I’ve been feeling a quibbling, hair-splitting mood lately. Must be election gaffe season…
Anyway, the excellent storyteller Abrahm Lustgarten (you may remember his long series for ProPublica on the Colorado River) has written a new piece for The Atlantic asking if we need “a free-market plan to save the American West from drought.” Lustgarten laments that water trading could efficiently reallocate “wasteful” agricultural water to more valuable urban uses, if only it were easy to do so.
Here’s the quibble: We buy and sell (and mostly, lease) water rights all the time. All. The. Time. In fact, according to the Western Governors’ Association, there were over 4000 water transfers in the twelve Western states between 1988 and 2009- that’s over 200 transactions a year. That may not sound like like a lot given the well-known vastness of the West, but it represents over 36 million acre-feet of volume, about 1.75 million acre-feet a year, or enough water to supply 3.5 million households. This counts multi-year transfers only in their first year, so the true volume of annually transferred water is significantly higher. (Also, given how they were reported to WGA, the raw figures are probably underestimates, but whatever.)
Lustgarten is hardly the first reporter to omit this crucial fact, and he won’t be the last. As it happens, he does better than most, with an acknowledgement that folks have been trading water in the West for a long time (many, many nameless writers have suggested that the practice is outlawed or simply unheard of).
Regardless, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by pretending that it’s just too darn hard to buy and sell water these days. If farmers or cities need water, believe me, they know whom to call to bid for it. These trades may not be institutionalized or centralized in a clearing exchange, but they constitute robust markets just the same.