9 Aug 2011

Land, water and money

SS asks:
I am interested in water investing, particularly investing in raw productive agricultural land with water on site. My interest was generated from closely following [Famous Guy, FG].* He is arguably the world's most prescient investor. Even Warren Buffet and Alan Greenspan have referred to this in interviews.

He is cryptic about his current investments but in some interviews the transcripts do include mention a significant portion of his portfolio is invested in raw land, specifically "productive agricultural land with water on site". In an interview with the author of a book about him, the author says that [FG] told him it was a complicated way of investing in water. The author also said he was focusing on almond farms. Since he lives in Northern California and California produces 80% of the world's almonds, it seems likely he is buying almond farm land in California.

Assuming he is buying almond farm land that is productive agricultural land with water on site, what is your best guess as to the way in which this works as a water investment?
FG's plan to buy almond land and sell the valuable water is not new. The Bass brothers tried to sell ag land in Imperial Valley and sell its water to San Diego, but they were blocked and ultimately sold the land to the Imperial Irrigation District.**

Here are a few more comments:
  1. Water sales in California and most of the US are not easy. They require approval by regulators, water-using neighbors, local politicians (area of origin laws) and environmental panels.
  2. Almond farms may be a good investment now, since almond prices are not so high but costs are rising. Farmers can, of course, rip out trees and plant a different crop.
  3. Water trades (as in Australia) are difficult without standardized procedures, access to conveyance, adjudicated groundwater, etc.
My overall thought is that this is a high risk strategy. If I had my way (allowing more water marketing), it would pay off, but many people are either too conservative (don't change anything) or too greedy (give ME free water) to allow markets.

Bottom Line: Maybe FG is talking up this idea so he can offload some almond land on newbie investors.
* Maybe referring to Michael Burry, the investor made famous in the Big Short, who says he doesn't trust Wall Street and only invests in water (via water-rich food businesses). Interesting to see that this does NOT mean water rights, utilities or water tech companies.

** That sale and farmers' decision to allow IID [article] -- but not individual farmers -- to sell water ultimately backfired. Now farmers who want to sell water ANYWHERE are blocked from doing so by "city" IID board members who want to keep cheap water in the area "for jobs."