Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Drought and Agriculture

Well, there isn't anything new about Democrats and Republicans fighting with each other. I suppose that fighting over water rights at least gives them a break from fighting over the economy.

On March 31st, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the topic of the dispute between agricultural and environmental interests in California. Video of the hearing can be found here. The dispute arises out of the agricultural industry's desire to increase the amount of water available for irrigation. This is a very real problem. California is in its third year of drought, and the agricultural industry is facing skyrocketing unemployment cause at lease in part by a lack of water to irrigate crops.

Republicans on the panel advocated tapping water systems currently protected by an array of environmental protection legislation, not the least of which is the Endangered Species Act. They made a passionate appeal, blaming the current drought on "radical environmentalists", judges and environmental legislation. They accused the government of putting "inconsequential fish" ahead of the needs and livelyhoods of human beings.

Needless to say, Democrats disagreed.

Unfortunately, I question whether turning on the pumps, as Republicans suggested, will actually serve to solve the problem. Like it or not, our environment - including the "inconsequential fish" - is our primary water recycling and purification system. While turning on the pumps in currently protected watersheds may alleviate the current drought to some extent, the cost may well be irreperable damage to the very natural systems we rely on to provide much of our potable water.

Of course, this still leaves us with the problem of what to do about not just this drought, but droughts we may well face in the future. A recent article in the Economist (which you can find here) proposes at least one possibile solution, tradeable water rights. While I think there are some big questions about how well such a system would work (California actually has such a system, and it clearly didn't solve the problem), the results of Australia's water rights regime are provacative.

There really must be a middle road between "turn on the pumps" and "put people out of work."

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