Free Market Needed to Solve Water Rights Problems

Article excerpt

In the central valleys of California, farmers pay as little as $10 to irrigate an acre of cotton.

A few hundred miles away in Los Angeles, local authorities pay as much as $600 for the same amount of water - roughly a year's supply for three families.

To residents of the rapidly growing desert cities of the Southwest, such gaping disparities in the price of water are symbols of farmers' greed and privilege. But to the Environmental Defense Fund, the most economically sophisticated environmental lobby, the big price differences represent an opportunity.

They are evidence, argues Tom Graff, the fund's legal counsel, that urban water demands can be met at little cost to agriculture or to the environment. What's needed, he argues, is a free market in water rights, giving farmers a financial stake in water conservation.

California seems to be running out of affordable, environmentally benign sources of water.

- Many of the state's rivers are already dammed.

- Underground aquifers are overtaxed.

- So much water has been diverted from streams entering San Francisco Bay that salt water is backing into surrounding marshes and farmland.

Adding to Californians' anxieties, Arizona will soon reclaim its right to Colorado River water now keeping lawns green for some 500,000 families in the Los Angeles sprawl.

Look more closely, though, and it is clear there would be plenty to go around from existing sources if water were used more efficiently. Just 17 percent of California's water is used by urban residents. Much of the remaining 83 percent is wasted by farmers who have no incentive to conserve.

Take, for example, the Imperial Irrigation District. Its 1,600 miles of canals distribute Colorado River water to 450,000 acres of alfalfa, vegetables and sugar beets.

Lining the 90-year-old earthen canals with concrete, and drilling wells to recapture seepage, would replace almost half the water to be diverted to Arizona. Simple changes in individual farmers' irrigation methods, plus retirement of marginally productive land, might save enough to replace the other half.

Why has it not happened?

While much cheaper than taming and transporting river water, conservation is not free. And as long as they have enough water to irrigate their own crops, farmers have little incentive to save water that costs them just 3 cents for a thousand gallons.

State and federal authorities provide the water at incredibly low prices. Could they not insist on a reasonable conservation effort?

Southern California's Metropolitan Water District is willing to pay for lining the All-American Canal, which links the Colorado with the Imperial Valley, in return for rights to all the water saved. …