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Federal farming incentives contribute to the "killing" of the Colorado River

Jul 1, 2015

The Colorado River Delta is normally dry because of overuse. Last year a "pulse flow" swept through the dry riverbed temporarily.
Credit Pete McBride

Incentives from the federal government for farmers who grow crops like cotton are contributing to the depletion of the Colorado River. A Propublica report this spring investigated the issue. The article’s author was at the Aspen Ideas Festival Tuesday (6/30). Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Propublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten set out to discover and write about how climate change was altering water supplies in the Colorado River Basin states. The river runs through seven western states, including Colorado.

"I expected that that’s ultimately what I’d be reporting," he says. "But over two years of research and conversations with hundreds of the smartest people on water issues in the country, I came to an entirely different realization and focus."

He says there’s plenty of water in the basin, and climate change and drought play just one role in the river’s depletion. Poor decisions over policies and water management are also to blame. The problem’s stark. Lustgarten says Arizona has been warned it could run out of water in a decade and California is severely curtailing water use.

One problem is cotton farming in Arizona. Farmers get the most federal subsidies for this water-intensive crop than any other, says Lustgarten.

"The same government that’s decrying the disastrous effects of this drought, authorizing emergency relief measures, running billion dollar programs to get farms to use their water more efficiently is, at the same time, using taxpayer dollars to shore up practices that ultimately use more water."

One farming family he interviewed has received $5 million in federal aid since 1995 to plant their cotton. Lustgarten’s talk was called “Killing the Colorado River: Why We Should Pay Attention.” The river supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply and 40 million people.