Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

July 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

AGUANOMICS....Yesterday I linked to David Zetland's piece in Forbes arguing that residential water ought to be priced to better reflect genuine supply and demand. Sure, I replied, but how about agricultural water too?

Zetland emails this morning to say he more-or-less agrees: "My idea for ALL water is that it be allocated via wholesale auctions. Farmers have the rights, they can sell (take the $$) or keep the water." What's more, it turns out he has an entire blog dedicated to water economics. Pretty amazing place, the intertubes. I'm about to start in on Cadillac Desert, so I've bookmarked it and I'm going to check it out for a while. If you're interested in water economics too, the blog is called Aguanomics, which is not only a pretty cool name, but would probably annoy Mickey Kaus. It's a twofer!

Kevin Drum 10:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Ever heard the term water empire? It's a really bad idea for water to become a valued commodity, even if there is a scarcity. It's just not a concept you want introduced into the body politic. Once you start pricing people out of the very basic necessities of life, you are courting very serious and unavoidable unrest.

Posted by: Wilm on July 17, 2008 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Improper water pricing underlies much that is wrong with land use in the Desert Southwest. If all water traded at the market clearing price, you would likely have less alfalfa farming in Arizona, and fewer golf courses in Scottsdale. One kind of wonders if there would be metropolises like Phoenix and Vegas either. I'm eager to look at this blog, it's a topic those of us in wetter climes ignore all too often.

Posted by: Sunlight on July 17, 2008 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

To go along with Wilm's point, though, one could always carve out a "lifeling price" for minimum to low- average residential use so that no one would struggle to pay for the necessities...

Posted by: on July 17, 2008 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

You're posting about western water issues while openly admitting you haven't read Cadillac Desert? That's like posting about Film Noir and telling us you're planning on watching Chinatown next week. Or blogging about the Supreme Court without being familiar with the Constitution.

Posted by: BL on July 17, 2008 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

For homeowners, a better approach would be to have an escalating scale. Low water use would be cheap, but high use would quickly escalate. Kind of like phone minutes. Basic allotment comes with the plan but higher use means much higher fees. Efficiency standards very important. Process changes are important.

Posted by: bakho on July 17, 2008 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

Farmers have the rights, . . . —Kevin Drum

Here is the fallacy that underlies the problem. Farmers do not have "rights" to water any more than industrial or residential users. Continuing to couch the issue in such terms prevents a rational and reasonable solution to water use throughout the West. It's that simple.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 17, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

I'm about to start in on Cadillac Desert

Good stuff, though I'm surprised you haven't read it yet.

Posted by: on July 17, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with Jeff II. Why is it that the farmers should get their water effectively for free, and then on top of that be able to profit from the sale of water they don't use? That's a policy decision that should probably be re-examined as we look at water prices for everyone else.

If the crops those farmers are producing have enough value to pay for the water it takes to produce them, fine. If not, let's take a good look at the subsidy and whether it makes economic and environmental sense.

Posted by: paul on July 17, 2008 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

After Cadillac Desert you might also consider Sacred Cows at the Public Trough. Although it deals mostly with grazing issues, water rights in the intermountain west are also covered.

Posted by: jfwells on July 17, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

I think my skepticism comes from the fact that once we turn water into a commodity, we open the door for the free market advocates to do the "private industry does it best" dance. Before too long, we get Cochobamba:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochabamba_protests_of_2000

Posted by: Wilm on July 17, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Ever heard the term water empire?

No, but I did see "Tank Girl," which was set in a world where water was extremely scarce.

Bring on Lori Petty.

Posted by: lobbygow on July 17, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

I have lived in Atlanta ,GA for the past three years. Prior to this ,I lived in Rochester ,NY on the shores of Lake Ontario. I have said to all that would listen ,that in fifty years Rochester would be a boom town because of one factor ,WATER.
In a century water will be the new oil.

Posted by: P.C.Chapman on July 17, 2008 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

If the crops those farmers are producing have enough value to pay for the water it takes to produce them, fine. If not, let's take a good look at the subsidy and whether it makes economic and environmental sense. Posted by: paul

That these practices are economically and environmentally wrong is well-know (same being true for grazing leases and mining permits), but you'll never find enough political support where it's needed to fix these things.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 17, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff II and Paul need to take a look at Article X of the California constitution and Water Code. Farmers do most definitely have use rights. Interference with those rights (by, say, involuntary transfer from ag to urban) without changing the nature of those rights by amending the California constitution will run straight into the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution.

By the way, as I've already pointed out to David Z., California farmers ALREADY have the legal right to transfer water rights. The big problems are: (a) they don't want to, (b) a lack of infrastructure, and (c) establishing that the transfer will cause no harm to a legal user of water.

Also by the way, the cheapest water for most municipalities in the West is their own sewer water. And even though virtually all water after is falls from the sky is sewer water (birds, after all, poop in the open), somehow the EEEWW factor kicks in when it's your own. So instead of being adults about it and developing groundwater recharge systems with treated sewer water (as Orange County did, of all places), cities like San Diego run around screaming that farmers are wasting water.

