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Opinion: Water conservation is a demoralizing exercise

by Stephen Marks

As our water crisis wears on, our household is demoralized. My wife asks, “Why should we conserve? They’re just going to take it to build more.” My sentiments exactly.

A May 31 Los Angeles Times article noted “state leaders” are planning on a lot more development, particularly in major urban areas, and cited a water expert who said that there will be plenty of water for everyone if we just use water efficiently.

A couple comments. One, this seems like part of the plague of denial in our country that Senator Mitt Romney referred to in a recent Atlantic article — though with respect to water he stopped short of mentioning development, and blamed it instead on golf courses, lawns and thirsty crops.

Also, what does efficiency look like? Certainly, we can do more with recycling water and not allowing our storm drains to return it directly to the ocean. Fundamentally, though, efficiency would entail every user paying the same price. Undoubtedly this would hit agriculture the hardest, and one can understand why that sector has tenaciously defended its rights to low-cost water. Economists have long proposed that growers be given the option to resell their water to urban areas — which would expose them to the opportunity cost of their water usage but would preserve their political property rights. Such a deal was implemented between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority back in 2003 — though at some point we all might start to wonder why we are paying private parties for water that came from the state or federal government.

In any case, the rest of us are pretty much toast anyway. Traveling to a recent pole vault camp in Eastvale with my son, I was struck by the vast amount of housing on land that had been more or less empty when my daughter played on a remote soccer field out there off Limonite Ave. not so many years ago. Nice, landscaped houses like many of the rest of us have. The bottom line is that every time there is additional development, we can anticipate an uptick in the price we pay for water, even if the homes are multifamily dwellings without extensive landscaping. Also, as my wife emphasizes, that will threaten our home values.

While I am venting, it was frustrating to read that the California Coastal Commission recently rejected a desalinization plant in Orange County. It seems that helping assure supplies of fresh water is not part of the commission’s mandate, and it worried instead about the slaughter of innocent plankton and so forth. I come at this as an economist and longtime contributor to the Nature Conservancy, but clearly there needs to be some adjustment to the mandate of the CCC.

From a political standpoint, on this issue at least, I feel that I do not have a home in either major party. “Affordable housing” are the watchwords on the left. My own thought is that maybe we do not need so many people to live in California, and that markets would eventually solve the problem on their own. Retirees are leaving in large numbers, for example, although unfortunately they’re often going where they still are using water from the Colorado River.

On the question of affordable housing, let’s consider Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Rent subsidies being proposed in Sacramento might help some tenants, but let’s understand, given the way markets work, this means we taxpayers would also then be subsidizing rental housing owners as well as Google and other companies, who must decide if they want to pay their janitors enough so they can afford to live nearby. Or maybe more companies will decide to relocate out of state. That would not be the end of the world, in my view. (I see you, Elon, and thanks for taking your ass to the other side of the Continental Divide.)

Finally, as nice as the opportunities for many families are out there in Eastvale, I’m not seeing how that vast development is solving the crisis of the unhoused in our urban and even rural areas. A Claremont friend suggests developing housing for the unhoused in, say, the upper Midwest where land prices are much lower would be the way to go. Also on the plus side, the Great Lakes are there. Seems like that would require a federal solution. One can only dream.

Stephen Marks is the Elden Smith Professor of Economics at Pomona College.

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