Posted under government
In an unsurprising court decision, a judge has just ruled that taking millions of gallons of water out of rivers is harmful to the fish that live in them. According to the SF Chronicle, “it was the latest in a string of rulings ordering state and federal regulators to fix a water system that supplies millions of Californians with water but is all but dysfunctional when it comes to protecting fisheries and the environment.” That’s good, but now the question is, what are we gonna do about it. The biggest problem here isn’t the wasteful water use of city suburbanites with their big lawns, nor the water-wasting personal habits of just about everyone, it’s the wasteful use in agriculture. California farmers grow water-intensive crops in the desert, use extremely inefficient irrigation practices, and just generally treat water as if it is abundant in a state where it isn’t. Farmers pay very little for water, which is provided via a highly subsidized water system (and the groundwater they pump isn’t even measured, much less billed) so they have almost no economic incentive to conserve.
As with carbon dioxide emissions, the best approach to resolving the problem includes simply charging more: we need a tax for water that “internalizes” the cost of environmental harm, just like we need a gas tax for the same reason. In either case, this needn’t increase the total tax burden: in the case of agricultural water, they could charge each farmer for the water he uses, and then refund all of the money by sending every farmer a check proportional to the number of acres of crops. This would transfer money from farmers who use a lot of water to those who don’t, and provide a powerful incentive to use less water. The fee could start small and gradually ramp up over five or six years, to give farmers a chance to install new irrigation systems and switch to less water-intensive crops. I’m dreaming, though: the agriculture lobby is way too strong for this to fly.