A good example is the use of scarce water in California to grow water thirsty cotton in the Sonoran Desert, when it would be more economically efficient to grow it in the moist American Southeast.
Inefficient agricultural use of water for low value agricultural activity relative to the value of the immense amount of water used is the number one reason that water is scarce in the arid American West. Federal crop subsidies exacerbate the problem.
Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid. . . . If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year. . . . The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields.This is also hardly the only problem with inefficient water use in the west driven by bad policy. Another source of waste under Colorado's water laws, for example, is a use it or lose it system for water rights that turn any water conservation approach that reduces water use into an immediate 100% forfeiture as a penalty for not wasting water.
In Colorado, Use It Or Lose It dates to statehood when miners competed for water needed to extract gold. Colorado leaders set up a system defining water as property where settlers who proved they'd put it to a "beneficial use" could divert it from rivers and streams. But settlers could lose rights to water if they didn't continue their use. Leaving water to sustain ecosystems wasn't considered a legitimate beneficial use.Given these incentives, is it any wonder that farmers aren't interested in water conservation?
The state engineer records water use. When a farmer, rancher or city uses less than the allotted maximum over a 10-year period, state officials declare all or a part of a water right "abandoned" on a list issued every 10 years. That water no longer can be diverted and goes up for grabs to other rights holders next in priority.
Given the water pressures in the West, Louisiana-based ranch owner Witt Caruthers this year decided to try the new approach at his head-gates along Willow Creek.
"Colorado's water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it's not absolutely necessary. When you're under that pressure to use it or lose it, you're almost forced to abuse it. That's to the detriment of all," Caruthers said.
Of course, Colorado is also famous for forbidding basic conservation practices like keeping rain buckets or establishing grey water systems that prevent water from leaving the place where it falls to be diverted by someone with senior water rights from a river somewhere further along the river basin than the place where it falls. Legislation to change that policy was defeated in the Colorado General Assembly in this year's session.