CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : We Can Have What We Value Most

<i> Marc Reisner is author of "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water," (Viking). </i>

Growing rice in California seems to be the height of absurdity. It’s a monsoon-climate crop raised in a region that’s lucky to get 18 inches of rain. It doesn’t have to grow in standing water, although California growers say that their variety, which is craved by the Japanese, does. There would be little rice grown in California if it weren’t for cheap water and free river regulation offered by Shasta Dam--and, on top of that, government price supports. One grower recently told a television interviewer that it costs him 10 cents a pound to raise rice, which the world market then values at 3 cents a pound.

But the last thing Californians should do is eliminate the rice crop. We should shrink it, but never eliminate it. Because of its hardpan soils, much of the Sacramento Valley can’t raise any other crop; if you took out too much rice acreage, you could, quite literally, create ghost towns. Also, the rice crop is extremely important to the state’s overwintering waterfowl, which have declined, just within the past 40 years, from at least 40 million birds to fewer than 5 million.

What we could do is pay the rice growers a lot of money to reduce their acreage somewhat, send some of the conserved water to thirsty cities and use the rest to flood rice fields after harvest rather than burning the residue, an obnoxious practice. Urban California needs more water, and ducks and geese starved from a 2,000-mile migration need to eat protein-rich invertebrates, which grow like a bumper crop in flooded, harvested fields.


The rice crop amounts to a special circumstance. What about the 900,000 acres of irrigated pasture that consumed nearly 4 million acre-feet of water in 1988--more than enough for all of Southern California? It takes about 5,400 gallons of water--or 45,000 pounds of water--to raise one pound of beef on irrigated California pasture.

On the other hand, if you value rural California, then you might value pasture, because it’s often the first type of farmland that’s eaten up by development.

How do we make such choices? Who decides what water, open land, wildlife and agriculture are worth in both economic and unmeasureable terms? You have to begin with water, because in an arid region it decides what everything else is worth. If it were a pure free-market commodity, cities would grow endlessly, agriculture would decline inexorably and nature would bid lowest and last. If enough people could stand the heat, and we managed to create enough jobs, California could end up as densely populated as Japan.

No one--not even most developers--wants that to happen. But it could. New dams--the usual answer to perceived water shortages--have become extraordinarily expensive to build. In California, that is emphatically the case, because most of our “undeveloped” water flows out to sea from the North Coast. In 1950, a plan to divert the Klamath River to Southern California was optimistically estimated to cost $3.3 billion. Today, it would cost at least six times more--if you could do it; the Klamath and its neighbor watersheds, the Eel and the Smith, have been anointed as national wild and scenic rivers.

As the drought continues, therefore, the pressure will build to create freer water markets and retire agricultural land. Desalination plants will be built, but buying agricultural water rights will be a lot cheaper. In Colorado, permanent water rights are selling for $2,000 an acre-foot; purified seawater is projected, probably with some optimism, to cost $1,900 per acre-foot per year. The farmers will try to resist as a bloc, but one by one the individual grower and district will sell out. The Owens Valley scenario may be revisited.

Californians must come to grips with how water affects everything in the state. Southern California unquestionably needs more, even if there is never another drought--but how much does it want? The drought may teach us an implausible lesson: that even here a shortage of water can constrain growth, as one community after another decides to limit the number of hookups permitted in a year.

In a capitalist democracy most decisions are based on economics. But values can mold economics to social ends. We value clean air, so we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on air pollution controls that, in the end, may not save that many lives. If we value farmland--good, high-quality coastal farmland that often stands in the path of urban growth--we can pay to preserve it. But only urban dwellers who need more land to expand, or think they do, can afford to pay.

If Southern Californians like the idea that, up in Northern California, there are still fifth-generation fishermen making their living from the sea, it is going to cost them money and water to keep the fisheries. Salmon spawn only in rivers--in rivers with plenty of cold water. If reservoirs are recklessly depleted during a drought, as they have been, the shallow waters make the rivers bath-warm and the salmon perish. But if we manage our water regime more conservatively and store more water for the inevitable next drought, then both fish and Southern California can benefit.

Most of California’s water-supply dams also control floods. If we keep those reservoirs at high levels for the sake of fish, or to avert Draconian rationing during droughts, then heavy storm runoff can cause destructive floods. One answer is to build smaller dams on flood-prone creeks so as to leave more storage capacity in the main reservoirs. By creating year-round flows in otherwise intermittent streams, such dams could actually do wildlife and fisheries some good.

North and south are linked by water now, whether we like it or not. If a huge earthquake collapses the Delta and the California Aqueduct fills with seawater, Northern California and the rest of the country may gloat--but as Southern California’s economy collapses under duress, it will take everyone else’s economy down with it.

Suppose, then, that in order to build a Peripheral canal, Southern California--which in this instance probably must include the San Joaquin Valley--agrees to divert no more water, on a 10-year average, than it does today? More impossible deals have been struck. Suppose Northern Californians help pay to retire salinity-plagued lands in the San Joaquin so the south doesn’t come back to Northern California’s watersheds with bucket in hand? Suppose the state creates a fund to pay farmers in the Upper Colorado Basin not to apply 20 feet of water to their alfalfa crop, so that more would be available to us--an arrangement that may demand revising the Colorado River compact?

These are all vexing, daunting, sometimes incredibly complex issues. But we had better start addressing them now, because otherwise we’ll lose interest when it begins to rain normally again and be in far worse shape when the inevitable next drought arrives.