Florida Oysters and Georgia Peanuts Compete for Scarce Water
Fresh water is scarce and has alternative uses. Should oysters in Florida to be valued more highly that watering lawns and growing crops in Georgia? This June 2 New York Times article, “A Fight Over Water, and to Save a Way of Life,” tells the story.
The oyster harvest in Apalachicola Bay has collapsed due mostly to reduced fresh water from two rivers that flow through Georgia and Alabama before emptying into Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. Drought conditions in recent years have reduced river flows, but so has the explosive growth of Atlanta suburbs and Georgia agriculture.
The decision of who gets how much water, if made on political grounds, will turn on which politicians have more seniority and savvy, and which bureaucracies have more pull in deciding water flows. Businesses involved will continue donating to environmental groups that campaign for their interests, as well as lobbying directly to their state and federal representatives (and anyone else on key Congressional committees).
A better way to resolve conflicts over scarce resources, according to economists, is to allocate ownership of scarce water resources, and to allow users to buy and sell water from other users. I haven’t researched agriculture in Georgia, but I’m thinking peanuts.
Where American agriculture is involved, American agricultural subsidies are usually involved too. Subsidies tend to distort resource use, raise food prices, cost taxpayers millions or billions, plus cause environmental damage of various kinds.
Are peanut farmers subsidized? This website claims: “Total Payments 1995-2012. Peanut Quota Buyout Program, $1,289,001,708.” (EWG Farm Subsidies) For another source, the American Enterprise Institute argues that farm subsidies should be reduced or ended.
So a billion dollars to keep the price of peanuts up (perhaps so the American public won’t suffer from low-price peanut butter). And these subsidized peanuts require irrigation. I haven’t researched how much water flows to subsidized peanuts from rivers delivering fresh water to Florida oyster beds.
Students researching the marine natural resource topic will notice that wherever there are rivers there are usually farmers drawing water to irrigate crops. And where those rivers empty into oceans marine ecosystems are often in flux from declining fresh water flows and agricultural run-off. So farming often competes with marine natural resource uses for coastal fisheries and oyster beds.
Higher prices for water stimulate farmers to conserve water, and interestingly, can sometimes can improve yields (“When USDA Researcher Wilson Faircloth began his recent presentation to the annual South Carolina peanut meeting talking about cutting back on irrigation water to improve yields, he got mostly blank stares.” Southeast Farm Press, May 6, 2011) (And no fair making rural Georgia jokes about those blank stares…)
Some fish farming firms and researchers decided to go where the water is, and are fattening their fish in rice fields. Still, it is not clear that rice is the ideal crop for desert-like ecosystems. Instead, the weak water rights institutions in California mean land-owners have “use-rights” to a certain amount of water each year, but they can’t sell that water to other willing to pay for transfer and use. These “use it or lose it” water allocation institutions become “misuse it or lose it” as fields are flooded to grow rice in a desert, Similarly, water used to irrigate peanuts in Georgia harms the marine ecosystems in Florida that require fresh water flows for oysters.
I look forward to researching these issues over the coming months for, and look forward to not discussing subsidized peanuts at Economic Thinking workshops in Georgia.