Millions in federal subsidies, plus control over some of the richest farmland anywhere; those are the stakes in the Senate battle over reclamation policy. As shaped in 1902, the program was meant to foster small family farms in the arid West by providing water at low cost. But for decades the Bureau of Reclamation allowed agribusiness firms, especially in California, to own or control much larger irrigated spreads. When some land-reformers sued for strict enforcement of the law, the Interior Department took up their cause with almost evangelical zeal. Now Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and others' have advanced a bill (S 14) that would "reform" the law by largely abandoning its original intent.

There are two issues here. One is what kind of agriculture should be encouraged -- i.e. subsidized. No amount of populist sentiment can override the changes that have made 160-acre homesteads largely obsolete. Where families want to try to manage on that scale, public policy should not discourage them. But most "small farms" these days are larger and require more equipment and investment. New acreage limits -- S 14 says 1,280 acres, while Interior wants 960 -- would accord with that reality, but would probably not open up vast spaces for the landless poor.

The second key issue involves the rich. How should a new law deal with those who have exploited the program in the past? Strict acreage limits would force a number of large operations to give up thousands of acres or sacrifice their irrigation benefits. S 14, however, would accommodate many of these growers by exempting some districts and giving others several ways to continue consolidated operations. One approach would exempt those who pay off their share of a project's cost. That may sound fair, but unless realistic interest rates are charged, even "full" payments add up to substantial subsidies.

Some sponsors of S 14 have recognized that some of this is so generous as to be politically embarrassing. Compromises are in the wind. The Senate will have to work through 77 years of tangled law and history, and cope with lots of political pressures, to arrive at a better bill. It would help to keep one principle in mind; that public subsidies should be equitably distributed -- and not exploited by those who can afford to pay the true cost of the benefits they reap.