Water Deeply: You also plan to look at emotional distress related to drought. That isn’t easily quantified.
Schwabe: I think that’s what is going to be really unique about what we will tease out of this. Typically, economists have looked in the past at how the loss of social and economic resources impact health.
There are expectations about whether I’m going to have a job this summer or not, and what that means for my ability to put food on the table, or give my son or daughter resources to go to school. Those expectations can increase the stress levels within my system. Increases in stress can impact my bodily systems, maybe lower my immune system and add wear and tear both mentally and physically, which can lead to disease and death. We will look for cases where we don’t necessarily observe a change in the social or economic resources that have been available to people, but we still see health impacts. …
Water Deeply: What do you hope your research will lead to?
Schwabe: My first goal is to provide a little more light in terms of what are the relationships between adverse weather events and health. Secondly, if we do find the relationship, look at how it is influenced by water policy. …
Water Deeply: You have stated that you hope this research leads to a ‘new era of health policy.’ What do you mean by that?
Schwabe: Health is influenced by a whole range of other types of policies that end up being correlated with health or causing health impacts.
So when the State Water Resources Control Board or Department of Water Resources are thinking about water allocations, we want to make them aware, depending on the results of our study, whether their allocations will have impacts on not only agricultural production rates and fish mortality, but also on human health, and where the stressors or spikes might be that they might be able to address. So in that sense, bringing health policy into water policy – providing that evidence.
Look, I am glad for a comprehensive look at the public health effects of drought. I’d like to see more on mental health for ranchers especially. But the policy solution above is misguided. I fully acknowledge that people get anxious when faced with uncertainties and that anxiety has health effects. But California has a particularly variable climate, rapidly becoming more variable. Providing water will not be a resilient solution. If we decide to make policies to protect people in the farm economy from drought anxiety, the solution is to give them money in dry years.
Look at the chain of events that would be needed to alleviate this predicted form of anxiety. In a dry year, the State water agencies become aware that they have to make a trade-off between healthy working rivers and the health well-being of farmer and farmworkers. They weigh health impacts and choose to allocate more water to farmers (sacrificing something else that people value). Farmers then choose to farm, and maybe decide to hire the otherwise anxious people. (This doesn’t alleviate all the anxiety. The beginning of the planting season comes before the end of the wet season; two months of uncertainty are unavoidable.) This is
some trickle-down bullshita very attenuated chain of events.
You know what would really alleviate harmful anxiety over dry years? A program that predictably fallows land and pays people directly to retain the capacity to farm in the wet years. I argue for a core 4ish million acres (centered on the east side of the SJV and the Sac Valley) that always get farmed, with another million acres that gets farmed in normal years and another million acres to be farmed in wet years. The wet year acreage is purely speculative; I wouldn’t offer any drought-resiliency money to people on those land. But I bet it would reduce an awful lot of anxiety if farmworkers know that they’ll get cash money from California in years that are too dry to generate farm work.
The way to maintain health and resilience in our highly variable climate is to use wealth to buffer dry periods. Use money, not water, wherever possible.