13 May 2008

Socio-politics of Water

Tim asks
I'd be interested in your thoughts on how you deal with the broader cultural/society impediments to dealing with changing water use patterns.

For example, in Queensland Australia, there is a cotton farm with a water allocation that is literally bigger than Sydney Harbour that the government has long wanted to buy out. Here the issue is not property rights (as the govt is happy to stump up the cash to buy the property out) but the impact of such a decision on the surrounding community. A town of 10,000 people relies on the presence of the dam as the farm is the major employer in the region.

See for eg: http://www.melaleucamedia.com.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=35

What are your thoughts for dealing with these socio-political factors ?
I read the article referenced above. Cubbie Station reminds me of the Westlands Water District, a entity known more for its astute manipulation of legal rights than its ability to grow crops to feed the humans who subsidize its existence. Take this example:
The genius behind Cubbie is gritty general manager John Grabbe, a former Water Resources Commission officer who went from being an advisor “on irrigation layouts for farmers” to being responsible for the largest privately owned irrigation layout in Australia, possibly the entire Southern Hemisphere.

The statistics are now becoming familiar – enough storage to swallow Sydney Harbour and around 12,000 hectares of merrily evaporating water. Up to half a million megalitres of water a year for the grand total of $3700 a year when farmers up the river pay up to $30,000 for just 1000 megalitres.
So, besides this impression, what are my comments on water transfers and community? First of all, the water-bandits that build dams or stake claims have almost no impact on community. Although silly government policies allow them to stake claims to vast quantities of water, there are few "communities" in the areas where that water is supposed to land: It's no fun living in the middle of a desert -- no matter what your water rights are. (Imperial county has a population of 150,000 people but controls 70 percent of California's rights to water from the Colorado River.) Second, real communities can suffer when water is sold to outsiders, but sales have to be big -- selling only 30 percent of water has not led to a negative impact on life for farmers in Palo Verde Irrigation District.

Bottom Line: Although some communities may be adversely affected by water transfers, it seems that more communities use water transfer rules as an excuse to get fat "compensation" checks for reallocating water that they never wanted, needed or used. The state could counter this by reallocating water rights every 5-10 years among users. Valuable access would mean that those who had the best uses of water would pay for it -- and get it -- and communities would grow in the best palces -- not places that legislatures "befriended" with water.