In the American West, Water Is a Political Weapon
By Ryan McMaken
The narrative going out from conservative commentators about the California drought (see here and here for two examples) is that environmentalists caused the drought and, since Obama is presumably allied with environmentalists, he is to blame for it.)
Now dear reader, it should be clear to anyone familiar with my work that I am no fan of either Obama or the proponents of natural-resource-socialism known today as “environmentalists.” However, this assertion that water allocation had been just fine or would be just fine in California were it not for Democrats and environmentalists is just the sort of shallow and puerile analysis we’ve all come to expect from right-wing pundits.
In this specific case, what has the conservatives so very upset is that environmentalists have successfully pushed through a series of regulations that require that some river water be allowed to actually flow into the ocean for the sake of a fish called the delta smelt.
For people unfamiliar with how water works in California and the American west, they might conclude that this is a case of the government forcibly taking water form the farmers and handing it over to the environmentalists for their pet projects. This is, however, completely untrue. The first thing to know is that there is no functioning market in water in California, and there are no market prices. Virtually all water in California and the American West is controlled by, distributed by, and “priced” by government agencies. This system of water socialism (described by Bill Anderson here, and yours truly here) is what rules the allocation of water in the West, and by extension, it rules any industry or endeavor that requires water. Thus agriculture, is a socialized industry in the West, where the main input for the industry, water, is allocated along socialistic lines. There is no market pricing, because the pricing is done in a way to benefit powerful political interests.
In many Western states, still including California, although cities are quickly eroding their power, the growers are very powerful lobbies who have for the past 70 years enjoyed the benefits of extremely cheap, subsidized water. They do not own the water, and so when one of the farmers commented on the delta smelt situation and said "We are not interested in welfare; we want water” he was being unintentionally funny. Cheap water for Central Valley farmers, who are growing food in a desert, and who only get water thanks to massive taxpayer-funded public works, is a major form of welfare for them.
So, it would be naive in the extreme to frame this story, as the conservatives have, as some sort of battle between the poor, beleaguered farmer who is having “his” water taken away, and the usurper environmentalists.
Indeed, the water situation is just the latest chapter in a long history of using government to pick winners and losers in California and the west using the allocation of water as a weapon.
The conservatives who have declared the farmers to be the rightful owners of the water are simply ignoring the history of river water along the West coast.
Long forgotten is the fact that once upon a time, there were massive fisheries of salmon along the West coast that supported large numbers of canneries, fishing villages, industrial fishing operations, and all the usual support economies that go along with any industry.
Those industries are all massively reduced now, not because of global warming or overfishing or some other environmentalist bogeyman, but because the fisheries were ruined by governments. The governments that dammed up hundreds of rivers long the west coast, and thus destroyed the salmon and steelhead trout breeding grounds, did so with the enthusiastic support and lobbying of the growers who now are whining about some water actually being allowed to flow out into the ocean.
Whole industries were destroyed at the behest of the growers and cities that wanted water storage for their favored interests. This is not limited to the west coast of course. The Colorado River delta at the Sea of Cortez was once a huge estuary where many native communities of fishermen thrived. The fishing industries there are now all also destroyed. They were destroyed so that American farmers can grow pecans (native to humid Misssissippi) in scorchingly dry Phoenix.
All of this change came not due to shifts in the marketplace or the will of consumers. On the contrary, the fisheries provided extremely cheap protein to million of people for many, many years. There was huge demand for the industry. No, these industries were eviscerated because of decisions by governments and special interests. It was simply decided, for political reasons, that damming up the rivers and drying up the deltas was better than allowing the rivers to flow.
It is also a fact that without massive amounts of government capital, these dams would have never been built. The infrastructure of water storage and damming was only ever possible thanks to governmental central planning and taxation. Would irrigation still exist were it not for the governmental meddling in water? Certainly it would. Irrigation farming predates government dams. But the scale of government projects is much, much larger, and has far greater impact on the surrounding geography.
Once might counter that the fishing industries were also the beneficiaries of government largesse because the government-owned rivers were being used by the fishing industries to breed their fish. That’s certainly true as well.
So the question we should be asking ourselves is: “Which group has the right to take control of the rivers? Farmers or Fishermen? Or environmentalists? All want the “publicly” owned water for their own purposes. The answer is that none should be using politics so seize control of water. Ownership of the rivers, instead, should be decentralized, privatized, and the water should be sold to the highest bidder.
In contrast, I can tell you that sending in the government to centrally plan the whole affair, as has been done, is decidedly not the correct answer. This is of course the answer the conservatives are fine with, however. For them, the fact that the government one day went in and decided that growers are to be the winners, and the fisheries are to be the losers, is a-okay. For anyone who is actually concerned about finding free-market solutions, however, it’s all just more central planning.
As Kathryn Muratore recently noted, there is no easy answer here, thanks to 70 years of water socialism. Nevertheless, there’s no time like the present, and the best way to end drought is to establish a functioning system of prices and water ownership in the west. The farmers, the cities, and the politicians will cry bloody murder and complain that nothing can work in the West except the established system of prior-appropriation water rights. That system, however, we know has failed. History has shown that it requires government central planning, and is nothing more than water socialism, and is thus unsustainable.
Can other systems work? Perhaps a modified riparian system? We won’t know any time soon, because the farmers and politicians will cling to their precious status quo of “cheap” water for those who write the biggest checks, not for water, but for political influence.
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