Thursday, October 18

What a watery mess

From Parched in the West but Shipping Water to China, Bale by Bale by Peter Culp and Robert Glennon:
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.

...the most curious consequence of this export market involves water. Alfalfa is a water-guzzling crop -- and the water embedded in the alfalfa that the U.S. will export to China in 2012 is enough to supply the annual needs of roughly 500,000 families.

Southern California's Imperial Irrigation District gets its water from the Colorado River, 82 miles to the east. Alfalfa farmers in the district use as much as 50% more water than growers in other areas of the state due to scorching heat, salty soil and, perhaps most important, their legal rights to an enormous quantity of cheap water. This single irrigation district controls more than 20% of the total annual flow of the Colorado River. Remarkably, the district's water rights are 10 times higher than that of the entire state of Nevada.


The perversity of a situation in which California taxpayers must spend tens of billions to protect the water supplies of vital farms and cities -- even as California farmers convert tens of thousands of irrigated acres to feed cows in China -- reflects the growing incoherence of domestic water and agricultural policy. Antiquated Western water laws often block intrastate or interstate water transfers that could satisfy changing domestic urban, agricultural and environmental needs.
Cutting the Bureau of Reclamation and Reforming Water Markets by Chris Edwards and Peter J. Hill notes the problems caused by the eponymous agency:
The large subsidies built into many Reclamation projects indicate that they have been a loss to taxpayers and the economy. But Reclamation projects have also harmed the environment, which has prompted Congress to burden taxpayers with further spending aimed at mitigating the damage.


President Jimmy Carter was an early anti-dam crusader and he famously tried to terminate 19 major projects of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. Carter examined the environmental and economic effects of these projects, and he concluded that they were boondoggles. However, Carter misplayed the politics of the issue, and his spending cuts to water infrastructure projects went nowhere in Congress.69 Carter's skepticism of dams is more widespread today, and a movement has developed to remove dams where the costs seem to outweigh the benefits.70.
If these Cato authors praise a Democratic president, does that mean he's wrong?
[California's Central Valley Project] is Reclamation's largest irrigation project, providing roughly 6,800 farmers irrigation water for about 3 million acres of land. The farmers receive the water at roughly 10 percent of its market value, which in 2002 worked out to an annual subsidy of about $416 million a year, according to EWG...83 

On top of the irrigation subsidy, about one-fifth of CVP farmers who receive federal irrigation water also receive crop subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.... This subsidized production of often water-intensive crops in the arid West competes with more efficient production of the same crops in other regions of the country. Federal farm subsidies encourage overproduction of crops in all parts of the nation, and so the government is exacerbating the overproduction with irrigation subsidies in the West.
(via Water: Excess of Subsidies, Lack of Markets by Chris Edwards)

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