Water for What: California Oysters or Chinese Beef?
In 2012, the drought-stricken Western United States will ship more than 50 billion gallons of water to China. This water will leave the country embedded in alfalfa–most of it grown in California–and is destined to feed Chinese cows. The strange situation illustrates what is wrong about how we think, or rather don’t think, about water policy in the U.S. (Source WSJ, quoted here.)
The millions of taxpayers who each “contribute” small slices of their tax payment to support alfalfa growers have no idea the program exists much less how to end it. Those who would benefit from ending the subsidies are scattered and lose far less per person than the handful of gainers gain.
This water diverted to alfalfa and shipped to China is water that would enrich marine ecosystems downstream and could help revive salmon habitat, oyster beds, and other marine natural resources if set free by markets to flow toward higher-valued uses.
Why not allow people who want fresh water to make payments for it, allowing farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, and delta smelt fans to bid for limited fresh water flows? These water users would compete with and coordinate water use with people wanting water for showers, flowers, and lawns downstream in California cities and suburbs. (Plus those oystermen and hungry consumers wanting to revive coastal oyster beds, discussed below.)
Chris Edwards and P.J. Hill in Cutting the Bureau of Reclamation and Reforming Water Markets, give the history, politics and wasteful economics of current programs. Irrigation is generally a good thing, but not always and not everywhere and not forever. Transporting water from one place to another is a lot like transporting cars. People build transportation infrastructure and expect it to be paid for by those who benefit from it. When governments decide for political reasons to spend tax dollars to build “bridges to nowhere,” the costs are higher than possible benefits. So it is with many federal water reclamation projects. The costs for building them can be higher than benefits of transporting water from one place to another. And then, over time, higher-value water uses emerge, but government water reclamation project waters are often frozen to past uses.
Water reclamation, agriculture, and delta smelt might sound like upstream issues and not directly marine natural resources. But the water diverted to alfalfa bound for cows in China, or diverted for desert rice or other thirsty low-value California crops, has direct impact on higher-value downstream uses, including oyster and other harvests that could be restored.
The California alfalfa harvest need not be decimated by ending water subsidies. It turns out that spring harvests are the most productive and require the least irrigation water. It is the heavily-irrigated summer harvests that are the least productive. This peer-reviewed Forage and Grazinglands article explains:
This mid-summer deficit irrigation strategy consists of full irrigation to meet crop demand during the early part of the crop season and no irrigation (deficit irrigation) during mid-summer. This approach maintains the relatively high yields in spring that contribute to most of the seasonal yield, and reduces yields during the summer when production generally is low and quality is poor. … The sale of the water not used during the mid-summer period could compensate the grower for the reduced revenue from lower alfalfa yields caused by mid-summer deficit irrigation. (Source.)
California’s largest fishery? For many years it was oysters. The oyster industry boomed in San Francisco bay in the late 1800s and early 1900s. On the way to a
Solutions aren’t simple, but they start by allowing water users to exchange water up and down rivers and along irrigation systems. The authors of Cutting the Bureau of Land Reclamation and Reforming Water Markets argue for federal land reclamation and irrigation projects to be turned over to states and regional authorities. I’ve recommended PERC’s study on Environmental Water Markets.
How is this topical for students advocating reforming federal marine natural resource policies? Fresh water is most highly valued along coastal areas where population is the most dense (not that coastal people themselves are necessarily dense).
Increased freshwater flows to coastal areas will release more fresh water into coastal marine ecosystems. Oyster lovers want these increased freshwater flows to return rich oyster harvests in Oyster Bay, San Leandro, and to other California coastal bays and estuaries.