Power Drain

Big Ag's $100 Million Energy Subsidy

May 30, 2007

Power Drain: The Biggest Winner: Westlands

EWG found that virtually every water district in the CVP paid for some amount of power during 2002 and 2003 – and received at least some power subsidies. The subsidy value, however, varied tremendously among different districts. While the median subsidy was about $100,000 per district in 2002 and 2003, nine CVP water districts got power subsidies worth more than $1 million in both of these years.

Since the Bureau of Reclamation charges the same power rate for every CVP water district, a district's power subsidy is directly proportional to how much energy it uses in a given year. This latter figure, in turn, depends on several factors: the amount of water delivered to the district in a given year, whether the water can flow downhill to the district or must be pumped uphill, and the elevation to which the water must be pumped if pumping is required. More water and higher elevations mean larger power subsidies.

Westlands Water District uses about 25 percent of the total amount of agricultural water delivered by the CVP in a given year. [22] This is far more than any other single district, so one would expect it to top the list in terms of power subsidies. Because Westlands' water must be pumped so far and so high, the district actually consumes more than 60 percent of the electricity used to deliver CVP water each year. This means that Westlands also gets more than 60 percent of the power subsidies.

EWG's analysis showed that the district received more than $70 million in power subsidies in both 2002 and 2003. Considering that there are only 422 farms in Westlands, this works out to an average of $165,000 in power subsidies per farm. Although EWG was not able to calculate power subsidies at the farm level, it is likely that the Westlands farms that top the list water subsidies are also big winners when it comes to power subsidies. In 2002, the five farms that got the most water subsidies were Woolf Enterprises, Dresick Farms Inc., Burford Ranch, Vaquero Farms, and S & S Ranch. [22]

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently considering retiring farmland in Westlands – perhaps a significant percentage of the land in the District – to help solve long-term drainage problems. [41,42] This could provide the added benefit of freeing up millions of kilowatt-hours of energy each year, since not as much water would need to be pumped for irrigation. This electricity could be sold to other customers and lessen the need for California to build more power plants.4 Sadly, it appears that this opportunity for electricity savings will be lost since the Bureau has indicated that any land retirement deals will not affect the total amount of water allocated to CVP districts.[41,42]

Table of CVP water districts

Note: Districts ranked according to average subsidy received in 2002 and 2003
Source: [4, 17-20]

4A recent Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report estimated that retiring 100,000 acres of drainage-impaired land in Westlands could save 71 million kWh of energy via reductions in CVP pumping. However, NRDC noted that this energy would only be saved if: (1) Westlands' water deliveries were also reduced, and (2) the saved water was dedicated for environmental uses rather than being sold to cities or transferred to other agricultural uses. If either of the latter scenarios were to happen, energy usage would likely actually increase in comparison to the current system.[42]