How California Went Dry

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Gov. Jer­ry Brown of Cal­i­for­nia is fired up about nail­ing his cit­i­zens to the wall, should they dare to use more than their allot­ted amount of water. On Sun­day, Brown said that those who did not take short­er show­ers would be pun­ished with fines of up to $500, in order to cut urban water use 25 per­cent; now, accord­ing to CBS News, water author­i­ties will use “smart meters” to mon­i­tor water use and update them for pur­pos­es of fines.

None of this will do much good.

Let’s assume that Brown’s plan works, and Cal­i­for­nia saves approx­i­mate­ly 1.5 mil­lion acre feet of water, or 490 bil­lion gal­lons of water. That bare­ly touch­es the 11 tril­lion gal­lons of water Cal­i­for­nia needs in order to replen­ish its sup­plies from the drought. It’s also a wild mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources.

Let’s begin with actu­al wastes of water in the state of Cal­i­for­nia. Thanks to Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions as well as local state reg­u­la­tions aimed at pro­tect­ing the three-inch Delta smelt, a fish about which Amer­i­cans sup­pos­ed­ly care deeply, Cal­i­for­nia cur­rent­ly pumps 150 bil­lion gal­lons of usable water out to sea each year. Nor­mal­ly, that water would go to the fields of the Cen­tral Val­ley, the fruit and nuts pro­duc­ing region of Cal­i­for­nia that sup­plies so many of those goods to the rest of the coun­try. Instead, the entire region has gone dry, jack­ing unem­ploy­ment rates up to 40 per­cent in some areas. As the May­or of Men­do­ta, Cal­i­for­nia, a heav­i­ly His­pan­ic farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty of 10,000, told me back in 2009:

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma needs to come out here imme­di­ate­ly. Just the oth­er day, 52 oth­er may­ors and I sent a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma call­ing on him to vis­it Fres­no Coun­ty to see what the impact has been. We have the high­est unem­ploy­ment in the state of Cal­i­for­nia. I don’t have a prob­lem with endan­gered species, but water dis­tri­b­u­tion must be looked at.

Fat chance. Instead, those com­mu­ni­ties have gone dry. Now the whole state is going dry. But at least the delta smelt are thriving.

The smelt aren’t the only fish ben­e­fit­ting from gen­er­ous water usage by the state of Cal­i­for­nia. In 2014, Con­gress­man Tom McClin­tock (R‑CA) explained, “last month the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion drained Fol­som and oth­er reser­voirs on the Amer­i­can and Stanis­laus rivers of more than 70,000 acre feet of water – enough to meet the annu­al needs of a city of half a mil­lion peo­ple – for the com­fort and con­ve­nience of fish.” The goal: to push baby salmon to the Pacif­ic Ocean, where they swim any­way, and to change the tem­per­a­ture of the water for their ben­e­fit. ug

Over­all, 2.6 mil­lion acre-feet of water have been washed into San Fran­cis­co Bay to help the fish.

But the biggest prob­lem in Cal­i­for­nia is that the gov­ern­ment has refused to build the reser­voirs and dams nec­es­sary to actu­al­ly save water when the rain does come. As the Wall Street Jour­nal points out, Israel has weath­ered droughts for years. So has Ari­zona. Both built infra­struc­ture. Cal­i­for­nia has not, large­ly because politi­cians like Jer­ry Brown stopped such con­struc­tion decades ago. The Wall Street Jour­nal points out:

Mon­ey is not the obsta­cle. Since 2000 vot­ers have approved five bonds autho­riz­ing $22 bil­lion in spend­ing for water improve­ments… desali­na­tion projects have been aban­doned… some areas have been slow to shift from fixed rates.

But there’s plen­ty of cash to go around for Brown’s $100 bil­lion fan­ta­sy choo-choo train.

Assum­ing none of that will change, it is not urban pop­u­la­tions in Cal­i­for­nia using a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of water. It is farm­ers. Farm­ing rep­re­sents no more than two per­cent of the Cal­i­for­nia econ­o­my, yet rep­re­sents 80 per­cent of its human water usage. A full 10 per­cent of California’s water goes to farm­ing almonds – 1.1 tril­lion gal­lons of water. Anoth­er 100 bil­lion gal­lons goes to alfal­fa, which is large­ly shipped over­seas for use in places like Japan.

Brown says that farm­ers aren’t just water­ing their lawns, but that’s the point: even if all Cal­i­for­ni­ans stopped water­ing their lawns com­plete­ly, that wouldn’t solve the drought. Cal­i­for­nia may lead the nation in pro­duc­tion of veg­eta­bles (one third of all veg­gies in the US come from Cal­i­for­nia) and fruits and nuts (two thirds from the Gold­en State). But so what? Heav­i­ly sub­si­diz­ing farm­ing in Cal­i­for­nia is still heav­i­ly sub­si­diz­ing farm­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. Sub­si­dies boost pro­duc­tion. That doesn’t make sub­si­dies jus­ti­fi­able in a state sup­port­ed almost entire­ly on oth­er industries.

California’s drought is part­ly about weath­er, but it’s just as much about gov­ern­ment mis­man­age­ment. Envi­ron­men­tal­ism trumped good pol­i­cy; now, sub­si­dies trump ratio­nal dis­tri­b­u­tion via mar­ket pric­ing. The result: a very smelly situation.