Thursday, September 3, 2009

A “Complete Solution” to California’s Water Problem?

A group of Republican state Senators from California held a new conference wherein they stressed the importance of water to California’s economy and the need for “a complete solution to this complex problem.” (Thanks to Aquafornia for catching this.)

I applaud the sentiment. But I question whether their conviction is actually strong enough to take the kinds of steps necessary to create a “complete” long term solution.

There is less water today, and will likely be less water tomorrow, than the people of California have enjoyed in the past. But the problem is not really the “people” in the sense that we have a growing population. Rather the problem is agriculture. Both the types of livestock and crops we raise, and where we raise them. The Economist has an excellent article that discusses this issue which you can find here.

So…what does a “complete” long term solution look like for California? I see two roads we can go down.

In the first instance, we can look to government regulations to increase efficiencies in how we use water. But we’re not talking about low flow toilets or waterless urinals here. Long term water stability would require some serious regulations, particularly of the agricultural sector. This basically amounts to an end to agriculture as we know it. One can already imagine the howls from Republicans and other small government advocates – and they would have a point.

On the other hand we can commoditize water. Some economists, and the Economist, have suggested exactly that. Price water at its actual value and you will encourage farmers to grow crops appropriate to the local climate and water supply. But many people oppose commoditizing water for fear that the price increases will fall on personal water use and create enormous hardship for the poor. They have a point as well, though I think the greater danger of commoditizing water is the risk of speculation. Look here for an example of how commodity markets can be manipulated. And this too means an end to agriculture as we know it.

Neither solution is going to be popular with farmers.

In the end it comes down to a simple reality – less water. We can drain natural reserves like the Sacramento Delta. We can pump our underground aquifers dry. But while these activities may let us carry on, business as usual, for a few more years or even decades, they are ultimately self-defeating. We need those natural reserves and aquifers to keep the water cycle moving. Destroying them now for relatively short term gain only makes the ultimate accounting that much worse. An ultimate accounting that also means an end to agriculture as we know it.

So, do California’s politicians have the fortitude to really put together a “complete solution to this complex problem”? I sure hope so.

But I’m not holding my breath.


  1. Hi, Alex.

    This is an excellent post. I especially like the part about manipulating commodity markets. Don't often hear economists talk about that!

  2. Sounds great.It is a problem of a huge dimension and such remedial services are the only saviors.

  3. Sunds like a complete solution.Good for the New Yorkens.