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I can tell when someone gets their California agriculture hot takes from popular media, because it's always almonds.

Half of California water (period, not agricultural water, water) use is for growing alfalfa to feed to cattle. An industry where we have no comparative advantage, unlike almonds. But the water is cheap.

California almond production could also be a great deal more frugal, Israelis use about 1/20th the water per almond. Their big innovation is buried irrigation, California almond ranchers spray water on the ground and it mostly just evaporates. But water is cheap.

Abolish the water rights system and auction the water at a reasonable price. Almonds would stay, alfalfa would diminish or disappear.

But "conversion of water into money" aka farming is good. People like to eat.




And the alfalfa is exported to Saudi Arabia, which is effectively water export. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/25/california-w...


99.995% of the water use to grow alfalfa ends up in the local atmosphere, to go wherever the winds and/or diffusion takes it presumably eventually coming back out as rain or dew somewhere.

Only 0.005% ends up actually in the alfalfa to be exported to wherever the exported alfalfa goes.

Similar for almonds. I don't know the exact amount, but an upper limit is 0.03% of the water exported with the almond, and 99.97% left behind in the local atmosphere or local ground. That upper limit comes from counting the entire mass of the almond as water.

There are legitimate grounds to criticize growing high water usage crops in regions that do not have enough water naturally, but exporting water is not one of them.


The issue here isn't physically exporting the water but exporting the externality. It's like investing in a heavily polluting industry is "exporting pollution" - the product itself contains trace of the pollution, but the local damage was done on behalf of the product.

I mean, once used this water ain't getting back to the aquifer anytime soon! If it were, we wouldn't be talking about aquifer depletion and there wouldn't be any concern regarding its use.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overdrafting


I'm sorry but moving ground water from below the surface to the local atmosphere means you are taking a limited resource and removing it from the area. In California, a desert landscape, evaporated water does not turn into local rain.


I don't think the atmosphere is as "local" as you imply (diffusion of the water molecules should spread them out of state far faster than they can condense in-state).


This is the other perfect example I couldn't find a link quick enough. This is for all intents Saudi sucking up water and putting it on a ship to cross the world, because they depleted their sources. Let's generate some more greenhouse gases to accelerate the temp increases.


> Abolish the water rights system and auction the water at a reasonable price.

This is a good idea but tough to do. Prior appropriation claims are legally considered vested property rights.

A good start would be to change the rules in order to make the rights much more transferable. By Coarse’s theorem that should get you to much the same place. The money going to ex-farmers forever is a tough pill to swallow but better that than the status quo.


We have a very similar problem in Texas. A vast, vast majority of water use (something like 85-90%) in Central Texas is diverted to grow rice, an obviously completely unsustainable crop in Texas given the climate. The farmers, as in California, believe that since they were there first they are entitled to the water and fight tooth and nail any time that someone threatens their usage.

Perhaps some agreement that made the water rights expire on death of the farmer would be a compromise that no one would be happy with but possibly stomachable for everyone. Farmers would not get to ensure the livelihood of their children and the rest of Texas would have to wait 40 years, but it could be done without disrupting the current status quo too much.


I’m not an expert on the subject but I don’t think Texas is in as much of a bind as California.

There are two main water regulation systems in the US: riparian (eastern) and prior appropriation (western).

There’s are lots of variations and details but at a very high level the riparian system does not create vested property rights in water and so can be freely tweaked by the government. Prior appropriation, on the other hand, does create vested property rights which are then protected by the 14th amendment. This makes reform much more difficult.

Texas, being Texas, has an oddball hybrid system. My understanding is that it uses prior appropriation as an allocation method but riparian (state ownership) as a theoretical underpinning. Thus the Texas government should be able to modify the system without running afoul of the 14th amendment.


A lot of us in the hills around Austin are putting in rooftop rainwater systems — we expect at-the-well metering in the next 10 years. Most of us are on grades, and a 1500’ footprint lets you put in 20k gallon system under the house — that amortizes to about 4 months of water, depending the family size. Shipping water from LBJ is a cheap stopgap.


My impression was that rice cultivation in TX was started by the Japanese around Beaumont. Is the situation with water or irrigation any better over there? Edit: TIL about William Goyens http://mms.winnsboroisd.org/ourpages/auto/2015/1/16/60439582...