Dudes, before getting the State to issue more bonds for massive infrastructure, get your own house in order first.

Posted by: Francis on July 17, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Yglesias is promoting this neolib bunk, too.

The thought of the market controlling our water supply is the stuff of nightmares. And blood in the streets.

If you haven't noticed, Wall Street hasn't concerned itself with Main Street for some time.

Posted by: becca on July 17, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

I pull my residential water from a hole that we drilled in the ground. If water is going to be the next oil, I'm RICH!!!

Posted by: Daryl Cobranchi on July 17, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

If Los Vegas and Phoenix continue to grow, eventually the water will be diverted from agriculture to urban/suburban water systems. Residential water systems can probably afford to pay one-hundred times the going rate farmers can. Don't know if building large air conditioned megalopolises in the desert makes sense, but neither does growing rice, cotton, and alfalfa.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 17, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK
Jeff II and Paul need to take a look at Article X of the California constitution and Water Code. Farmers do most definitely have use rights. Interference with those rights (by, say, involuntary transfer from ag to urban) without changing the nature of those rights by amending the California constitution will run straight into the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution.

You really haven't done anything except point to a minor procedural point (minor, because in CA amending the Constitution isn't much harder than passing a normal law) of how you go about changing the system, whereas you seem to think you've made some kind of devastating point about how the system is not open to change.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 17, 2008 at 7:39 PM | PERMALINK

Cadillac Desert is a fun read, but it is decades out of date. In fact, it may have started the movement that made it inaccurate today.

The stuff about ag mindlessly wasting vast amounts of water hasn't been accurate for more than a decade. There's work left to do to tighten up ag use of water, but the portrait of waste and easy gains to be had in agricultural water use is no longer true.

Posted by: Megan on July 17, 2008 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

the portrait of waste and easy gains to be had in agricultural water use is no longer true.

Two stories:
1. My dad was in Opelika, Alabama for a wedding last year. It was about 90º with 80% humidity--basically, perfect weather for cotton. They don't grow cotton in southeast Alabama anymore, though: they grow pine trees. Arizona and California have killed cotton in much of the South because of heavily subsidized water.

2. I was driving down CA-58 (the Barstow-Bakersfield Highway) yesterday and saw alfalfa fields with circular irrigation. There's no way growing alfalfa in the Mojave fucking Desert is economical without heavily subsidized water.

Posted by: Pete on July 17, 2008 at 8:09 PM | PERMALINK

Wilm, there's a huge difference between Bolivia and California when it comes to water. In Cochabamba it was slum-dwellers and subsistence farmers getting the shaft. By contrast, the biggest water wasters in California are gigantic corporate and family farms like the Boswell operation in Kings County.

If you want to ensure that poor people have access to cheap water, give them vouchers. A non-market system like that prevailing in the West over the past century, though, just rewards the powerful and politically connected.

Posted by: Pete on July 17, 2008 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

Cadillac Desert remains one of the best books on so many levels even if it is a couple of decades old now. It addresses the politics of the west and sets up the how and why of where the west has evolved (because everything in the west revolves around water).

A couple of years ago when Kevin started a 'greatest books' list I meant to add Cadillac to the list.

Posted by: bigsky in Iowa on July 17, 2008 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK
Wilm, there's a huge difference between Bolivia and California when it comes to water. In Cochabamba it was slum-dwellers and subsistence farmers getting the shaft. By contrast, the biggest water wasters in California are gigantic corporate and family farms like the Boswell operation in Kings County. If you want to ensure that poor people have access to cheap water, give them vouchers. A non-market system like that prevailing in the West over the past century, though, just rewards the powerful and politically connected. Posted by: Pete on July 17, 2008 at 8:16 PM

Pete, don't you think the poor will get the shaft in California if water is privatized? That it wasn't the rich and well connected that caused the robber baron pricing of water that lead to the riots in Cochabamba ?

Of course it was and you bet it will be the poor that get shafted in California too.

And what makes you think the rich and well connected won't get all the rewards in a private system as well? Have you been living in a cave for the past seven and a half years?

And

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on July 17, 2008 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

residential water ought to be priced to better reflect genuine supply and demand.

No doubt this is a stupid question, but who would get the moolah?

Posted by: kc on July 17, 2008 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

The stuff about ag mindlessly wasting vast amounts of water hasn't been accurate for more than a decade. There's work left to do to tighten up ag use of water, but the portrait of waste and easy gains to be had in agricultural water use is no longer true. Posted by: Megan

Megan, agriculture in arid or semi-arid areas is "mindlessly wasting" water to one degree or another. Have you spent any time in the Central Valley, around Sacramento, the Imperial Valley, Southern Idaho or Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington? If not, I assure you that great amounts of water is being wasted.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 18, 2008 at 1:39 AM | PERMALINK

You guys railing against "privatization"--which is not the same thing as a market-based water pricing scheme, given that the federal government would still have ultimate ownership of the water--are forgetting an important contextual detail: the poorest people in California are (for the most part) in urban areas, and urban water districts are the ones who get shafted hardest by the current water allocation system. A full-cost pricing system, let alone one in which it were possible to bid for water, would result in urban water districts paying far less for water.

