cotton bale to its specifications. Since 1917, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started keeping records, Arizona, through 2014, harvested some 60 million bales of cotton worth $16.4 billion. In those years, the Arizona cotton industry created wealth, sustained numerous farm families, supported scores of small rural communities and, in doing so, enabled Arizona to become the prosperous state that it is. And fittingly, cotton became one of Arizona’s five “C’s.”

Why cotton? Because in Arizona it is sustainable by weather and sufficient water. It is productive and obviously profitable far more than other crops.

But that is not the story I wish to tell. This story is a response to ProPublica’s argument that federal cotton subsidies did, in fact, create a water crisis along the Colorado River by supporting or increasing cotton production through the application of Colorado River water. From 1917 to 1933, before the federal government created farm programs, Arizona produced, on average, 150,000 acres of cotton per year and over $10 million in income without a farm program nor any Colorado River water. Since the inception of the New Deal and its farm programs, Arizona continued to grow until it reached 633,000 acres of cotton in 1981. Certainly, it could be argued that the federal farm programs served to underwrite such growth, but did it create a problem on the Colorado River? I argue that it did not.

First, ProPublica is breathless in its assertion that growing cotton in Arizona’s desert was made possible  “by importing billions of gallons of water each year.” For most of the development of the Arizona cotton industry, its source of water was either groundwater or surface water, not Colorado River water.

When the Central Arizona Project delivered its first allocation of water from the Colorado River to agriculture in 1985, cotton production had already declined by 34 percent. Even more stark, since its high point of 633,000 acres in 1981, cotton acres have declined by 84 percent to 98,000 acres by 2015. How can ProPublica argue that cotton subsidies are so rich that farmers could not resist them? They did because of the marketplace and Arizona urbanization was the final arbiter.

But even more important is the failure of ProPublica to appreciate the fact that the U.S. Congress in 1996 passed the Freedom to Farm Act (which incidentally was an effort to phase out farm programs); an act that “decoupled’ the federal farm programs payments (direct subsidies) from individual program crops; cotton being one of them. Did the payments, however characterized, still serve to underwrite cotton production? Of course! But the primary point of the ProPublica article is that federal farm programs were driving cotton production without any recognition that farm program benefits were no longer based on the development of cotton production but on farming.

Did Arizona farmers continue to grow cotton under the Freedom to Farm Act that allowed farmers to choose “what where, how and when?” You bet. But the new act broke the link between incentivizing the producing of specific crops, such as cotton. It is no longer a federal dictate, but a farmer’s choice.

The point here is inescapable. The ProPublica thesis cannot stand. Cotton subsidies did not create a “crisis” on the Colorado River. How could it? Water from the Colorado River came late to Arizona, long after Arizona cotton had hit its high in 1981. Agriculture’s use of CAP water was a function of its rightful share and the decision of Arizona’s water leadership to contract CAP water for agriculture to insure that Arizona would not lose its rightful share to California. It was hardly a result of cotton subsidies.

The water crisis along the Colorado River has many fathers to be sure, but to suggest that the declining levels of water was directly related to cotton subsidies in Arizona is a bit of a reach. To the authors of “Holy Crop – How Federal Dollars are Financing the Water Crisis in the West,” I would try to see the whole picture rather than a little ‘ole cotton bale.

Rick Lavis is executive vice president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association.

One comment

  1. Well said Mr. Lavis. It could be reasonably argued that federal dollars did, indeed, create the water crisis – especially in California. But the dollars I’m thinking of are spent in the form of environmental regulations and such, creating a regulatory drought rather than a hydrological drought, not farm programs.

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