Water in the West: It’s Complicated

In the media, one hears two different stories regarding the drought in California and Western water problems in general. Liberals say that droughts are being made worse by climate change. Conservatives say that water shortages are being perpetrated by the EPA in a misguided effort to sacrifice farmers for some tiny fish. The Washington Times editorial today is of the latter genre.

The real story is more complicated. It’s not just Mother Nature, and it’s not just farmer vs. fish.

The fundamental problem is that the federal government has been heavily subsidizing Western water for decades, particularly for crop irrigation. Artificially low water prices have encouraged overconsumption and the planting of very dry areas where farming is inefficient and environmentally unsound. Subsidized irrigation farming has created major environmental problems in the San Joaquin Valley, for example.

To make matters worse, federal farm subsidies have boosted demand for irrigation water, which has further encouraged farmers to bring marginal lands into production.

So don’t blame the Delta smelt. Instead, blame antimarket policies going back eight decades in the case of farm subsidies and a century in the case of subsidized water from the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The long-term solution to the West’s growing water problems is free-market economics. Policymakers should end the farm subsidies, reform water property rights, transfer federal dams and aqueducts to state ownership, and move toward market pricing of water.

For more, see my essay with Peter Hill and check out the great work from the free-market environmentalists at PERC.