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USDA pays Colorado River region farmers billions for losing crops, but not to use less water

This is an image of a farm field with rows of green cotton shrubs on a cloudy day in Arizona.
Chris Curtis
Adobe Stock
A cotton farm in drought-stricken Arizona using Colorado River water for irrigation.

Farming and ranching in the Western U.S. sucks up 75% of the Colorado River basin’s water supply. A new analysis shows the federal government is paying these farmers billions in crop insurance, but not helping them adapt to climate change.

From 2017 to 2023, farmers in the Colorado River region received $5.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for crop losses caused by drought, according to a report from the nonpartisan Environmental Working Group. That includes farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

More than $2 billion of the drought-related crop payments went to farmers growing hay and alfalfa for beef and dairy cattle, the analysis found.

During that same six-year span, the USDA paid farmers $521 million to install efficient irrigation systems through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the agency’s largest conservation initiatives.

But that program doesn’t help farmers use less water since the West has a use-it-or-lose-it policy, said report author Anne Schechinger, an agricultural economist with the Environmental Working Group.

“The money that we all spend on these conservation irrigation practices – kind of wasted money,” she said. “Because we're paying farmers to use more efficient irrigation practices, but then they still have to use their whole water allocation.

“We think agriculture's water use can't coexist with the Colorado River region's worsening drought, we can't be doing business as usual going forward.”

Schechinger said the USDA should be putting conservation funds toward helping farmers be more resilient to drought. That could mean helping farmers evaluate what crops they can grow and practices they can use as the Colorado River region gets hotter and drier due to climate change.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.