By Bill Coates
Farmers and farm-group representatives had Rep. Paul Gosar's ear for 90 minutes on Thursday as they found fault with federal regulators and the inability of Congress to pass a farm bill.
Gosar met with more than two dozen members of the agricultural community and a handful of government officials. It was mainly a listening session billed Farm Forum.
Gosar, a Republican, represents the sprawling Congressional District 1, which takes in Casa Grande. He's running for re-election in the newly created District 4, which borders nearly the entire length of the Colorado River and also includes Florence and northern Pinal County.
Water was a key topic at the meeting, particularly what has become the aquatic lifeline of the state -- the Central Arizona Project. It delivers Colorado River water to cities, farms and tribes all the way to Tucson.
Some at the forum worried that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations threatened delivery of CAP water. The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station sits on the Navajo reservation near Page and supplies nearly all the power needed to pump CAP water downstate. But some users -- as well as CAP officials -- fret that tough EPA enforcement could force the power plant to shut down.
Pinal County farmer Dan Thelander said if the plant closes, there's no other way to move the water.
"The idiots that think they're going to pump Central Arizona Project water with solar power, it ain't going to happen," said Thelander, who's also vice president of Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation District.
Gosar replied that the Navajo Generation Station is one of several coal-fired plants the EPA has had in its cross-hairs.
"Right now the EPA is culling the herd," Gosar said.
The EPA says haze from the plant is affecting the Grand Canyon and other nearby national parks. Gosar disputes that claim. The regulators, he added, are out of control and should listen to states instead of dictating to them.
A Sierra Club representative in Flagstaff said Friday it's not just a matter of haze.
"It's a dirty coal-fired plant that endangers public health and causes global warming," said Andy Bessler, Southwest organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
The group advocates a transition to clean power, not shutting down the Navajo Generating Station anytime soon, he added.
"The shutdown of NGS is a scare tactic that Gosar and others are using to prevent the EPA from enforcing the law," Bessler said.
On its website, CAP said shutdown of the Navajo Generating Station could triple the cost of water. In Thursday's meeting, Gosar said Tucson would lose 80 percent of its CAP water with the Navajo station.
Another topic was the farm bill, stalled in a divided Congress.
Rick Lavis, executive vice president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, said farmers don't favor the uncertainly of a short-term extension. They'd rather have a real farm bill.
"A short-term stopgap measure doesn't do us any good," Lavis said.
Speaking by phone on Friday, Lavis said the farm bills -- there's a House and Senate version -- would make changes to crop insurance. But the farmers would like some time to adjust to the new rules and could do so only if they were sure what those rules are.
"It's just that lack of certainty," Lavis told Gosar.
Gosar and others at the meeting cited the SNAP program as the hang-up. Better known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program accounts for the lion's share of a $1 trillion five-year farm bill, Lavis said. House Republicans want deeper cuts to food stamp funding than Senate Democrats are willing to concede.
"Everybody needs to take a haircut, and that means SNAP," Gosar said.
The total farm portion of the pending bill is about $11 billion, Lavis said by phone. It offers reduced benefits to farmers compared to the law that expired Sept. 30.
"We're in a deficit situation and everybody is going to have to belly up to the bar to reduce benefits, and cotton has agreed and offered a different proposal, and that's where we're going," Lavis said.
Immigration was touched on briefly, near the meeting's end. AnnaMarie Knorr with the Western Growers Association, which represents produce farmers in the Yuma area, said as job growth picks up, farmers will experience a severe labor shortage. Farmers need an immigrant work force, which they can't get under current law, she suggested.
"We are not going to be able to survive when we come out of this recession without some immigration reform," Knorr said. "We're already 30 percent short."
Gosar said he favored for Arizona a pilot program that allowed foreign workers, but with no Social Security or Medicare benefits. He cited the Bracero Program of the 1940s and 1950s as an example.
Discussion also turned to EPA dust regulation and the tax code.
A lot depends on today's election, Lavis said in the phone interview.