The Myth, and Insight, of Owens Valley

Yesterday’s Washington Post included an article on the political battle between Las Vegas and northern Nevada over access to northern Nevada’s groundwater.

Unhelpfully, the article repeated the myth of Owens Valley, the southeastern California valley that, a century ago, became part of the nation’s first major water rights agreement. Under the deal, valley residents sold their property and water rights to Los Angeles, and much of the valley’s water was carried away by aqueduct to fuel the city’s growth into a major metropolitan area.

The Post repeats the myth faithfully:

The specter of California’s Owens Valley looms over the area, as people recall the aqueducts that almost 100 years ago turned a lush agricultural community into an environmental disaster so that water could be delivered to Los Angeles.

[…]

William Mulholland, as head of the Los Angeles water department in 1904, conceived the idea of an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. “He had no interest in draining the valley, he had no interest in creating that wasteland,” [Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada] said. “He did not want that to happen, but that’s what did happen because once the siphon was started it was impossible to turn it off.”

University of Arizona professor Gary Libecap, in research he summarized in a Summer 2005 Regulation article, has effectively exploded this myth.

Far from being a “lush agricultural community,” historical data show Owens Valley contained small, relatively low-production farms with a total of only about 50,000 acres in cultivation. Much of the valley’s income came from livestock, not planting. The area featured a fairly short growing season, high elevation, alkaline soils, and poor access to markets. In short, Libecap concludes, “Those data suggest that Owens Valley farmers may have been quite anxious to sell their land to an interested buyer.”

The Los Angeles–Owens Valley deal provided that buyer. Libecap’s research shows valley landowners were offered considerably more money for their property and water rights than what their farms were worth. The payments became even more enticing after the California legislature and courts forced the city to sweeten the deals.

That may ultimately prove the solution to the Nevada problem. As Ronald Coase famously argues, original distribution of property rights will not prove an impediment to ultimate efficiency so long as transactions costs are minimal. Put more simply, Las Vegas likely needs to up its offers to northern Nevada counties in order to get the water it needs. And, given Vegas’s growth rate, that bid is likely forthcoming.