We had a Problem out here in central New Mexico, a foreign investor (external to US, I think it was people in Italy) sought permits to drill very deep wells. At the time, the state of New Mexico technically stopped water rights at some crazy depth, like 3000 feet or more, but anything beyond that was unregulated.

This sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, tailor-made for the ranchers and farmers who control the water. I will try to dig up references...

But just like T. Boone Pickens buying up water rights in Texas, open markets for water don't solve the fact that the American West is out of water, and no amount of legal entitlement is going to create any.


There’s enough water for everything except agriculture. Local governments hide the ball on this, talking about toilets, pools, and even glasses of drinking water in restaurants but it’s almost entirely agricultural. To the great-grandparent poster’s point not even mostly high value agriculture like almonds but barely-profitable-even-with-free-water alfalfa agriculture.

The status quo is insane and is exactly the sort of thing that could be fixed by a price mechanism. People get scared because they think that they aren’t going to be able to flush their toilets, but water is priced in acre-feet. Any personal use will easily outbid agriculture without being at all noticeable to even poor individuals.


> Any personal use will easily outbid agriculture without being at all noticeable to even poor individuals.

Like radio spectrum bandwidth, a limited resource. Unlike bandwidth, availability is not fixed or guaranteed, and no human agency can make it so.

I have written pages of stuff, trying sort this out. I don't see how a market can create water.

In the Dust Bowl, ranchers were given a fixed price for each head of livestock, slaughtered the cattle. It was a shock, a sudden phase change, and smallholders were bankrupt.

But even then, the state didn't sell water futures: they liquidated the cattle. They didn't claim the water would return.


Don’t need to sell futures, a spot market is good enough. And there’s plenty of water for personal use, even in the driest places. There’s no shortage of water if we put everyone on the same footing and have action. Low value agriculture in the deserts will stop which is exactly as it should be.


Agreed, if it was easy it would have been done already. I’d be interested in case studies comparing the implementation details from other countries that shad to face this challenges earlier (eg Australia).

Regarding your concrete proposal - that seems like a purely free-market proposal that accepts that farmers should be able to capture all of the value from appreciation in their water rights over time. I imagine that would be politically difficult; at the other end of the spectrum is to say that the water rights should never have been sold and that it is a public good.

I would say that while I think a market on water prices would fix the problems with wasteful usages, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to support a market on water rights allocation, since there are other uses other than agriculture. But maybe the transfer liberalization program you suggest would just be within existing agricultural uses?

I did see an article a while back that was discussing micro-metering which allowed farmers to sell slices of their allocation - seems like there is a technical challenge here as well.

I expect the actual process of water right reforms in CA will be messy and tilt mostly towards the farmers, as there is no focused special interest group to fund lobbyists against theirs.


I don’t think it’s about being easy, I think it’s about political will. Based on some of these comments from folks from Texas, and California, why aren’t you running for office to change these things?


Regarding your concrete proposal - that seems like a purely free-market proposal that accepts that farmers should be able to capture all of the value from appreciation in their water rights over time. I imagine that would be politically difficult; at the other end of the spectrum is to say that the water rights should never have been sold and that it is a public good.

It’s not a matter of what I think ought to be the case or ought to have happened. It’s how to solve the problem at hand given the legal constraints that exist.

It’s possible those precedents could be overturned and open up the policy space, but given the current make up of the Supreme Court I think that’s unlikely to happen in the next few decades.


It seems that you’re making a claim about what policies are possible; I don’t have enough domain knowledge here to disagree.

My point was just that If most voters are opposed to your solution, it won’t happen - even if that means nothing happens and we maintain the broken status quo - regardless of whether it is the only way forward within our current legal framework. In other words, noting that while it sounds viable from a raw economics perspective, it might hit problems with voter acceptability. And voters do care about what “aught to have happened”, for better or worse.


I would never bet against the crappy status quo lasting indefinitely because voters would rather stamp their feet than face reality as it is and pick the least bad choice.


On the other hand couldn’t the government choose to use eminent domain, regulate how water can be used, or even divert the water entirely?


Yes, but they’d have to cut big checks to the existing rights holders.


The government doesn’t need to write me a check when they rezone my property and block future construction.


That’s because the Supreme Court said that’s not a taking except in extreme cases. See Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 544 U.S. 528 (2005) for the current state of the law on regulatory takings.


Which should open the door for regulating agricultural water use in California right? If California mandated that crops requiring more than X water per acre couldn’t be grown would that be a taking?


