Who’ll Start the Rain?

California is in the grips of a very bad drought? How bad? This bad:

The current drought in California is not only the worst in modern history, but is among the worst in half a millennium. We know this by studying the growth rings of long-lived trees like the Giant Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada, and the Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of eastern California. In fact, the state has weathered six very dry years since 2007, this year being by far the lowest.

It’s actually worse than the press is letting on. In response to the drought, many areas are drilling down to aquifers and draining them. These are not an easily replenished resource; in fact, the changes that occur after an aquifer is drained may prevent it from ever being filled again. The problem has been exacerbated by California over-allocating water rights by a factor of five and forcing water to be sold at below-market rates.

(And for God’s sake, what’s the heck, California?! It’s the year 2014. Do people still not realize what happens when you force things to be priced below market value?)

Much of the debate going on is about global warming. That’s a useless conversation to have right now. First of all, while there are some indications that global warming may make droughts more likely, it’s impossible to tie any particular event to global warming. This area had an even more severe drought five hundred years ago without any SUVs. Second, blaming global warming does not solve the immediate problem. And third, even if we embarked on a massive campaign to stop global warming today, it would take decades for the effects to be felt. Whatever the cause, this is happening and it needs to be dealt with. And moreover, if we are going to have a drier world, we need to come up with strategies that can be used for future droughts.

Fortunately, there is precedent:

Australia has already pioneered many policies could help. Supplying free and below-cost water encourages users to drain rivers, leaving fish and riparian species high and dry. So the first step is to decide how much water based on the best available science should be allocated to environmental flows. Obviously this process will be politically fraught, but after water rights are allocated they can be purchased to further enhance environmental flows. In Australia, the government has spent $2 billion to purchase private water rights to increase river flows. Currently in California, about 50 percent of freshwater flows are reserved for the environment, although that varies greatly by river basin.

In Australia, water rights were historically tied to specific pieces of land. The reform severed these ties and divided rights into water access entitlements and water allocations. For example, if there is a moderate drought, state agencies might set water allocations to 80 percent of each water entitlement. A person owning 10 acre-feet of water would be able to use eight acre-feet of water that year. Owners can sell their entitlement or their annual allocations. If an irrigator who is allocated 8 acre-feet adopts methods that cut his water use to 6 acre-feet, he can then sell the extra 2 acre-feet for whatever price the market will bear.

This policy guided southeastern Australia through the recent millennium drought. It did so while keeping the vineyards and orchards that needed lots of water intact. At the peak of the drought, water right were very expensive. But now that the drought has ended, they are back to being cheap.

What he’s talking about is essentially cap-and-trade. Cap-and-trade is a little tricky. It’s an idea that arose in conservative think tanks in the 80’s and worked spectacularly to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rain. But sulphur dioxide was a small market and it was comparatively easy to find way to reduce the emissions of something that wasn’t essential. Cap-and-trade with more abundant substance — carbon dioxide or water — is much more fraught with problems. I have opposed cap and trade for greenhouse gases, for example, because it became obvious that putting cap-and-trade on something so universal would create a huge cesspool of political influence and corruption (and probably not work anyway).

But trading water rights worked very well in Australia. It worked because water is something people consume rather than emit. And so simply providing a market encourages people to cut their consumption the best way they can.

California is slowly moving in that direction. They are also trying other idiotic policies involving micromanagement and dumb politics. But allowing markets in water should be a no brainer. This is Econ 101. Prices are not something that appear by magic or are set by the Illuminati. Prices are information. When the price of something is high that tells you it is scarce and you need to conserve it. Let water prices reflect the realities of California’s situation and you’ll find that people find ways to consume less of it.

This will require some changes at the local level. Many areas in California and other western states have codes that require green lawns despite being in naturally dry areas. But the pressure to change those policies will be much higher when water costs what it costs rather than what state agencies think it should cost.

To be fair, markets won’t solve everything. The dangerous draining of aquifers does require government intervention. Aquifers are a public resource and you can’t create an environment where drilling and draining aquifers is a sound business plan. I suspect the best plan may be something like what we’ve seen used to replenish dangerously depleted fish stocks: the sale of aquifer “shares” that cap the amount that can be drained and encourage better management.

