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Dry Spell or Drought? Why the Difference Is Important


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In recent months California’s news has been filled with stories about the state’s water situation, many of which lead with declarations such as “California’s crippling drought,” “the state’s devastating drought,” or similar rhetoric. Typically these stories include images of a family drinking out of blue plastic bins or of young nut trees being ripped out of the ground.

While I appreciate that the unwritten rule of journalism is to simplify and exaggerate, in this case it has gone way too far. Indeed, even calling the current water situation a serious drought is functionally wrong.

This isn’t to say we haven’t been in the midst of a bad dry spell. It has been a parched few years and much of the state’s wilderness areas are tinderbox dry. So far, no major fires have broken out, but officials understandably remain on high alert given the ground level situation. Thankfully, the National Weather Service still says that there is a 2 in 3 chance that the El Nino weather pattern will emerge this winter, bringing much heavier rains.

But a dry spell is not a drought. One dictionary definition of a drought is “a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting.” While there are clearly certain locations in California suffering from water shortages, that isn’t true for a vast majority of the state’s residents and businesses. Don’t believe it? Look around. What I see across the state are lots of green lawns, happy trees, filled pools, and clean people wearing clean clothing. I have yet to see a ‘will work for water’ sign being held up next to a highway exit.

And there have been no significant macro-economic consequences as a result of the situation. I realize such words might be considered heresy in some quarters, but let’s examine the data not listen to the rhetoric. There is little evidence of businesses having been shut down because of the lack of water. Indeed, job growth in the state has been very good over the past two years—California is among the top 10 states for growth in the nation. And the expansion isn’t limited to just the tech heavy San Francisco Bay Area. Why shouldn’t that be the case? After all no one is being forced to ration water and the price being paid by most retail users has remained roughly the same.

This is also true in major agricultural areas. Drive down I-5 or State Route 99, and it’s busy out there – with a lot of trucks and productive farm fields lining both sides of the highway. The rice crops went in this year—flooded fields and all. And Imperial County has a nice crop of Sudan Grass (otherwise known as hay) growing in the middle of a desert. Three of the four fastest growing economies in the state include Imperial County, Fresno County and Sonoma County—all heavy agricultural regions.

Of course, horror stories remain—just look at those images and read a few news stories. The University of California at Davis recently put out a report (Howitt, Richard, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Jay Lund, Daniel Sumner, 2014. Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis. ) saying the drought will cost the state’s economy $2.2 billion this year and lead to a loss of 17,000 jobs. Could my visual observations and jobs data be missing the real problems? Maybe the urban areas are fine but the agricultural economy is in shambles?

Well consider these facts. Farm earnings in 2013 were at an all time high according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Similarly, the estimate of real (price adjusted) farm output for 2013 was also at a record level—15% higher than in 2012. We don’t have good data for 2014 yet, but we do know that farm employment has ben running consistently higher than 400,000 positions per month, the highest since 2000. I don’t really understand how the UC Davis study could arrive at such stark results unless they had expected this year to be an even bigger boom year for the industry.

The reason this dry spell is not a drought boils down to two things. First, California water agencies have been investing wisely in infrastructure projects that allow the state to save water in times of plenty in order to use it in times of scarcity. Many worry because the reservoirs are so low. But that as the point of the entire system; they are supposed to be low this far into a dry spell. The second reason is that in times of scarcity the state allows for more active trading of water between those who have it and those who need it.

There is no doubt that some people are having a tough time. But that is the exception not the rule, and hence, this isn’t a drought. We should be focusing attention on why this is NOT a drought—a far more important story, as there are plenty of reasons to believe California will end up facing more water uncertainty (and longer dry spells) as time goes on.

The state needs to continue investing in systems that can deal efficiently with the fluctuations, and we need to continue pushing for more logical ways of allocating this scarce resource across California’s many diverse needs. More reservoirs, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnels, recycling systems, and simple conservation efforts are all important in achieving this goal.

But more importantly, we need to think carefully about how to allow existing water to flow to its highest value uses—rather than having fixed allocations to various parts of the state and having the vast majority of users who receive these rights under ‘use it or lose it’ rules that prevent them from selling water they might not have a valuable use for. This just encourages waste and prevents those who need water from being able to get it.

Why such markets are only allowed to form in times of water scarcity is beyond me—this should be an active, ongoing practice that is facilitated by state agencies, not prohibited. There is little rationale for not having a robust and constant water market in the state, except that this is not how the English did it in the middle ages (in the very wet English countryside).

But if we don’t get smarter soon, the next dry spell may well turn into an actual drought.

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