Flag and Country Bumpkins

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It could have been an outtake from a John Mellencamp music video.
I loved all of the yelling and marching back and forth. It made you proud to see Arizonans screaming about something other than whether we ought to be hanging Mexicans who slip across the border.

What I didn't much like was the sleazy, hardball blackmail the farmers at Salt River Project pulled. We ought to have this argument about the flag among ourselves, without a pack of farmers trying to choke off the museum's windpipe. What kind of punk move is that?

And another thing, as long as we're raving: How did all these hayseeds at SRP get so rich that they had grant money to parcel out to the Phoenix Art Museum in the first place?

Here's how.

Most people don't know the actual, true story of how the farmers of SRP got over on the taxpayers. It's a conspiracy of silence.

These barnyard Medici, these patrons of the arts, have cash to spill because they've lived on the government dole from the turn of the century right up to the present.

Which isn't all that unusual in agriculture, anywhere in America. Except our local farmers have figured out so many added-value twists, so many Robert Vesco/Don King hustles, that I am always tempted to become a Sam Donaldson rancher whenever I am reminded of SRP's contract with America.

And I am always reminded when SRP does something like tell me what kind of art I can look at.

In order to understand how the farmers stole enough money to begin thinking that people should care about the cultural opinions of sod busters, you have to look closely at the photographs of the farmers' territorial ancestors in Arizona.

You see that woman in the corner of the photograph, the feral-looking crone who bears no resemblance at all to Isabella Rossellini. She's the mother in the family portrait of 19th-century Arizona farmers, and she's the problem.

She married Clem, the lanky fugitive on the other side of the picture, a manic-depressive who, in one of his cresting, jagged mood swings, moved this poor female to the Valley of the Sun.

There were no air conditioners then. There were no evaporative coolers.
There was no electricity for fans. There was no water, except during floods.
There was only the sun. For five months of the year, the temperature climbed above 100 degrees every day.

The weather took its toll. Mother buried half the children she bore in Arizona, and upon the remainder she bestowed biblical names . . . Jebediah, Ezekiel, Rufus . . . in absolute faith that only God could spare her and hers from the punishing desert heat.

In the winter, mother survived on insects.
At the turn of the century, Arizona's farmers went to Washington, D.C., with a simple request.

You have to help us, said the farmers. Our women are living like Apaches.
The public relations people at SRP claim there was more to it than white women living like Indians; they are referring to all the contracts the lawyers wrote to cover the deal that created SRP. But, in the beginning, it was all about East Coast women moving West and going native.

The federal government had a simple solution to the farmers' plight.
The government built a series of six dams, with our taxpayer dollars, around the Valley. The dams created lakes that stored enormous quantities of water. The government sold the water to the landowners at such a low price that even farmers could finally afford the cost of a bath.

There were other benefits. Farmers now had access to such large volumes of water that they could raise traditional desert crops like oranges and grapefruits.

The dams also generated electricity. The feds turned over the utility business to the farmers.

Just like that, the farmers had a monopoly on power. They sold themselves electricity at bargain rates. The farmers also peddled kilowatts and water to the rest of us.

Soon farmers were making so much money that they were able to pay back the government for the cost of building the dams.

But the farmers were not done pillaging the system.
Water, and the electricity to pump it, was so cheap that the farmers grew crops, like cotton, that the free market didn't need. Farmers demanded that the rest of us give them cash subsidies for harvests no one wanted. And we did.

Last year, farmers in Maricopa County, where SRP is king, took in approximately $1 million in federal taxpayer subsidies.

Sandy Leander at SRP said she can't even estimate what the six dams we built for farmers would cost in today's dollars. No kidding. A recent modification to Roosevelt Dam cost more than $400 million by itself.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey