I do read the pro-water market pieces and I consistently have the same reaction. What would California look like after? What would it feel like, on a daily basis, after a water market is up and running? I live here and I want it to be nice. How would a water market transform us? I never get an answer with any specificity. This lengthy piece gives the following list of good things that would happen, after the water market gets going:
- prices would go up, creating an incentive to conserve
- new technologies for affordable water generation would be spurred
- consumers and businesses would make adjustments slowly
This piece isn’t even that explicit. The good result of a water market is:
- water will flow to its highest and best use, and (if I interpret a bit) more desal.
This piece implies that you’d reverse the problems caused by no-market, so presumably you’d no longer have weak pricing signals.
Again, you have to read for the implications in RAND’s proposal. With a good new market, the results would be that the price for water would represent its true value and that valuable trades would happen.
None of those is in any way helpful or precise. Before we put a market into action in California, what would the results look like? Here, I’ll make some up, for examples. (Truly, I have no real notion.)
- Irrigation districts in the south valley would sell to Bakersfield and local oil fields.
- Irrigation districts in Coachella would sell to San Diego, enough that San Diego could even grow avocados again.
- The only farmland left in California would be 2 million acres of sugar beets.
- California would produce nothing but solar cells and silicon chips for the next thirty years.
See, those are made-up examples of water market outcomes that I can ponder. Would I like living alongside that? Do I want that for my state? Telling me what would happen after a market is put in place allows me to decide: do I want to support putting a market in place? Water market advocates never do that, and certainly never with even regional-level or sector-level precision.
I don’t want to put words into others’ mouths, but I believe some water market advocates are advocating a process (a market is a process, not the result) specifically because they do not want to choose an outcome or make “winners and losers” explicit. Maybe they think that enough of people’s happiness is captured in purchasing behavior that they can assume a water market leads to the best outcome, whatever it produces. In that case, I would ask: is there any water market outcome that you wouldn’t want? Could there be an extreme water market outcome that wouldn’t be pleasant to live amidst? If the reductio ad adsurdum came to pass and a flexible fast water market meant that all of California’s agriculture became a 3 million acre monoculture of tree nuts, farmed by neo-feudal agribusiness, would you like driving past that on the 5 and 99? From that answer, I’d establish whether the market advocate felt there is any role for values in making water allocation decisions.
If there is any role for values in establishing the bounds of a water market, then we shouldn’t be mucking around with an incredibly powerful process without first establishing to some rough accuracy what we’d get when the process is done. I’m not asking for details at the zip code level, but I do want far more than the vague bullshit in the pro-market reform papers. A water market would transform the state I love, so I want to know what this market would transform it into.