Leaders in California seem determined to deal with the state’s water shortage in the least effective and most intrusive ways possible. Governor Jerry Brown has ordered such “bold”, yet ultimately weak, actions as restricting urban water usage, fines on “water wasters”, and xeriscaping of public property. The plan includes additional state intrusions such as rebates for high-efficiency appliances, bans on certain types of faucets, toilets and residential lawn irrigation systems, and more rigorous monitoring of water use, which could ultimately include shower time. A $1 billion state investment in wastewater recycling and desalinization plants is also planned, and pundits advocate other huge projects such as new reservoirs. These efforts are costly, but they are also beguiling to politicians seeking the appearance of positive action.
Overlooked is a straightforward and relatively costless way to achieve effective conservation and relief from the shortage: use the price mechanism! This simple approach encourages conservation in many large and small ways that are beyond the discernment of government planners. Obviously, it can also address the profligacy of certain agricultural uses. A market mechanism is the one sure way to find the most rational price for water, and it is sorely needed in the face of such a significant shortage.
The misallocation of water rights in California is truly staggering, as demonstrated by the graphic at the top of this post, which is from a post at Marginal Revolution (originally from Mother Jones):
“… as farmers are watering their almonds, San Diego is investing in an energy-intensive billion-dollar desalination plant which will produce water at a much higher cost than the price the farmer are paying. That is a massive and costly misallocation of water. … In short, we are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.”
The Mises Daily blog makes the same point in an article entitled, “Drought and the Failure of Big Government in California“.
“When crops like pecans, which are native to Louisiana where it rains over fifty inches per year, are being grown in central California, we will have to ask ourselves if there is true comparative advantage at work here, or if the industry is really sitting upon a shaky foundation of government-subsidized and -allocated resources.
The rhetoric that’s coming out of the growers, of course, is that California growers are essential to the American food supply. Some will even suggest that it’s a national security issue. Without California growers, we’re told, we’ll all starve in case of foreign embargo. … But let’s not kid ourselves. North America is in approximately zero danger of having too little farmland for staple crops.” [Emphasis added.]
Last month, my post “Scarcity, Scarcity Everywhere, And Water Pricing Stinks” addressed the mispricing of water and the promise of marketable use permits for water conservation. Details may vary, but in this sort of arrangement, residential, industrial and agricultural users would receive a base assignment of water rights at a relatively low, uniform price. The base assignment can be a function of historical usage. A secondary market then allows consumers and other users to purchase additional use permits or to sell permits exceeding their own usage:
“The price of water on the secondary market will rise to the point at which users no longer perceive a benefit to marginal flows of water above cost. A higher price encourages voluntary conservation in two ways: it is a direct cash cost of use above one’s base water rights, and it is an opportunity cost of foregoing the sale of permits on water use up to the base assignment. Those best-prepared to conserve can sell excess rights to those least prepared to conserve.”
Price incentives and their power for conservation are discussed in this post at Marginal Revolution. Market pricing is the single-most effective method of fostering sustainable patterns of resource use. Increasingly scarce conditions naturally lead to higher prices, which both discourage excessive use and create incentives for investments in reuse and other efficiencies. Yet politicians are highly averse to the idea of pricing resources rationally via the market. Instead, as exemplified by Governor Brown’s restrictions, they promulgate a seemingly endless series of measures that play on “green guilt” without adequate consideration of alternatives.
A colorful example of this misguided philosophy is the low-flow toilet, as described in this post entitled “Americans Destroyed Indoor Plumbing“. Mandatory recycling presents a classic case of conflicting policy goals: another sacred cow of environmental dogma, it increases water use in California because containers must be washed before they go to the curb. And there are other conflicting environmental goals, such as an effort to protect the Delta Smelt in San Francisco Bay by diverting over 300 billion gallons of water away from the Central Valley.
Meanwhile, big government Republicans are thumping their chests over their self-described success in planning for water needs in Arizona. This consists of infrastructure projects that capture runoff and store water in underground reservoirs, which are fine as far as they go (and, if available, better than above-ground storage subject to evaporation). However, these projects involve considerable public expense, and they have not prevented the imposition of mandatory conservation requirements. It should also be mentioned that current drought conditions in Arizona are mild compared to California. The point here is that market-oriented pricing and conservation reduces the need for such costly projects and intrusions. Administered water prices are expected to rise in Arizona, and they probably should. But it’s noteworthy that the last link, a summary of what is purported to be a careful study of water pricing issues, makes no mention of trade in water use permits and market pricing. As Glenn Reynolds might say, unlike big infrastructure and intrusive regulations, market-oriented policies and efficient pricing may not entice politicians with sufficient opportunities for graft.