The Atlantic is running Lustgarten’s detailed piece on a hedge fund manager brokering water sales. I appreciated getting a specific example of the phenomenon that I described here. I wrote that individual farmers acting independently in a market are the wrong scale to be making water use decisions. Water infrastructure needs a support base. Individual farmers selling water away will crash their whole district.
Orville Tomky … tried to resist as the pressure mounted. “My wife every night at supper would say, ‘When are we going to sell the rest of that Twin Lakes water so we can have a lot more money?’ ” he told me. One night he divided up the water rights, giving 20 shares to each of his four children, five shares to each of his five grandchildren, and 30 shares to his wife. Selling the shares put some of the kids through graduate school, gave them down payments for their own homes, and paid for a family ski lodge in the mountains.
Eventually, though, Crowley County passed a point of no return. With so much water gone, the empty irrigation ditches didn’t work; one lonely farmer at the end of the run would see all his water soaked up by the soil long before it ever reached his farm. And with fewer and fewer farmers around to share the expense of maintaining the ditch systems, the cost kept rising. Farmers had little choice but to sell, and all but 11 in the county did. The place literally dried up.
Market advocates say that the market is less coercive than a guvmint Stalin, but in practice, farmers felt plenty coerced.
An intentional program of reallocating water could be based on social criteria. It could protect small towns, choosing instead to close the farms of the 1%. It could choose to protect acreage that grows truck crops for Californian consumption instead of luxury food exports. It could decide based on the engineering elegance of the irrigation district infrastructure. It could choose based on the potential for retired land to become wildlife habitat. A state that foresees decreased water supplies from climate change and publicly decides what it values could prevent shit like this:
Kneeling in his driveway changing a truck tire last summer, Tomky’s son-in-law Matt Heimerich recalled what the town had lost. Though tens of millions of dollars in water rights were sold, few of the proceeds were reinvested in the community, he said. One by one, families moved away. The tomato and sugar factories shut down, and without goods to ship, the railroad stopped sending trains through town. Ordway’s car dealerships closed, and the tractor store went bankrupt. As though someone had pulled a bottom block out from a Jenga tower, Crowley County fell into an inexorable collapse.
“I couldn’t have eaten enough Prozac,” Heimerich said.
One could view Crowley’s loss as an inevitable part of the larger downturn in American farming—and a justifiable reallocation of resources. Crowley County was itself diverting water from the Colorado River system, after all, under a legal system that encouraged waste. But the people still living in Crowley point to the green fields in adjacent counties, and say the water sales killed their towns. Of the 60,000 acres once farmed there, about 4,000 produce crops today. Ordway’s Main Street is a procession of boarded-up buildings.
It may be that Crowley’s loss is the least-harmful choice. But making a choice and planning for transition for the town would be kinder than letting individuals twist in the market.
I have said that climate change will force the retirement of about three million acres of ag land by mid-century. I would like to emphasize that retiring three million acres of Californian irrigated ag is not my policy preference. It is my prediction. My policy preferences are all about how that land will go out of production. We should choose the ag we want to protect and support, including with water.