I was startled at Dr. Gleick’s editorial in the Sac Bee saying that the PPIC report lets ag off the hook for solving California’s water scarcity. I get that Dr. Gleick’s complaint is that the PPIC report doesn’t emphasize agricultural water conservation enough. But my consistent, recurring thought as I read the PPIC report was “Oh man, ag is NOT gonna like that.” My read was that extracting water from ag was a consistent theme throughout the report, starting in the first paragraph of the Executive Summary.
The third sentence of the Executive Summary, right after ‘things are bad’ and ‘everyone wants more’ is:
At the same time, the state’s economy no longer depends as directly on water to generate wealth: agriculture, which still consumes the lion’s share of water, represents a small fraction of overall employment and economic output, and manufacturing accounts for only a small fraction of total water use.
This is not pro-ag sentiment; it goes straight to one of ag’s favorite myths, that they’re an economic powerhouse in the state. And if ag isn’t a big part of the economy, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing if the water they’re using now goes to other things. Other parts of the report echo that.
In chapter 7 (p 317-322), the report recommends putting both the reasonable use clause and the public trust doctrine to work. Under the heading “Reallocating Water for the Environment” they talk for ages about the two doctrines, and end up saying they are necessary “for responsive adaptation to changing conditions.” The writing is still a little soft, but the truth of the world isn’t. If we “reallocate water for the environment” it will come from ag, because it surely won’t come from urban. Five pages about how legal it is to do that is not pro-ag. (Page 328, on bringing pre-1914 rights and riparian rights into alignment with the rest of our rights system, is a direct challenge to one of ag’s sweeter deals.)
The PPIC report recommends a public goods charge. Right there on page 344, they write define it as “a volumetric charge on all surface and groundwater used in the state”. This is another measure that lands heavily on ag, because they use a great deal of water. Imagine a fee of $10/af-year. Urban households now use somewhat less than an acre-foot a year; that’ll go down in the next decade, but a public goods charge will cost a household $10 or less per year. Farmers use a great deal of water. If Stuart Woolf irrigates his entire 20,000 acre farm in Westlands, he’d buy 60,000 af/year, roughly. He would pay $600,000/year into the public goods fund for water. Recommending a volumetric public goods charge puts ag squarely on the hook for the water they use.
Several aspects of their governance recommendations are about extracting water from ag. Frankly, I think that’s the primary motivation behind a water market they talk about at length. They suggest directly compensating people (like farm laborers) who suffer third-party impacts from water leaving ag. I thought their recommendation to re-examine the lengths of ag water contracts from the projects (currently 40 years) was one of their most dramatic recommendations (page 372). I haven’t heard much chatter along those lines, so it is a pretty bold thought.
I understand Dr. Gleick’s complaint (more on that in the next post), but this is not a document that lets ag off the hook. The entire report is based on the premise that much less water will be used for ag. It discusses legal mechanisms to loosen the water rights of ag users. It provides governance mechanisms for arranging the flow of water out of ag. It proposes that ag pay big dollars to the public goods fund, in proportion to their big water use. The text of the report isn’t quite as direct as this post, but for all of these recommendations, all that is required to see the implications for ag is one more obvious interpretive step. I can’t imagine that ag likes the report any.