Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

What Price Water? Living with Water Scarcity

There’s a difference between water scarcity and water shortage, and economist David Zetland wants everyone to understand that distinction.

Scarcity is a perception, but water shortage is a fact. Shortage is far worse than scarcity, he says, because even if you otherwise have the necessary money (or other requirement) to acquire what you want, when there’s a shortage you still can’t get it.

Water scarcity is increasing in California and many parts of the world. Successfully living with—managing—scarcity, Zetland says, can prevent shortage.

Zetland’s new book, Living with Water Scarcity, “describes appropriate solutions for living with—perhaps even thriving with—water scarcities in both quantity and quality.”

Thriving with water scarcity?

That kind of shockingly optimistic comment sets Zetland apart from other talking heads on the topic of water.

Consider what he had to say to The Guardian on the topic of how California’s water system subsidizes the price of almonds for export: “The people of the state of California are more or less destroying themselves in order to give cheap almonds to the world.”

California goes to more than export crops photo by John Chacon, DWR

California grows more than export crops (photo by John Chacon, DWR)

Even politicians use water photo by Florence Low, DWR

Even politicians use water (photo by Florence Low, DWR)

Acreage planted to almonds in California has doubled since 1996, he points out. Due to the current drought farmers are now pumping groundwater to irrigate almond orchards at levels that are causing their neighbors’ wells to go dry. Almond growers, anxious about the future, are now starting to withhold some of this year’s crop, which is driving process higher.

But as Zetland told The Guardian, higher prices are a good thing, if they spur improvements in California’s water management.

“The problem is that California, because of its failed institutions for managing water, is allowing these almonds to come on market at $3-$4 a pound wholesale, when the price would be tripled if California was managing its water sustainably and farmers faced the real cost of water.”

Almonds are not the issue. California produces other agricultural products that use massive amounts of publicly subsidized water, such as grapes (including wine grapes) and milk. And it’s not just agriculture. California also supports an abundance of people, swimming pools, and golf courses. In addition the state needs water to support its diverse natural environments. No, the problem is antiquated water policies that don’t correctly recognize value.

According to Zetland there are very effective means available to equitably allocate scarce water supplies, for both private and public uses, and there are good examples of their application elsewhere. There are four main reasons these solutions aren’t widely used, all of them flowing from a time when water supplies were abundant.

“First, water managers trust systems that have worked for centuries. They do not experience the pain of scarcity and do not want to work now for benefits later.”

The current system also benefits special interests—meaning large-scale farmers and industrial-strength irrigation districts—which is motivation enough for them to consistently block change. In addition, “water customers have a hard time communicating their frustrations to complex water monopolies that may be slow to answer the phone.”

Finally, Zetland says, “politicians and regulators may be too biased to see the need for change, or too busy to promote it.”

But, he believes, “with a destination, a map, and hope” such barriers can be overcome.

Next week: Allocating Water as a Commodity

David Zetland is assistant professor of economics at Leiden University College in Den Haag, the Netherlands. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. His blog, Aquanomics (that’s a “g,” as in the Spanish word for water, “agua”) and his first book, The End of Abundance, address these and other topics in more detail—and with more citations—than the new book. Yet Living with Water Scarcity, which like Abundance is for sale in both Kindle and paperback editions, is available for free if you’ll be satisfied with the PDF version.

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