Selling Out California’s Water

Read our response to Wayne Lusvardi’s criticism of this essay.

Selling Out California’s Water
Central Valley Water Project Contract Renewal is a Big Giveaway

By Peter H. Gleick

Note: This piece was originally published by the Sacramento Bee on 2/25/05.

The federal government is on the verge of destroying for decades any chance of peacefully and economically solving California’s water problems.

Unless the governor and our U.S. representatives intervene immediately, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation will push through new long-term contracts to provide heavily subsidized water to a small number of powerful irrigation districts at the expense of California’s cities, family farmers, environment and economy.

The decisions are being made behind closed doors, with little or no public input or scrutiny. The consequences will be perpetuating waste and inefficiency, worsening conflict among water users and accelerating ecological destruction.

For the past 50 years, federal water policy has encouraged a few farmers to consume vast quantities of California’s water. The water delivered by the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), built for and paid for by taxpayers, is sold for pennies on the dollar. The price doesn’t even cover the project’s operating and maintenance costs, much less the cost of building it. This might have made sense when the West was young, but in the 21st century, we know that such subsidies encourage the waste of water, lead to the production of surplus crops and hurt, rather than help, job growth and our economy.

Yet those original contracts are about to be renewed without the reforms or price increases needed to account for the new reality of water scarcity. According to a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the cost to taxpayers of renewing these subsidies is at least $500 million over the next 10 years. In some cases, the new contracts offer water that may not be reliably available to irrigation districts that cannot prove they will actually use it.

We can, and should, support a healthy and strong agricultural sector in the state but without the waste and inefficiency encouraged by these federal subsidies. We know that heavily subsidized water is wasted. This is as true in California – where we grow crops that can be grown more efficiently elsewhere – as it is in India or China or the Middle East, where inappropriate subsidies are leading to groundwater depletion and contamination and the destruction of ecosystems.

The use of 1,000 acre-feet of water in California produces 9,000 jobs in the semiconductor industry, 2,500 jobs in commercial offices, 35 jobs in grape and wine production – but only three jobs growing cotton. The use of one acre-foot of water by the semiconductor industry produces gross state revenue of nearly $1 million; one acre-foot of water used to grow cotton and alfalfa produces just $60.

This is another example of the federal government burdening California employers and taxpayers and worsening our water challenges. It has shunted onto state taxpayers the costs of fixing California Bay-Delta water problems that were caused in no small part by inappropriate federal projects built over the past century. Now, these new contracts will take water owned by Californians and use it as political patronage.

The governor and our elected representatives in Washington must step in to protect California’s interests, minimize taxpayers’ costs and maximize economic growth.

If the federal government pushes these contracts to satisfy special interests, they must be limited to a single renewal, as required by law. The contracts must not give away water not reliably available or truly needed. The price of water must reflect the true costs of building and operating projects as well as the costs of providing that water in order to encourage those few subsidized farmers to use water efficiently and effectively.

These are the only ways to protect our critical supplies of freshwater for now and for the future.

Peter H. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, a MacArthur Fellow and a member of the Water Science and Technology Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.