The House Interior Committee yesterday completed a sweeping rewrite of the Reclamation Act of 1902, tossing aside old limits on the amount of subsidized federal irrigation water available to any one farmer.
Western water and agricultural interests, which had lobbied aggressively for almost six years to get their way, expressed pleasure with the committee action. In almost every respect, the committee ignored the reform groups that have been trying to cut back federal water subsidies to big farmers and agribusiness corporations.
By most official estimates, farmers pay only about 20 percent of the actual cost of the water provided from federally financed reclamation dams and irrigation systems on some 11 million acres of arid land in 17 western states.
The new measure would increase the subsidy by allowing farmers to irrigate as much as 960 acres, instead of the present 160, at today's subsidized low rates. It also would allow unlimited leasing of additional irrigation land at higher, but still-subsidized water rates.
The Reagan administration has urged that farmers be required to pay off reclamation projects at higher interest rates and that water rates be more closely tied to actual cost to the Treasury.
"It is not perfect legislation," said Rep. Abraham Kazen Jr. (D-Tex.), chairman of the subcommittee that drafted the bill. "Some people object to nearly every provision . . . . The bill liberalizes the present law, but it goes about as far as any bill should."
The bill was approved by voice vote, with only Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) dissenting. Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said he hopes to have House debate sometime in April. The Senate is expected to take up the issue after the House votes.
The action yesterday, with none of the angry debate that characterized previous committee work on a bill, had all the aspects of a fast-moving train that would not be stopped.
At one point, Rep. Douglas K. Bereuter (R-Neb.) complained, "This is a California train, a long time leaving Union Station. But the crew is Californian; the grease is Californian; all the fares were paid by California."
Although roughly 97 percent of the farmers receiving the subsidized water in 17 western states are in compliance with the 1902 law, many growers in California and Arizona would be forced to give up excess lands if the statute were enforced strictly.
Their high-pressure lobbying to change the law stemmed from a federal court order directing Interior to begin stringent enforcement of the 1902 statute. A suit by western growers, demanding that Interior produce an environmental impact statement, has delayed issuance of new enforcement regulations.
Major features of the bill:
It changes the present 160-acre per-person limit on irrigated lands to 960 acres, with unlimited leasing of additional land, and a continuation of the subsidy to corporate farms.
It ends the present requirement that owners live on their farms or nearby, opening the way for absentee owners and speculators to share in the water subsidy.
It removes Army Corps of Engineers projects from reclamation law coverage, which will allow corporate farms such as California's J. G. Boswell Co., the world's largest cotton grower, to continue to receive federal subsidy.