How Arrowrock Dam is supporting corporate farming

 

Water runs uphill toward money from Arrowrock Dam on the Boise River, where the Bureau of Reclamation first pioneered high-rise concrete dams that transformed the face of the West. Thanks to Arrowrock, the wealthiest 10 percent of its water users control 75 percent of the water. Mostly large corporations, they pay about a dime for every tax dollar it costs the public to deliver irrigation water, while urbanites competing for that same river water pay a mark-up of more than 6,000 percent.

This Oct. 4 marked 100 years to the day since Arrowrock Dam's dedication, and though much has been written through the years about the dam as an icon of progress, not enough has been said about the revenge now being wrought by its technological systems. Sometimes an engineering structure designed for a lofty purpose has unintended consequences that flip the results.

Arrowrock, stupendous and monumental, was the world's tallest dam in 1915. It was sold to Idaho farmers as a populist showcase for public investment in small-acreage agriculture. The dam, according to its chief engineer, would break the "land monopoly," and "bring about a condition whereby that land shall be put into the hands of the small owner, whereby the man with a family can get enough land to support that family."

With Arrowrock, completed in 1915, the Boise River became the birthplace of the high-rise gravity arch construction that remade the face of the West.
U.S. Reclamation Service

Settlers responded in a rush to the Boise Valley as the Great War in Europe pumped the demand for Idaho crops. Even after prices fell, and the dream went sour and dust took back the valley, BuRec Commissioner Elwood Mead defended Arrowrock's river engineering, praising dams in general as "an unquestioned success."

Additional dams built in 1950 and in 1955 and diversions from the Payette River expanded farming near Boise to more than 600,000 acres. At the same time, the number of farms dramatically fell. Where Arrowrock's patrons once envisioned tens of thousands of small-acres farms, less than 500 remain.

On the eve of Arrowrock's 100th birthday, BuRec historians lauded the dam as an arching goliath that enriched the valley. A tourist brochure claims $1.2 billion in annual yield from Boise Project (Arrowrock Dam) cattle and crops, $13 million from hydroelectricity, and $30 million from beaches and boating. In addition, BuRec claims $170 million annually for sparing the valley damage from river erosion and floods.

"Imagine the (Boise) Valley's economy without Reclamation's infrastructure," said engineer Karl Ames, a BuRec spokesman. Ames said that the benefits of Arrowrock have exceeded the costs at least a hundredfold.

But there can be mirages in deserts. The project surely enriched farming in a valley, but it remains unclear who really benefitted. Four months of repeated requests for documentation have yet to produce any solid cost-benefit data from the Bureau of Reclamation. For example, we have yet to confirm whether Boise Project irrigators have ever fully repaid the original $15 million in federal, no-interest loans.

The paper trail may be too faint at this point to say who paid for what, but the published record makes it apparent who won and who lost over time. In 2012, fewer than 100 Boise Project farms used more than half of the irrigation. Statewide, about 65 percent of federal benefits and subsidies for irrigated farming funneled to the largest top 10 percent of Idaho's farms.

One result: Corporate farmers invest in Idaho politicians. During the 2014 election cycle, according a recent report in The Idaho Statesman, Big Ag outspent mining, forestry and all other Idaho lobbies on state and local campaigns.

Looming large on the drought-stricken horizon is more construction in Arrowrock Canyon. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has urged state support for a BuRec plan that would add 70 vertical feet to the aging dam. That project — at a price of $14 million for each new vertical foot — would double the storage for irrigation. Idaho already tops the nation in per capita water consumption; a new era of high-rise concrete promises more of the same.

We do not advocate tearing down dams. The floodplain has become too crowded, and we can't go back in time. But using scarce water and depleting rivers as a form of corporate welfare discourages conservation.

"We're lavishing billions of dollars of federal taxpayer money on a small group of people," said Daniel Beard, a commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation under President Clinton. "We need to stop catering."  Otherwise, he added, the Boise River, dewatered, will slack like a lazy bayou, and the future of Boise will be mired in its stagnant murk.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. Todd Shallat directs the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University, and Scott Lowe directs the Boise State Environmental Studies Program.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.