No Markets, Then No Water. California’s Avoidable Crisis

This is what happens in a world without markets for water, as Eli Saslow reports in the Washington Post:

Their two peach trees had turned brittle in the heat, their neighborhood pond had vanished into cracked dirt and now their stainless-steel faucet was spitting out hot air. “That’s it. We’re dry,” Miguel Gamboa said during the second week of July, and so he went off to look for water….

For a few days now, they had been without running water in the fifth year of a California drought that had finally come to them. First it had devastated the orchards where Gamboa and his wife had once picked grapes. Then it drained the rivers where they had fished and the shallow wells in rural migrant communities. All the while, Gamboa and his wife had donated a little of their hourly earnings to relief efforts in the San Joaquin Valley and offered to share their own water supply with friends who had run out, not imagining the worst consequences of a drought could reach them here, down the road from a Starbucks, in a remodeled house surrounded by gurgling birdbaths and towering oaks.

The article reads like science fiction. And it’s so tragic, because markets could go a long way toward allocating California’s water to its highest-valued uses, as Peter Van Doren and Gary Libecap discussed recently. More Cato studies on water markets here.