by Curt Burnett on July 29, 2009

“Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin'”

Old western saying

There was a piece in USA Today yesterday about the water situation in California’s Central Valley. It highlighted the economic suffering of some of the Valley’s growers, as in this excerpt:

For those like Allen at the end of the water-rights line, the flow has slowed to a trickle: his water district is receiving just 10% of the normal allocation of water from Federal Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. He says he’s been forced to lay off all his workers and watch the crops die on his 300 acres while bills for an irrigation system he put in are due.

“My payments don’t stop when they cut my water off”, Allen

The piece goes on to give some of the history of the situation:

The federal restrictions arise from environmental suits brought under the Endangered Species Act that argue pulling water out of the delta harms fish. A federal judge in 2007 ordered new biological studies and restrictions on water pumped out of the delta for farmers.

A group of water authorities filed countersuits. While the issue remains unsettled, the rulings have idled the water pumps for 11 months a year, Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf says. Environmental groups say water officials and farmers are overstating the problem.

“This is not a fish vs. farms problem,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Insitute, an environmental research group in Oakland. “I believe they’re using the drought as an excuse to try and overturn these environmental decisions.”

In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about the situation in Australia as described by Mike Young, a professor at the University of Adelaide. Mike described the starting point in the Australian process as “strife” (a word probably more in everyday use in Australian than US English). I think that in the California situation we have a pretty good example of strife: conflicting uses for river water being battled over in court. As Mike pointed out, strife is useful in bringing the issues sharply into focus, but it’s not a very good way to arrive at cooperative solutions. The problems are further compounded by laws and water rights structures which were constructed at a time when there was more water available and fewer claims on it. Another excerpt from the USA Today article illustrates this aspect:

Richard Howitt, professor of agriculture and resource economics at University of California-Davis, estimates that statewide about 30% of the water shortage is a result of environmental restrictions and 70% is drought. But the impact of the regulations hits particularly hard here in the farm region, he says, because complicated water-rights laws leave Allen and his neighbors at the end of the line in water distribution.

Prof. Young describes a situation in Australia in which all parties have moved beyond strife and into cooperative problem solving. He hints that the transition is neither full nor perfect, but he describes a situation in which problems similar to those in the Central Valley are settled relatively quickly and without the help of courts or lawyers. The main lubricant in this process is of course, money.

I’m curious as to how successful the Australian process really has been, and how applicable it is to the California situation (as well as others in the US). The panel discussion in Utah included Prof. Young and Dr. John Eckhardt, who has been a major participant in the California irrigation water situation (particularly in the Imperial Valley). In one exchange of views, it was clear that John was skeptical about the prospects for an Australian-type solution happening in California anytime soon.

It looks like I will be in the Central Valley two weeks from now, talking with some irrigation professionals. If that happens as planned I’ll report on anything that I learn.

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