Paying for water – Ducks don’t have pockets but Hollywood does

By Tim Johnson

Lately its been offered that water in California should go to the highest bidder. After all, it is argued, the free market is an efficient way to allocate this increasingly scarce and highly valuable resource. Economists to political writers have advanced this perspective as a perfect answer to our most vexing problem.

There are a number of limitations that come with this solution. First, it assumes that big money should win in a drought. Few things are less seemly than the moneyed coming out whole while those with less suffering the most. Taken to its extreme, this position supports the big lawns and manicured landscapes of Beverly Hills and Malibu, as long as they have the most money to buy water. One look at headlines in papers across the state and it is clear that society rightly questions the excesses of the privileged at the expense of the everyman.

The second, and most troublesome, problem with the ‘money takes all’ solution to water allocation is that ducks don’t have pockets. How is the wildlife that uses water, often in agricultural lands such as rice and alfalfa here in the Sacramento Valley, ever going to compete in a purely economic market for water? It can’t.

There is no case where environmental water is regularly purchased by the state for the benefit of any species fish or fowl. Instead, water for environmental uses is subtracted from both urban and agricultural users as water contracts are reevaluated. Money doesn’t change hands because there simply isn’t enough.

Often, as with rice lands, water used to grow a crop also provides environmental benefits. The shallow flooded rice fields of the Sacramento Valley provide habitat in the spring for nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. These same lands provide 60 percent of the food for the millions of ducks and geese that migrate into the region each fall. All told, some 230 species have been catalogued using rice at some point during the year.

In total, the dollar value of the habitat provided by rice is greater than the crop itself. This annual $2 billion in habitat is available not because anyone paid for it but as a complimentary result of farming.

So what happens when high value crops or even higher paying urban users buy up all this water?

The simple ability to pay the most leaves many on the outside looking in on the California garden party where tall glasses of iced water are quaffed and chatter about the bothersome drought prevails.


Tim Johnson, CRC President & CEO