Cities and farmers fight over water rights

Jan. 15, 2006 at 9:58 AM
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BIG SKY, Mont., Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Environmentalists, fishermen and city officials are challenging the farmers and ranchers who have long controlled water resources in the West.

Under longstanding policies, agriculture has laid claim to about 80 percent of water resources on the grounds that water is critical to the survival of crops and livestock. Now, however, other users are arguing that this system is unfair, uneconomical and a threat to many delicate ecosystems, The Washington Post reported.

Farmers in California's Central Valley get their water from the federal government at below-market prices, a subsidy that amounts to $416 million a year, the Environmental Working Group said. Unlike cities, farmers are paying back the cost of the region's giant irrigation system without interest.

In the Pacific Northwest, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes say agriculture is depriving them of the water they need to maintain a way of life, the newspaper said.

Near Yuma, Ariz., farmers in the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District are concerned that the rapid growth of Phoenix will threaten their water rights.

Steve Owens of the state's Department of Environmental Quality sees water conservation as "probably the No. 1 environmental issue" facing the state.

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