Whatever the solution, California’s water shortage and water crisis have been made by decades of idiot policies. Refining those policies or adding even more idiocy to them is not the solution. Turning to markets might be part of one.

Comments are closed.

  1. evanshrugged

    Good Lord, YES! This is common sense people. Of all places, you’d expect our enlightened friends in California to enact sensible enivronmental policy…

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  2. AlexInCT

    Desalination plants. Of course, with the regulations that stupid progtard state has, by the time they get the paperwork done, it will be another decade or three, and then hopefully nature has redressed the issue itself. Then gain, this drought might be nature addressing that state’s stupid in the first place. If there is one thing I am learning it is that nature abhors stupidity and has a very efficient mechanism for cleaning it up when it gets to be too much.

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  3. Xetrov

    The brilliance of California Government – http://consumerist.com/2014/07/18/california-city-will-fine-couple-500-for-not-watering-brown-lawn-state-will-fineem-500-if-they-do/

    When you’re in a steady relationship, communication is clear. Because when mom says to do one thing, and dad says another, the kids get really confused. Such is the case in California, where the state has issued rules for homeowners to conserve water in the midst of extreme drought, with fines of $500 per day or violating those guidelines, but one city is threatening to fine a couple $500 — unless they water their lawn.

    In the epitome of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, Laura and Mark received notice from Glendora, Calif. that they’d get a $500 penalty for not watering their brown lawn… on the same day the state approved mandatory outdoor watering restrictions with the same fine for violating that attached, $500.

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  4. Technomad

    One thing that would help would be to charge market prices for water.

    Another would be desalinization plants.

    Yet another would be getting over the idea that everybody has to have a green lawn. Honestly, in a semi-arid to arid place like SoCal (I assume that’s what we’re talking about here) green lawns are a luxury that can be done without. Xericulture is a good thing.

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  5. AlexInCT

    I notice the usual idiots down voted the idea of using science to address the problem, not just on my post, but when proposed by Technomad. Progtards are predictable if anything. I bet that if you scratch the surface, what they want is to exterminate 3/4 of man kind – usually the other people – because of Gaia. Fuck, these people are despicable idiots.

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  6. Hal_10000 *

    Desalination is not *quite* necessary at this point — it uses a lot of energy and is expensive. But I certainly think it’s going to be the wave of the future (no pun intended), especially if some bright boys figure out how to make it more efficient.

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  7. AlexInCT

    Desalination is not *quite* necessary at this point

    Actually I would argue that it is, Hal. Not for use now, but the future. We will destroy our current natural water resources because the demand will only keep going up. With all these thirsty and hungry mouths the democrats are letting into the country so they have a better chance to steal elections, this is a real problem. We need to start building this stuff now, especially the distribution infrastructure, to avoid furture problems.

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  8. Hal_10000 *

    Actually I would argue that it is, Hal. Not for use now, but the future. We will destroy our current natural water resources because the demand will only keep going up. With all these thirsty and hungry mouths the democrats are letting into the country so they have a better chance to steal elections, this is a real problem. We need to start building this stuff now, especially the distribution infrastructure, to avoid furture problems

    I agree. We’d be much better of starting now so, in fifty years, we don’t say, “Man, I wish we’d done this fifty years ago.”

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  9. Xetrov

    We’d be much better of starting now

    http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

    CARLSBAD — On sunny afternoons, this stretch of beach 35 miles north of San Diego offers a classic Southern California backdrop: joggers, palm trees and surfers, flanked by waves rolling in and pelicans soaring overhead.

    But just across the road, another scene, unlike any other in the state’s history, is playing out: More than 300 construction workers are digging trenches and assembling a vast network of pipes, tanks and high-tech equipment as three massive yellow cranes labor nearby.

    The crews are building what boosters say represents California’s best hope for a drought-proof water supply: the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. The $1 billion project will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day for San Diego County when it opens in 2016.

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  10. AlexInCT

    More power to them for doing that then Xetov. Maybe not everybody is as dumb a s stump out there. My only concern would be who is doing this. If it is another government program it will be a waste of money and likely not deliver as promissed. And hopefully they are planning on a bunch of them. A single point of failure is not a good move.

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