Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus suggested yesterday that the administration might ask Congress to amend the law before carrying out a court-ordered breakup of some large agricultural holdings in the West.
However, he said he supported returning the affected land to family farmers and opposed a one-year moratorium on enforcement. The one-year delay was proposed Thursday by several Western senators.
The 1902 law, which restricts ownership of farmland served by federal water projects, has been largely ignored in the West, with the result that millions of acres are now owned by absentees or huge corporations.
The Interior Department has given opponents until November to state why the 1902 law should not be enforce, or to propose changes.
President Carter indicated in a meeting with farm editors Oct. 1 that the opposed aspects of the 1902 legislation. But Andrus said yesterday at a lunch with editors and reporters of The Washington Post that "the law doesn't need that much rewriting" though some amendments might be needed.
Dam projects in the Rocky Mountains provide irrigation for large parts of arid California and Arizona. Large corporations and railroad own hundreds of thousands of those acres, and receive subsidized water for agricultural projects.
"I don't think you people, as taxpayers, want to subsidized Standard Oil of Indiana," he said.
However, some changes may be necessary in the acreage limitations set for eligibility for the federal provided water, he said. As it stands the law sets an ownership limit on this land of 160 acres each for a farmer, his wife and their children. A family of four can still own 640 acres, and lease another 640 acres, without exceeding the limits set in 1902.
Farmers in the Imperial Valley, at the southern most part of California, have protested that they would still have to divest themselves of large tracts. They maintain that they cannot farm smaller tracts profitable because of high expenses for machinery, chemicals and other requirements of the intensive agriculture there.
Andrus promised that "the family farmer doesn't have anything to fear from the Carter adminstration."
Andrus has indicated that some special provisions should be made adjusting acreage limitation according to the quality of the land served by federal water. "There's an inequity there and we have to determine if 160 acres is the right number, or is it 200." he said.
In addition to farmers, enforcement of the acreage limitation could cause problems for south-western real estate speculators and developers who expect speculators and developer except watrer from planned federal dams to add to the value of the value of the large holdings they are assembling.