15 Mar 2008

Vegas versus Imperial

A few weeks ago, a small war of words broke out between Las Vegas and farmers in Imperial Valley. As everyone knows, Vegas is famous for its Sinwater management, but the City can only reuse water so many times before it runs out, and supplies are under even more strain. Imperial Valley, OTOH, is well known for Dry Heat using its abundant water rights to grow essential crops (hay, sudan grass and switch grass). Imperial and neighboring regions have rights to 85% of California's water from the Colorado River. (The other 15% goes to cities in Southern California, providing about one-third of the water used by 18 million people.)

So, the surprise is not that someone would say that Imperial's water will end up in Vegas. The surprises are the how people say things and react to each other. The Imperial Valley Press had this:
it came as no surprise to Brawley-area farmer John Benson that Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman holds his city’s water needs higher than the Valley’s.

Goodman was quoted as saying no one would allow Vegas to dry up.

“The Imperial Valley farmers will have their fields go fallow before our spigots run dry,” Goodman said at a news conference last week.

“I understand that Mr. Goodman has made a political career of outrageous statements,” said Benson, who is farming and fallowing some of his fields. “If he wants to make flippant statements, more power to him. But it’s meaningless.”

Benson, also a Brawley city councilman, said it isn’t the first time the Imperial Valley agricultural industry has been insulted.

Water use is an ongoing battle between agriculture and urban users, he said, as evidenced by a claim a San Diego newspaper made in 1983 about water being used for cattle feed.

“They said that we should not be able to use water except on human food. But alfalfa becomes human food when it goes through a cow,” Benson said.


Nicole Rothfleisch, director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said Goodman’s words were “fighting words.”

The suggestion that food produced by local farms is less valuable than Las Vegas’ water need is incomprehensible, Rothfleisch said.

“What does Las Vegas want the water for … casinos and landscaping? That’s hardly a justifiable use for a commodity as precious as water,” Rothfleisch said.


“If the Valley is looked at as the sole means of these urban areas continuing to grow their populations and economies, then at what point are they satisfied? If you carry that line of thinking out to its logical conclusion there will be no water left in the Imperial Valley,” Kelley said.
No water left in Imperial? That sounds like an excellent idea -- especially if the water can be used in much more valuable ways (e.g., casinos and landscaping) instead of cow food.

The Desert Sun has much of the same story, with a nice comment on food-nationlism:
Westmorland farmer Al Kalin understands the Las Vegas area is growing rapidly, and is short of water. "But we need it to feed the nation," he said. "I don't think we want to bring in all our food from overseas, like we do our fuel."
According to California's Farm Bureau and Department of Food and Agriculture, Imperial Valley produces total agricultural value of $1.3 billion -- four percent of California's agricultural output and about one-half percent of the nation's agricultural output. Imperial's top "crops" are cattle, alfalfa and carrots.

Contrast these number to total personal income in Las Vegas ($70 billion; gambling revenue -- a different measure -- is $11 billion) and then remember that all of Southern Nevada (including Vegas) uses about 20 percent of the water that Imperial uses.

Bottom Line: Imperial Valley is certainly not maximizing the value of water. Farming in the desert is probably not a good idea when precious water could go to people in the desert. Don't take away the water, but let farmers sell their water to cities. It's a win-win-win for the farmers, the cities and Mother Nature.


Michael Ejercito said...

This is something that a market-based system would do better.

In a market-based system, Las Vegas would offer to purchase Imperial County's water rights.

Anonymous said...

where does the 11 or 70 billion dollars in gambling revenue go vs. the 1.3 billion in agricultural production and how does that money benefit the people of this country? Until we can eat poker chips we might be well advised to grow food rather than profits. Additionally, how can taking water away from a critical Salton Sea ecosystem be in the best interest of mother nature? The only benefits I see here are those an economist would think valuable. MONEY, MONEY and more MONEY. Maybe we should pull our heads far enough out of our wallets to see the food needs of people and the ecosystem needs of the animals.

David Zetland said...

@anon: I am basically saying that the value of water to Vegas is higher than farmers in the desert.

According to the theory of comparative advantage, its better to put resources to their highest and best use and THEN use the proceeds to trade for the forgone items (e.g., food). Although the cheapest food comes from Mexico or China, it could easily come from the Central Valley, which has far better soil than Imperial.

The only reason water is in the Salton Sea is because of IID runoff. Read about Baptists and Bootleggers (right sidebar) to learn how farmers use the environment to continue their unsustainable, uneconomical practices...

Anonymous said...

The theory you talked about is most interesting. I will look forward, in the future, discussing with you where theories of value fit into fact. Thanks for the response.

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