I don’t know if you could pass a law exactly like that, but it’s a good point that California could attack the problem from the other direction—-keep water law as is but squeeze the companies farming the desert using other parts of its regulatory toolkit.


Aye I’d also imagine that it is within the current legal framework to “tax” water property/rights in accordance with the allotment. It would be easy enough to exclude residential zoned water allotments from the taxes to avoid taxing drinking water.


> This is a good idea but tough to do. Prior appropriation claims are legally considered vested property rights.

Re-nationalize them or at the very least make them expire in 10 to 20 years. The current developments are serious enough to justify taking these "rights" away.


Under current case law if you nationalized (state-ized?) water rights in a prior appropriation state it would be a kind of eminent domain and there’d have to be compensation.


Eminent domain followed by an automatic lease for the value of the rights over whatever period these things are valued at? Would that work?

Farmers could quit farming and sell their rights by the year.


I don’t follow the automatic lease part of your proposal, sorry.


To avoid having to directly pay out to the owners of the property the state can lease the water rights back to the farmers. This way everyone’s unhappy but we escape the status quo and aging farmers could live off the water rights.


I see. You use the time value of money to reduce the total cost by giving back the near term years and only “really” buying from x years out. Clever!


What’s more valuable, water, or cash?


Sure that’s the right plan but who’s going to do it? Remember that there is no Left in the USA.


Conversion of fossil water that will be gone if we keep going is not good. People in the future like to eat too.


Or tax water at 0.25 cents per gallon.

Someone buying 8 oz at the airport won’t notice.

Water is scarce because in a lot of cases water is free


Eight bucks just for the water to draw a bath? No thanks.

Residential and city use is a) a drop in the proverbial bucket (20% of California water use) and b) comes from a completely different system. For the most part it's drawn from snowmelt in the Sierras, and even when drought gets pretty bad it's been sustainable. Fingers crossed it will stay that way.

Really it's farmers who should pay for water, and hard limits on aquifer withdrawal. They'll hate it but there's not enough to go around and I don't see an alternative.

Also worth pointing out that California is an enormous place and what applies to the Central and Imperial Valleys doesn't apply to, say, the San Joaquin Delta. There's no good reason to stop growing rice in the latter, because the acre-feet of water which go into doing so are just going to flow directly into the Bay otherwise.

Maybe we could pay for more of it to be diverted into the Central Valley if there was some sort of profit in it. Water auctions, say.


If you use 3,200 per bath you should be in jail. That is seriously a ridiculous waste of water per bath.

That’s years worth of baths for most people - average cost per bath at 0.25 cents per gallon would be 7 cents.

Realize farmers use water measured in ACRE feet


They misread 0.25 cents as $0.25 or 25¢


An unfortunate reality is that a lot of signage also makes this mistake and advertises things like "0.25 cents per gallon" with the intent to mean 25¢/gallon. The poster's confusion is understandable.



Ahh - that helps


> Eight bucks just for the water to draw a bath? No thanks.

That's the cost of living in a desert.


It’s a made up number - no one normal uses this much water in a bath


They pretty clearly confused 0.25 cents with $0.25


Yep that's what happened.

In my defense, it's common "greengrocerese" to list a price that way. If limes are shown as "0.10¢ ea." on a handwritten card, you're not getting ten for a penny.

I still think taxing residential water is irrelevant, and that the difference between buying water at auction from the state and paying a tax for that water to the state, is that auction is better because price discovery tends to be.


The idea here is to set what appears to be a ridiculously low tax that applies to everyone. No carvouts so reduces arguments about fairness.

This highlight the large water uses (usually free in the millions of gallons).

If you aren't willing to say a gallon of water is worth a quarter of a penny - then we can usually stop talking about any supposed shortages. Retail / urban water use (ie, a bottle of water at the store, often 1/8th of a gallon - this tax is irrelevant obviously) already is wildly higher in cost than the "free" groundwater and river water folks are using.


I always find it amazing how bottled water is seen as terrible yet bottles of pop/soda is never spoken about.

Pop is 90% to 99% water and far worse for people than just water even the diet types.


I think the answer is that there is no other reasonable way to deliver pop/soda besides bottles. Whereas we have infrastructure for water delivery.

I'm a big bottled water drinker, but if I had to make an argument for why bottled water makes less sense than pop/soda, that would be it.


