A Panama Canal for California Salmon?
Why be stupid about California water, fish, and energy? Federal marine natural resource policies, not nature, are at the heart of stupid for California’s recent water shortage. The Federal government’s Central Valley Project “annually distributes roughly four million acre feet of water from the Bay-Delta and San Joaquin River throughout the Valley.” But distributions policies long distorted to subsidize agriculture are now being distorted again by environmentalists who want to save salmon runs in the worst way.
Even once-successful federal programs can drift as corners are captured by special interests. The Central Valley Project was successful in the sense of benefiting California farmers with water infrastructure paid for by taxpayers around the country, and supporting $25 billion dollars a year of agricultural produce. Lots of profitable fruits and veggies are grown in California each year. Only a small percentage of California farmers, mostly cotton and rice producers, receive direct federal agricultural subsidies each year.
An elite group of 567 farming entities – just 1 percent of all subsidy recipients in the state – received $2 billion between 1995 and 2009, almost 5 times the $456 million spent statewide on all programs to help farmers conserve animal habitat, curb air and water pollution, and reduce water use during that time. [Source.]
But the tremendous boost for agricultural from diverting California waters had an opportunity cost in blocking salmon runs along a stretch of the San Joaquin River. According to the EPA’s “Region 9: Strategic Plan” page:
The San Joaquin River boasted one of the largest salmon runs on the Pacific Coast before nearly 95% of the river water was diverted for irrigation. Water diversions leave 60 miles of the river to run dry in most years and have left little water for the Valley’s remaining wetlands.
The San Joaquin River has a 60-mile stretch where the river runs dry during droughts because the riverbed is at a higher elevation. The present solution to this hump in the river that keeps salmon from running to the ocean is to flush the river with huge amounts of water to get the fish over the hump.This is inefficient and takes excessive amounts of water away from farmers that they have to pay for. A possible solution would be to pump water over the hump, which would save water but run up the electricity costs for environmental water. It would cost about $1 billion or higher to lower the riverbed to create a sort of Panama Canal for fish. [Source.]
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports on the 18-year legal battle to restore the San Joaquin salmon run:
For more than half a century, California’s San Joaquin River — with its bone-dry reaches, polluted runoff and decimated salmon runs — has exemplified unbalanced water management policy in the West. … The San Joaquin once nourished one of the richest ecosystems in California. Native Americans and California’s early explorers once canoed the length of the river through dense wetlands and forests that teemed with waterfowl and other wildlife. [Source.]
NRDC’s vision is to restore ecosystems so tomorrow’s canoeing explorers will once again be able to explore “dense wetlands and forests that teemed with
waterfowl and other wildlife.” (Picture at right of particularly important secretary canoeing on San Joaquin river.)
I’m all for salmon runs and wildlife canoeing. But streams, rivers, and the water flowing downstream have multiple competing uses. People, plants, animals and fish all consume and pollute water, and it is people who decide how scarce water and waterways are used. Should the institutions managing scarce water be state and federal government agencies responding to politicians and litigation from agricultural and environmental groups?
It may very well be that the economic value in restoring vibrant annual salmon runs up the San Joaquin River is greater than the value of that same scarce water used by California farmers. Water markets can solves this otherwise unsolvable simultaneous equation. There is, or would be, a market price for water, and we could start in that direction by granting agricultural users an ownership right in their annual water allocation, including the right to transfer that water (i.e. sell) to other water users. Salmon fishermen and the environmentalists who love them would be able to pay for water to restore salmon runs. Some farmers would choose to sell annual water allocation rather than grow rice, cotton, and alfalfa, especially in the summer when crop yields are the lowest and irrigation to counter evaporation the highest.
The Cal Watchdog post above noted that the greatest use of water in California is not for energy, cities, or even agriculture, but rather to accommodate current environmental policies. Reforming federal marine natural resources policies, especially as they relate to federal water projects and salmon runs, would help restore both ecosystems and economic prosperity to California farmers and fisherman.
Well-defined, defendable, and divestible water use rights enable market prices to direct and coordinate water flows and uses. Earlier posts have discussed fresh, salt, and recycled water that could be redirected, conserved, or reused in California. Water infrastructure and water technologies cost money but investor-driven projects could better avoid political water transfers to favored farmers or fisheries.
Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia rivers release vast amounts of fresh water to the Pacific Ocean each day. Walter users in California could have all the water they can afford without negative environmental impact. But water markets and economic freedom for water infrastructure firms are a precondition. Without prices and markets, we don’t know how much water that might be.
May, 2015 Update…
Star Trek’s William Shatner was in the news announcing a $30 billion Kickstarter campaign to finance a pipeline bringing Seattle water to California.
I watched the news in Seattle where critics lined up to explain how bad an idea this was and that Seattle doesn’t have enough water, the snowpack is low, etc. Here are USA Today highlights from April. Shatner proposed “a 4-feet, above-ground pipeline that would run alongside Interstate 5.”
Well, this sounds like a typo. Maybe a 14-foot wide pipeline, or 40-foot wide one? Rather than diverting from Seattle, a more plausible proposal would pipe away a tiny percentage of Columbia river water toward California. A 14-foot pipeline from the Columbia wouldn’t be noticed, and neither would a 40-foot wide pipe. A pipeline from the Columbia (near the Oregon/Washington border) would be expensive to construct and consume a lot of energy to pump over hills and mountains, or more expensive to pipe under hills and mountains. I’ve driven from Washington to California along I-5 maybe fifty times, and there are quite a few long uphill climbs, particularly through the Siskiyou mountains in southern Oregon.
Still, it is an exciting idea and worth investors considering. Here is a Bloomberg article with the story and some history.