Drive up the San Joaquin Valley and it is hard to miss the signs reflecting pain from the California drought: “Solve the Drought Problem NOW” and “Is growing food wasting water?” That last one caught GG’s attention because the answer isn’t as certain as the banner’s authors might hope.
Now it isn’t like growing food is morally bad, but if, say, a man dying of thirst expires on your lawn as you dump a tumbler of water on your tomato plants, well, you certainly used the water poorly. But as with almost any good that can be used in multiple ways, “waste” can be described as using that good more poorly than some alternate use. In a free market economy, we use price to decide–if you can make more money by getting a unit of X than somebody else, your use is (economically) superior. But that is not how water works, where it is a kind of limited ownership that can make it cheap for some and dear for others. (Feel free to reread Cadillac Desert for some background; we won’t go over that again here, though somebody needs to add a new chapter there on how urban districts are buying water options as a clever means of using agricultural water when urban sources are stretched).
It is interesting to speculate on how things might have been had water rights been different. For instance, had water been required to stay within its drainage basin, Los Angeles would certainly not be the megalopolis it is today. Farmers might have been in a much stronger position–but then again, maybe the cities would have grown in those drainages and the same tensions would exist, but at smaller scales, basin by basin.
Or maybe if water had always been a free market good–say the government would auction that year’s water from each river to the highest bidder. As things stand today, farmers would be destroyed–the price of water in urban areas dwarfs the cost to farmers. Presumably what would happen is that food requiring irrigation would get pretty pricy. Oranges and raisins might have become food of the very wealthy instead of supermarket staples.
The reality in California is that probably we have over-committed water and made it too cheap for agriculture. In addition to getting surface water sources, many can drill wells to supplement their allocations (an option not open to most urban dwellers). And although the stresses in California are portrayed as urban vs. rural, the reality is more complex. Farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are, traditionally, more family-operated smaller farms that rely on local irrigation districts or things like the Friant-Kern canal. Many of the farmers in fact totally dry up the streams they tap: the Tulare Lake, formerly fed by the Kern and Kings Rivers, is a distant memory. Diversions of water from Northern California do not concern them. In contrast, the west side farmers, dominated by large semi-industrial operations, have tapped the California aqueduct, and in so doing fight to maximize the water they can get. Their deal with the devil long ago has come due: they were at the bottom of the water rights list as Los Angeles and San Diego paid for the aqueduct, but for many years had little need for it. The result is that agricultural users on the valley’s west side battle environmental groups to try to get more water in the canal. [8/30/16 update: a drive on the west side of the valley turns up even more of the “Congress-created desert” signs. Not a shock.] Urban users are similarly non-uniform. Commercial operations have separate water needs (and rates) from residential users (who generally pay top dollar on a per gallon basis). Thus what often seems a simply duality is at least a five-sided fight (west side irrigators, east side irrigators, residential users, commercial users, and environmental and fishing advocates).
There is no doubt that fight will resume when water ceases to flow again, but the problem is that expectations for a long time grew settled on resources that were slimmer than expected–and are growing slimmer. This only got more complex because our water laws got distorted by early mining activities, activities that made water a commodity.