THE red-brown walls of dirt that should be submerged by water at Shasta Lake are testimony to California's fifth year of drought. This reservoir - the starting point of a vast system of canals and dams making up the massive federal Central Valley Project (CVP) - is down to 35 percent of capacity. But Shasta symbolizes something else these days: the political fight over subsidized water flowing south to the state's $18 billion food and fiber industry.
For years, critics have said the laws under which such projects were built and managed have been ignored or manipulated to the benefit of corporate agriculture over the family farmers for whom they were intended.
The Reclamation Act of 1902, which set the stage for Central Valley construction to begin in the late 1930s and contracts to be let in the early 1950s, placed a 160-acre limit on farms receiving federal water. In 1982, that was raised to 960 acres under legislation reformers thought had closed loopholes like the lack of limits on leasing.
But according to the US General Accounting Office, many big companies created ``paper farms'' (sometimes held in ``trust'' by hundreds of company employees) to get around the restriction. And no-interest repayment rates set decades ago keep the cost of water well below the market price and actual cost to run CVP.
CVP water users pay as little as $3.50 an acre-foot of water (326,000 gallons), far less than the $22 to $47 paid to the State Water Project or the $230 an acre-foot paid by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for domestic water.
In some cases, this has encouraged farmers to grow crops that are in surplus, resulting in federal price-support payments as well as the water subsidy. And while some have implemented conservation measures, the inefficient use of cheap water has had adverse environmental effects.
Among the results, says Environmental Defense Fund attorney Thomas Graff, are badly depleted freshwater flows to the San Francisco Bay estuary and central valley wetlands and damage to fisheries in the Sacramento, Trinity, and American rivers.
The issue is to be taken up in Congress today with hearings before the House water and power resources subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who has crusaded on the issue for over a decade. It continues later in the month with hearings in Los Angeles led by Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate water and power subcommittee.
Both lawmakers have written legislation that would curb water subsidies, mandate conservation, and force federal agencies to take into account environmental and economic matters when considering new projects or water-users' contract renewals.
Heavy-duty lobbying, campaign contributions, and pork-barrel tradeoffs with lawmakers outside the region have played a role in shaping federal water policy over the years. Arguing against acreage limitations 30 years ago, one California lawmaker said, ``At times we have to rise above principle.''
California Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D) calls the result ``stupid, even venal ... typical Soviet-style subsidy of a certain segment of the economy.''
``You really have to say that's insane,'' says Mr. Isenberg, whose district includes farmland between Sacramento and San Francisco. ``It's the willingness to ignore reality in the face of all the evidence - that we can continue to expand, that we can continue to use taxpayers' money to subsidize water, and that California is somehow not what it is, which is an arid region of the world.''
Many of the original 40-year water contracts now are up for renewal. US Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan approved several of what will be thousands of such renewals, but was prevented from further authorizations by a lawsuit demanding that environmental and economic reports first be conducted. That suit is expected to be heard within months.
The bigger battle will be on Capitol Hill, where water law reform expired in the waning hours of the 101st Congress last October. Then-Sen. Pete Wilson (R), siding with corporate agriculture and farm lobbyists, blocked passage of the bill.
Arguing that smaller farmers could be harmed as well, Mr. Wilson accused Mr. Miller of ``extortion'' and ``a brazen power play'' in tying reclamation reform to other water projects. Miller charged his adversary with ``sacrificing the taxpayer in order to protect the rich.''
With Wilson now California's governor and unable to directly influence federal legislation, advocates of change like Miller and Senator Bradley believe they have a better chance. Miller's congressional clout increased recently when he became de facto head of the full House Interior Committee in place of Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona.
Storms ironically arriving just as stiff water rationing was imposed won't likely have a major impact on either the drought or the political water fight. Farmers desperately need water and are receiving sharply reduced state and federal water delivery.
But extraordinarily low rainfall and small snowpacks feeding Shasta Lake and the rest of the Central Valley system also highlight the need for more efficient water use in place of flood irrigation and other wasteful practices.
The need to cut federal government spending (if only to pay the costs of a popular war in the Persian Gulf) could focus scrutiny on questionable special-interest programs as well, says Assemblyman Isenberg.
There is a broader political issue, too. Demographic changes in California mean more urbanites and fewer farmers, with an attendant shift in political influence.
No one suggests doing away with agriculture in California. Although it represents less than 10 percent of the state economy while using 83 percent of the water, it still provides one-fourth of the nation's fresh produce.
But according to a University of California study, cutting agriculture water use by 10 percent would take care of expected urban growth in the next 20 years. At a time of short showers and brown lawns, that may be the best argument for water law reform.