Even in the most water efficient cities people use 40 gallons per day. You're talking $10 per person per day just for water. A family of four would spend at least $1,200 per month on water. Even desalination is way cheaper than 25 cents per gallon.


I think OP wrote .25¢/gallon, not 25¢/gallon.


40 gallons per day, aka roughly 180L. How would I even use that much water? My estimate for own use gets to about 120L, with fairly pessimistically high values:

20L /toilet flush, x 3

30L /shower,

5L /dishes,

20L /laundry x ~ 0.2

1L for drinking

What in the world would I need to drain another 40L / 8 gallons into?


The dirt-cheap clothes washing machine in our apartment was much appreciated, but easily ran 30+ gallons per load of laundry.

I replaced it with a washer that uses less than a third of that. The kids would generate a 5 loads of laundry per week, and my suggestions that we use less were... not well received.

The other fixtures here are very nicely maintained, a great landlord, but the plumbing is 40 years old. While it's no longer possible to purchase a toliet that uses four gallons per flush, they are still everywhere.

Legislation? Tighter ordinances? Good luck getting those passed, or enforced. And however necessary, the replacement of antiquated plumbing appliances amount to extremely regressive taxation: those with the least money would bear most of the financial cost.


Own a property with a lawn or garden.


Sounds like the easiest solution to that is to do-away with non-native plants (i.e. Kentucky bluegrass, which could be considered an invasive species in North America) and do something more along the lines of what the OP did in this Reddit post*[0], a wildflower alternative of all-native plants (and although it's only a small section this year, OP claims their parents have expressed interest in expanding it). It requires basically zero maintenance, and is incredibly beneficial to the local environment.

[0]: https://redd.it/oph88p

*It's pointed out a few times that only a few of the plants are local native species, many aren't North American at all.


"Solutions" like these make me laugh. How is renovating the yard of essentially every urban/suburban home in North America even a remotely easy solution? This actually sounds like basically the hardest solution because the only way to make it happen is by passing laws that absolutely nobody is willing to pass.


A lot of public policy work is figuring out how to achieve a certain goal without directly mandating a particular action.

For example, what if water wasn't billed at a flat rate? Each building could have an allotment based on size and expected occupancy. One rate within that amount, and a higher rate for each unit over it. Calculate the level such that essential water usage is affordable and watering a large lawn becomes a luxury.

I doubt that exact plan is workable without further elaboration; the law of unintended consequences is powerful. But the point is that "we should have more sustainable landscaping" doesn't necessarily equate directly to "ban all grass".


If you pour eight gallons of water on your lawn daily you deserve to pay out of your nose for it.


Yeah... in any conversation about how to preserve and protect our water, lawns will be the 1st thing to go. And good riddance too! They are utterly useless.


I live in an apartment and use 1750 gallons a month.


$0.10 per day. Which is fine.


Water would cost $12 per month which is fair and lower than almost all existing urban water costs . A corner store sells water for $$ per gallon. The tax on a bottle would be small fraction of a penny


The question I have is do we need the volumes of water intensive crops? When a large portion of those crops are exported, is it any different than bottling water and exporting it?


Alfalfa is a rotation crop. No one grows alfalfa for the sake of selling it as feed. They grow it so they can grow something that makes money a year or two later without destroying their soil.


In that case, one should add the water consumption of growing the alfalfa to that of growing the cash crop directly, and similarly add whatever value (monetarily or otherwise) the alfalfa has to that of the cash crop - in other words, consider them together as a unit of production.

I have no idea whether this results in a currently-justifiable practice, but it is a simple fact that change is going to be forced on agriculture (and all of us, as its dependents), one way or another.


Citation?

This seems to directly contradict your claim: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/mar/08...


I know lots of people who grow only alfalfa out here. Some are family members. They sell it as feed, or rent out a field.

Small farms. Less than 600 acres. Not much water, here.


My grandpa was from a similar area (the Tulelake basin), and before they had trouble with water rights, alfalfa was exclusively a rotation crop, but you are correct that when water becomes scarce, that it falls into a category of the only thing that can grow reliably. California is not a truly water scarce place kind of place--water is just political these days.


That's not the case at all. Some fields remain alfalfa for long periods of time and it's a very lucrative crop.


I don't know what regions you're referring to, but my family gets $75/acre rent on their land when their lessees plant alfalfa and $300/arce when they plant potatoes. In the Central Valley, they can grow even better crops than potatoes.


