BUYING A GILA MONSTER

FARMERS IN THE GILA RIVER BASIN HAVE ALREADY SUCKED DOWN $500 MILLION IN GOVERNMENT PORK. NOW THEY WANT ANOTHER $20 MILLION FOR A SENSELESS FLOOD-CONTROL PROJECT.

Just a couple of miles north of Interstate 8, where the freeway cuts through some of southwest Arizona's harshest desert, lies a narrow ribbon of riverfront property that is one of the most productive farming areas in the world.

A relatively few farmers there--perhaps 125--like to brag that they can produce two, and sometimes three, crops a year, under nearly perfect growing conditions provided by sunny skies and the rich soils found in the flood plain of the Gila River.

A less popular line of conversation in the towns of Wellton, Tacna and Mohawk involves the cost to American taxpayers of keeping these farmers in business.

Without a steady influx of federal subsidies, there wouldn't be much in the way of farming in the lower Gila River basin of southwest Arizona. After World War II, the federal government formed the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district to provide Colorado River water to farmland that ex-GIs could work. Ever since, the district has used political relationships to keep the federal money flowing, even when the Gila River isn't.

The sheer volume of money spent to benefit the district is staggering. It tops $500 million.

Most of the money has been spent in a convoluted effort to solve drainage and salinity problems that plague irrigated desert agriculture.

Now, after a half-billion dollars in government subsidies has been largely squandered, the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District wants another handout.

District officials say the Gila River needs to be channelized, to protect farmers from occasional floods. The district hasn't come up with a firm cost for the project, saying it could range from $20 million to $60 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers favor the channelization.

Even though the project appears to fly in the face of new federal policies on flood management that discourage development in flood-prone areas. Even though the channel would fail if a flood less than half the size of Arizona's 1993 torrent comes down the Gila.

And even though the channelization would devastate an emerging ecosystem not seen on Arizona's desert rivers for decades.

Few political subdivisions have mastered the art of sopping up federal subsidies as completely as the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district. What the district has managed to obtain in the past provides a glimpse of what it expects in the future.

The first of the federal outlays involved the $56 million Wellton-Mohawk canal system, completed in 1952. The system provided Colorado River water to the irrigation district.

At the same time, the federal government awarded the Wellton-Mohawk district the rights to 300,000 acre-feet of water each year--free. (An acre-foot of water can easily support an urban family of five for a year.) Later, the government agreed to buy some of those rights back--at $1,000 an acre-foot.

Ten years after the Colorado River water began flowing across the Wellton-Mohawk farms, a crisis surfaced--literally. The water table beneath the district farms rose as a result of irrigation; salt built up in the soils, wrecking crop production. The federal government was happy to throw money at this problem, too.

A series of wells was installed across the district to suck down the groundwater level; this process drained salts from the topsoil. Powered by subsidized electricity from the bureau's hydroelectric dams on the Colorado River, the pumps run 24 hours a day. That salty groundwater was dumped into a $45 million drainage canal, also built at government expense. The drainage canal transported the salty water back to the Colorado River, where it was dumped just above the Mexican border--only to cause another problem.

The Mexican government claimed that salty water from the Wellton-Mohawk district was fouling the Colorado River and wrecking Mexican crops.

An interim solution was reached. The district's drainage canal would be extended from the Colorado River into Mexico, at government cost, all the way to the Colorado River delta, where the water was dumped onto a salt flat.

Still, under a 1944 treaty, the U.S. needed to put additional usable water into the Colorado.

None of the U.S. Colorado River users was willing to give up a share of the water. So the bureau "created" the water, lining the Coachella Canal in California. The concrete lining reduced seepage, allowing the bureau to reallocate enough nonsalty water to the Colorado to keep Mexico happy. The bureau also purchased thousands of acres of farmland from the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district, hoping to reduce its salty drainage flows.

But this $200 million-plus solution was only temporary. As soon as water demands along the Colorado River increase, the extra flow from the Coachella Canal will revert to California.

An attempt at permanent solution to the Wellton-Mohawk drainage problem was developed in 1973. It makes the previous Gila irrigation boondoggles look like money well-spent.

The Bureau of Reclamation embarked on a plan to build the world's largest desalination plant just to clean up Wellton-Mohawk irrigation drainage.

The cost of the plant, located five miles west of Yuma, soared fivefold above original estimates. By the time it was completed in 1991, the cost had reached $256 million. And that is not the only cost.

Wellton-Mohawk farmers pay just $12.50 an acre-foot in electricity costs to apply Colorado River water to their fields. Later, that water is pumped from the ground and sent to the desalination plant. When the plant is running at full capacity, removing salt from an acre-foot of water costs $262.

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