Fountains Of Solutions: Western Water And California Drought

Ah, California drought and clashes over water rights: Nothing new, but the Washington Post now proclaims “nervousness over the state’s epic drought has given way to alarm.”

Today’s water supply and access issues in the West and notably in Central Valley California are the result of yesterday’s broader infrastructure, property rights and economic growth policies. Water policy seems like an old issue, but it’s also a high-tech one.

The federal government engages in water policy through measures like desalination subsidies and the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act, which covers 17 western states and Hawaii (and all 50 with respect to drought planning).

Despite federal and state programs and even Sacramento’s punitive measures, shortages still happen. Water, like other “public good” resources largely non-privatized prior to the Progressive era’s interruption of the extension of property rights, never fully entered the wealth creating sector. This has long-term consequences.

Water isn’t alone. Electromagnetic spectrum, airsheds and environmental amenities generally remain largely under government oversight. This undermines conservation and management.

California is the land of milk and honey but it’s also the realm of hundreds of dams, canals, aqueducts and reservoirs. Granola and hippie nature-lover legacy notwithstanding, California’s is perhaps the most manipulated environment on the planet, and people seem happy marinating in the artificiality.

That’s not an insult. The western landscape is a manmade marvel. Water resource development supports entire cities and towns. Remake of the landscape is total. Tap water often comes from hundreds of miles away. As Aquafornia put it:

California is a beautiful fraud; a magnificent put-on, an exquisitely lush illusion. From the farmlands of the Central Valley to the swimming pools, green lawns and flowering landscapes of Southern California, it is all a brilliantly engineered masterpiece, an extensive rearrangement of the existing natural order, created by the ingenuity and will of man, and costing billions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

Nothing water-wise is natural in the state, which—one can dream—should make it easier rather than harder to address grave political battles.

No one seems sure how to balance the warring demands: agricultural/irrigation in the lower central valley, drinking water, industrial needs, environmental set-asides and recreational uses.

While today’s hyper-regulated California would have shut down yesterday’s before it ever started, a dose of reality is required in western water policy. If ruthless, brutal drought and flood cycles are unacceptable (and they most assuredly are) then active water management is necessary, and is a good thing.

Californians’ actions show that they’ve accepted the concept of irretrievable environmental change, even though, as John McPhee pointed out, there are only a handful of river deltas where two rivers combine as uniquely as the Sacramento and San Joaquin do.

There is no denying the natural grandeur of the sprawling Great Central Valley: “Far more planer than the planest of plains” as McPhee put it, noting that the Valley got there before the surrounding “mountains set up like portable screens.”

Yet like the natural environment, the manmade water infrastructure itself is a world wonder. The Central Valley Project (CVP) now irrigates three million acres, water that could come from the Delta nearby or from hundreds of miles further away. The valley is the most productive agricultural economy known; almonds, artichokes and everything else.

With pipelines and pumps traversing hills, the CVP is said to be a net producer of energy/recapture in the Valley at CVP; that’s good, and there are lessons to learn from that conservation in terms of liberalizing infrastructure to better meet competing needs.

But it gets hot, and fruit trees are painted white to avoid sunburn. Geologically the Delta levees are tissue paper. They aren’t going to last and require upgrading. The state is home to the highly energy intensive tech industry. It is friendly toward high levels of immigration and its population is growing.

So droughts must be managed, water better stored, allocated and priced. Anticipation and planning matter.

It’s a long hard road to prevent further deterioration by bringing California’s vast delta and glacial and reservoir water resources and amenities into the pricing institutions of markets and property rights to protect them. But it is part of the solution.

Such regimes are too young as human institutions to have always done it right, and making mistakes will be OK.

Western property rights claims are confusing, without doubt; Native Americans have rights dating back to time immemorial; the Bureau of Reclamation to 1905; the National Wildlife Refuges to 1928 and 1964; the homesteaders have rights claims dating to whenever they first settled in the basin extending into perpetuity.

Policymakers’ objective should be to increasingly liberalize the nationwide water supply industry such that we better avert man-made droughts. Subjecting water strategy decisions and investment to pricing pressures that address competing interests will become increasingly important. Since those pressures have been subverted by past political choices, it will take work to make make the private realm more relevant to future choices.

Water is not the only “big asset” or critical infrastructure, and there are mutually reinforcing lessons from which various sectors can benefit. Future policymakers must prevent the manipulations and interruptions of market clearing prices that create avoidable shortages, overuse and misallocation.