31 Oct 2008

The Experts Strike Back

Four authors from CSU Fresno, CalPoly and UC Davis, with "over 120 years combined of experience in agricultural and landscape irrigation," comment [PDF] on the Pacific Institute's paper, “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California."
Readers may recall that I blasted the paper as unrealistic in its treatment of farmer choices and market realities. In the comments to this follow-up post, Gleick and I debate the merits of the report. I post a give and take between Gleick and farm interests here.
Anyway, the commentary seems to support my contention, i.e., that the proposed "savings" do not give sufficient weight to economics, i.e.,
The PacInst Paper defines four major water conservation strategies, implying the availability of major water savings, while downplaying or ignoring the Paper authors’ own cautions such as “We note that a more detailed economic assessment is needed to capture the social, economic, and environmental benefits and costs of these improvements” (page 25). Without such an assessment, conclusions drawn by the authors of the Paper are difficult to support.
Bottom Line: There's no free lunch. If you want farmers to conserve water, raise prices. The best way to raise prices is by letting farmers sell their water. Those who can make more by selling will use less.


  1. Awwww. Those mean men who wrote the critique of the PacInst's report actually know something about agriculture and irrigation; it's unfair for them to pick on some guy from Oakland who is talking through his hat, because he cares, really cares, about Mother Earth. Markets are mean and unfair, too. I say we instead create a giant state agency full of non-farmers who can monitor, punish, and reward the ignorant dolts who have created the most innovative and successful agricultural economy in history.

    Well, in fairness to the Pacific Institute, they have shown some willingness to admit to the technical failings in their report, but neither they, nor any major environmental group (save EDF, and they seem sadly marginalized for some reason) appear ready to embrace markets instead of mandates. I don't get it.

  2. Farmers who can make more money selling the subsidized water they get from the state will stop farming
    and become full time water traders. Buy low and sell high.

  3. >>Farmers who can make more money selling the subsidized water they get from the state will stop farming
    and become full time water traders.<<
    And if this is bad, exactly why? There will still be plenty of farmers, and as more supplies are freed up by the market, prices for water will fall. Unless California grows by some astronomical percentage, there will never be sufficient appetite for more than a fraction of the water we use to grow our food. It may have been dumb for the state to give some farmers something (same can be said for state granting of mining rights, land patents, etc.) or it might have been sound policy for the times. So what? What we are trying to do now is to find sensible and creative ways to allocate a resource in short supply. Unlike metal ores or land, water is at least a partially renewable resource, so outdated approaches to its use can be corrected and adjusted over time.

    And, of course, the poster is ignoring a large percentage of the developed water in California, which is owned by people not receiving any subsidy. Unless he considers ownership of anything being simply an indulgence allowed to us peons by the grace of our rulers.


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