While there are always exceptions, it's the rich and well-connected who have prospered most under the fiat allocation system: corporate and wealthy family farmers who have paid far below market rates for water for years (out of the pockets of federal taxpayers) and now can even take "surplus" water for which they paid $10/acre-foot and sell it to urban water districts for $100/acre-foot. The family farm is a dead institution in this country, but it was never really alive to begin with in the Central and Imperial Valleys, where giant landowners (four- and five-digit acreage is quite normal) have dominated for at least 50 years.


Have you spent any time in the Central Valley, around Sacramento, the Imperial Valley, Southern Idaho or Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington? If not, I assure you that great amounts of water is being wasted.

Jeff II, with proper water pricing there would still be plenty of agriculture in those areas, but it would shift to less water-intensive and/or higher-value crops.

Also, the inland Northwest doesn't have any major urban areas (Spokane and Boise don't count, sorry) that have the sorts of water demands that Los Angeles, the Bay Area, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix have. Now, you could say that all five of those urban areas could stand to be a lot more efficient in their water usage, and you'd be right. Nevertheless, maintaining an English lawn in the San Fernando Valley or the Valley of the Sun still isn't anywhere near as wasteful as growing rice or alfalfa in the desert.

Posted by: Pete on July 18, 2008 at 4:59 AM | PERMALINK

Wow -- good discussion. Pete's comment just above is awesome (I don't have to type the same things).

As far as farmers "rights", let me stand in the middle between Francis and JeffII/Paul: The water belongs to the people of California (not the Feds) but the rights to divert/use that water belongs to those who did it first, long ago, which often means the farmers. I am NOT interested in contesting those rights, merely putting them into play. As Megan, Pete, et al. point out -- higher prices would move ag to higher value uses, but ag would still continue -- there's just too much ag water for urban areas to absorb it all (not that I'd want them to!)

Also note that CA farmers grew over 100,000 acres of cotton last year -- not all of it subsidized.

Finally -- note that *I* am not bringing up privitization AND *I* did propose that everyone get a certain quantity of water for free (and then pay a lot for more).

Posted by: David Zetland on July 18, 2008 at 6:57 AM | PERMALINK

Jeff II, with proper water pricing there would still be plenty of agriculture in those areas, but it would shift to less water-intensive and/or higher-value crops.

Never said anything would change with regards to what is grown, very little of which is water intensive to the degree rice or cotton are.

I have a fairly intimate knowledge of both irrigated farming (my great-uncle "road ditch" for the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project for about twenty years out of Quincy) and dry land wheat (another great-uncle had several thousand acres above Soap Lake).

In Central Washington, it's less a matter of growing water intensive crops in the "wrong place" than how they are watered and the enormous amounts lost due to overhead sprinklers and open irrigation canals. This is really all that needs to change.

The population centers of the NW all have their own water sources. We don't need water from the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The population centers of the SW U.S., however, will cease to exist as the Central Rockies snow pack continues to decline.

Also, the inland Northwest doesn't have any major urban areas (Spokane and Boise don't count, sorry) that have the sorts of water demands that Los Angeles, the Bay Area, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix have.

I never made any sort of comparison. However, between them, Spokane and Ada counties have almost 1.5 million people, and are growing. Hardly small towns. In any case, most of agriculture near Spokane is all dry land wheat west of the city. The agriculture in the Treasure Valley is more analogous to Southern California, except that the water source is local.

Now, you could say that all five of those urban areas could stand to be a lot more efficient in their water usage, and you'd be right.

Duh. Urban and suburban water use is hugely wasteful, but very difficult to control other than by pricing. None of these cities, based on natural resources, should be any larger than a couple hundred thousand people. LV and Phoenix shouldn't be anything other than resort towns with populations in the tens of thousands.

Nevertheless, maintaining an English lawn in the San Fernando Valley or the Valley of the Sun still isn't anywhere near as wasteful as growing rice or alfalfa in the desert. Posted by: Pete

Actually, since they provide no benefit to anyone other than the lawn owner, they are much, much worse.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 18, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Cadillac Desert has become, if possible, more meaningful in the years since I read it.

Oh, and I'm starting a pool on which Beltway Inbred will make "Ogallala" a freestanding punchline (a la "Dingell-Norwood"). Teh word is teh funny!

The one thing this issue has lacked until now is a heaping helping of Silly Democrat, showing off knowledge!

Dibs on Cokehead.

Posted by: ThresherK on July 18, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I cannot remember the name of the iPhone application where u can track the GPS location of 5 different cell phone/numbers Without them knowing can anyone help me out with this?

________________
unlock iphone 3gs

Posted by: Oppog on October 14, 2009 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

What a lovely day for a 1884714! SCK was here

Posted by: 1884714 on May 1, 2011 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK
Post a comment









Remember personal info?










 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly