Opinion: Water market is playing unsustainable game of chicken

by Stephen V. Marks

A Claremont friend of ours recently confessed, she is depressed if she sees a brown lawn, and she is depressed if she sees a green lawn. We think of our friend as reasonably well-adjusted, so lawns do seem to be the culprits here.

Indeed, out for one of our walks on a Thursday evening — not a permissible sprinkler day — my wife and I see homes in our neighborhood with the sprinklers going full blast, with a steady flow of water running into the street.

The L.A. Times recently interviewed Max Gomberg, who resigned as a senior manager with the California State Water Board out of his frustration over inaction in Sacramento on water. He described participants in the water market as playing a game of chicken, waiting to see who would blink first, taking us down an unsustainable path.

Gomberg nailed it. Thus, many residential and business property owners in California are hoping to avoid the costs of converting their lawns to more sustainable solutions, and perhaps can rationalize that their use is a tiny fraction of the total — much like the folks who have priorities other than voting.

Developers in California are required to demonstrate that enough water is available for large-scale projects; well-governed communities may thus be able to elicit developer contributions to their water conservation efforts. But communities may also be competing against each other for development, and builders will be waiting for the state or local governments to undertake costly investments in water recycling, storm runoff capture, or desalination.

In California, agriculture uses up to 80 percent of the water diverted for human uses, but in 2021 produced only 1.5% of the state’s gross product (around 5% if one adds in related activities). That hardly seems efficient or fair, but it reflects how surface water rights are assigned in much of the arid American West. Farmers were among the first non-Indigenous settlers. Those with the earliest claims on the flow of surface water have the most senior rights — and will be among the last to face cutbacks as the crisis deepens.

Even so, farmers have faced cutbacks. Given the looming collapse of Colorado River supplies, for example, the federal Bureau of Reclamation is forcing the states that draw on it to cut their use of river water by 15% or more. Drought emergencies can override water rights, and so agriculture is an obvious target, but may be partly compensated. Of course, the states disagree on which should cut more. Almost certainly a legal mess will ensue.

Because working out cuts to water allocations is so divisive and painful, and politicians with good survival instincts try to stay above the fray. A water strategy announced over the summer by Governor Newsom does not mention much new pain, at least not overtly. Conservation standards will be tightened, but it will be up to local water providers to assure that the standards are met. The State Water Board will consider whether water rights holders should be subject to cuts, even in years in which a drought emergency has not been declared. And the deep-pocketed California taxpayer will pay for infrastructure.

For cities like Claremont, local enforcement of watering rules could obviously be stronger, but surcharges for water use in excess of baseline levels, as are already in place, assure universal access to water and provide some incentives to conserve.

Airing my own jaded reactions to the water crisis in the July 21 COURIER spurred our family to further action. We had already replaced two toilets and had shortened our showers. The big step was contacting a contractor to see how much it would cost to replace our last vestige of lawn with pavers, rocks, and native shrubs.

We are waiting for final word from the contractor but have applied for a turf replacement rebate from socalwatersmart.com. We understand that, although California may have some wet years, we face a hotter and drier future. Water will have to become more expensive before large-scale desalination is economical and we as a society get serious about conservation. Avoiding some of that cost, and doing the right thing, has swayed us to make the change sooner rather than later.

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

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