S.W. US (Arizona and New Mexico).

Field remain alfalfa for many years at a time. More cuttings then in other parts of the country also.


Conversion of water into money is arbitrary; people need to eat.

Food isn’t a luxury. It’s a biological necessity and it need not be coupled to financial markets. We’ll grow food because we must.

Remember; fiscal economics were sold to a dumber general public by then poorer educated, yet rich, men.

Anyone clinging to their ways as an economic philosophy is effectively letting people who hadn’t come up with indoor plumbing dictate who we are.


You can just use less water hungry crops for that, would also greatly reduce the risks of a drought. The reason it isn't done now is that water hungry crops pays better and farmers doesn't pay the real cost of the water.


Ok and what's the plan when California's groundwater is depleted?


That’s up to the people occupying California at the time.

Humanity is doomed. I’m not saying we should accelerate it by leaning into YOLO.

But along with accepting our own personal mortality we might consider it’s time to socially accept our species mortality.

We don’t need to solve this problem right now and any work towards a solution isn’t guaranteed to last beyond our lifetimes, for numerous reasons outside our control.

Science provides the best model for understanding what economic activity our environment can sustain. Maybe it’s time to be the exceptional and gritty people we tell stories about being and rather than solve California’s eventual problem, try to hold it off by reducing or eliminating markets for bullshit.

Or we can pretend we’ll engineer our way out of a problem we have no idea how much time we really have to solve and cross our fingers like it’s a football game and feudal market economics thinking we’re simulating chaotic reality when it’s obvious political collusion and protectionism are occurring.

I wonder which way we’ll go


Feels weird to invoke the Lindy Effect on Hacker News, but here we are.

The general premise (and Taleb didn't come up with this) is that for a phenomenon with no natural lifespan, you should assume you're halfway through its actual lifespan.

Biologically modern humans are about 100,000 years old, so I put our tombstone at 102021 A.D.

Now that could be wrong... in either direction! But I'm inclined to plan for the future such that we're as comfortable as we can be for the next hundred millennia.


Seems presumptuous you would know what comfort means to humans in 100 millennia.

All while ignoring the discomfort millions within your own country experience today.

How nice of you to white knight for a future you won’t be around to witness and ignore reality as it is now.

I suppose reality now is too hard. May as well just keep going as you are and cross your fingers it matters in “100 millennia”.

That’s some self aggrandizing nonsense.

I have no respect for my countrymen. Still lost to imaginings of forever life. Even the ones who should know better.


> Abolish the water rights system and auction the water at a reasonable price.

If you put a price on water, then soon enough, commercial interest will figure out that you can put a price on any water. Then they'll figure out that the price of water should be at the equilibrium of supply and demand. Then for those for whom the water will be too expensive will have to be subsidized, then in the end society will pay a private company to have access to water. Moreover, the externalities will still be uncounted.

Water is a right, not a product. Like air.

Create laws to manage it in a reasonable way. For example, prioritize local production over exported production (either through taxes or by subsidizing), make sure soils capture water correctly by helping farmers to handle their soil differently, use water quotas (do we need those 10 cuber meters of water for a swimming pool or for agriculture?), etc.

Sounds like communism ? Sure. But water is a common.


I disagree. I think agricultural water is the perfect use case for a market. Perhaps this is just semantics, but I don’t think you can make an absolute water right; it’s scarce, and farmers are not guaranteed as much water as they want, nor are homeowners guaranteed a right to water their lawns in a drought. Markets are a good way of prioritizing allocation of scarce resources.

But I think it’s sensible to have a high-level allocation where first we make sure that there is enough water for people to drink, and if you want to call that your “water right” then I’m on board.

We also allocate a bunch of water to recreational and conservation/wildlife purposes, and again I wouldn’t want to auction off all of the national parks of course.

But within the (very large) remainder that we allocate to productive usages, I see no reason to get in the way of the invisible hand. If almonds are higher yield than alfalfa then we should not divert water from almonds to alfalfa. A liquid (pardon the pun) market would make these allocations more efficient.


How would you protect any other mechanisms from being gamed to an even higher degree of inequality without using crushing force?


+1 exactly right. If we had to pay the real cost of beef, there would be much less eaten. The amount the the US taxpayer gives each year to the beef industry is staggering. Down with beef industry socialism - make them compete on the open market.




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