Cadillac Desert is not a Bible

Froude Reynolds, obviously in an unusually grouchy mood, dropped off the following last week, clasting one of our favorite icons:

In the abstract, Dr. Zetland’s suggestion that urban water rates be “set by the market instead of by water districts” has a lot of merit: to a first approximation, the user willing to pay the most for any commodity is likely to create the most value with it. However, the concept is much too simply stated for the current realities of California, partly because Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert was so good in 1986 that its lessons have congealed in the minds of the semi-informed while the world has changed a lot. The

comments on those blogs are especially misinformed.. If all your information about California water comes from Cadillac Desert, you will probably say things like the following, and you will be mistaken:

1. Agriculture uses 80% of the developed water in California, so they just need to save a little and everything is fixed!

2. Agriculture pays practically nothing for water, so they let water run off the fields!

3. It is ridiculous to grow rice and alfalfa in the desert! Cotton is triply subsidized and should be immediately stopped.

1. The split between urban, ag and environmental water averages 20:40:40. But that average doesn’t mean a lot, because we don’t have a lot of average years. The ag/urban split changes a lot depending on how much water is available. In very wet years, water managers beg agriculture to take flood waters and spread it on their fields. In that case, an 80/20 split (or a 99/1 split) is a feature. In very dry years like this one, farmers get about thirty percent of what they need and are watching their crops die in their fields. They are triaging, hoping to save their orchards. I don’t know when the concept that ag uses 80% got lodged in everyone’s mind, but remember that the urban population of California has added ten million people since Cadillac Desert was written, that judges rededicated one-third of our developed water to the Delta in the past couple years, and that ag has lost about a million irrigated acres (from 10 million to 9 million) in the past twenty years.

2. Two things here, the first a technical note. Water, like coal, diamonds, and gold, is free: no-one makes it, it’s just there, falling from the sky or sitting underground. What the cost of water represents is the economic resources needed to get it to where someone wants to use it, mostly pumping and for urban water, cleaning and purifying. To get it to agricultural land is much, much cheaper than to get it to your tap pure enough to drink.

Second, and more relevant, very few ag districts pay the type of rates that were common when Cadillac Desert was written. Their contract rates went up drastically, and now they pay additional environmental fees. Increases in power costs go straight through to them and those are non-negligible. They still don’t pay anything close to urban rates (but remember that any farmer will buy hundreds of times more water than one family will and they aren’t buying potable water), but their rates have gone up tenfold or more over the past two decades. Their water bills may still not be high enough to see the management response people howl for, but they are definitely high enough to send a price signal to growers.

3. Rice. Sigh. The upper Sacramento Valley where rice is grown is a big clay pond that couldn’t grow anything else, in an area that gets plenty of water to sustain it. You just have to store it until summer, which we can do. California rice is excellent rice, which the world is short of this year. Ricelands are a good place to put floods and winter waterfowl. You’d have to make a strong case for an equally good multi-purpose use of that water, which drains to the Sacramento River and is returned to the system anyway (hotter and saltier, granted, which is a genuine problem).

Alfalfa. Alfalfa is a pretty high value crop here, with our long growing season and eight to ten cuts a year. More to the point, that’s where the cheap meat/dairy system starts. We could get rid of it, but there would be strong ripple effects. Do not argue against alfalfa in California until you are ready to say that meat and dairy should be expensive and a rare treat. (Why does no one complain about silage? Because Reisner didn’t mention it.)

Cotton. Do you even know how much cotton is grown in California? You don’t, do you. Three hundred thousand acres, out of nine million irrigated acres. That’s right. Three percent of California agriculture is in cotton, a rare specialty crop. Like rice, and alfalfa, California cotton is some of the highest quality cotton in the world. It may well be that there shouldn’t be any (although we don’t get boll weevils on this side of the Rockies), but if this is your main argument, you are exercised over a very very small piece of a huge complex problem.

Cadillac Desert was important when it was written in 1986, but it ironically spawned a movement that has since made it inaccurate. It has been twenty years, people. The system is vastly more complex and much less outrageous.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.