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Uncle Sam overpromises, underperforms

Published on November 5, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on December 3, 2010 7:40AM


As a business partner, the federal government too often cannot be trusted. All it takes is an announcement from a member of the administration or a congressional committee chairman who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, and farmers and ranchers pay the price.

And when Uncle Sam makes a promise, stand by.

In agriculture and timber, history is littered with federal promises broken, delayed or reversed.

The timber industry knows it only too well.

The federal government promised to share federal timber receipts with counties and school districts because federal land cannot be taxed. But wait. That money -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- has all but disappeared because of protections for the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Not to worry, members of Congress said. Uncle Sam will make up the difference. But every time that legislation is up for renewal, it's a battle to make Congress keep that promise.

In Alaska, the federal government had a 50-year timber contract with two companies in the Tongass National Forest -- until Congress canceled it.

Farmers also know how the whims of Uncle Sam can ruin their day. The emphasis on ethanol production does wonders for Midwest corn producers but puts beef and dairy producers at risk. And when the percentage of ethanol used in gasoline goes up, the picture changes again.

One key member of Congress can erase a program from legislation -- or erase its funding, leaving producers that depend on it high and dry. Members of Congress treat agriculture as a chess game, trading farm programs for food assistance and influence from urban members.

In the Klamath Basin, farmers have been promised all sorts of federal help to untangle the many issues facing that region. It should be noted that most of them are related to the Endangered Species Act, which Congress has also promised to fix -- someday.

When it comes to the federal government, a promise made is not necessarily a promise kept.

Farmers in the Odessa subarea of the Columbia River Basin know that only too well.

In 1943, Congress passed the Columbia Basin Project Act. This ambitious effort would eventually irrigate 1.029 million acres of the region, creating an agricultural economy where none previously existed. Instead of dryland crops, farmers there could cultivate potatoes and other higher-value crops. Processing plants were built, and thousands of jobs were created.

To date, though, only 671,000 acres are under irrigation. The rest of the land remains either as dryland or is irrigated using water not from the Columbia River but from deep wells.

Therein lies the problem. The state of Washington gave farmers temporary permits to tap the aquifer for irrigation until the rest of the Columbia Basin Project was built. That was nearly 50 years ago. Now, hydrologists say the Odessa aquifer will soon run dry.

"If no action is taken, it is estimated that, at the current rate of decline, about 70 percent of the production wells in the Odessa subarea will cease production within 10 years," according to the 736-page draft environmental impact statement on the plan to replace those wells with river water.

It won't be cheap. It never is, when you put off a project for half a century. To replace well water on 57,000 acres would cost a minimum of $728.3 million. To replace it on 102,600 acres would run the cost up to a maximum of $3.3 billion, including interest during construction.

In these days of massive federal deficits -- $1.4 trillion last year and an estimated $1.5 trillion next year -- one has to worry whether Uncle Sam has made too many promises that his checkbook can't back up.

One also has to worry how high on the priority list Odessa farmers will be.

And one has to worry that, once again, the administration and Congress will leave farmers in the lurch as they chase votes elsewhere.

The good news is the draft impact statement is a giant leap toward fulfilling the promise of expanding the Columbia Basin Project.

The bad news is Congress is short on cash, putting the project at risk.

Once again, the federal government is about to demonstrate its worth as a business partner.


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