California Governor Jerry Brown’s April 1 decree (Executive Order B-29-15) for rationing water has gotten lots of undeserved positive coverage on the center-left. If you read the fine print, it doesn’t actually reduce the state’s total usage by 25% (although that’s the impression you’d probably get just reading the headlines). It only applies to “potable urban water usage” within municipal water systems.
Municipal water authorities are empowered to impose regulatory measures — like drip irrigation for lawns and gardens in newly built housing units — and alter rate schedules to encourage conservation.
Notably missing from the order is any measure, whether usage caps or rate increases, materially affecting heavily subsidized irrigation water for California’s giant agribusiness operations. When you consider that agribusiness accounts for about 80% of California’s total water usage, that 25% cut in urban consumption is pretty weak sauce.
According to Mother Jones (“California’s Almonds Suck As Much Water Annually As Los Angeles Uses in Three Years,” Jan. 12), subsidized almond irrigation uses almost three times as much water as San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. Export production of pistachios consumes over twice as much water as San Francisco. And export walnut crops soak up more water than Los Angeles.
California has doubled its nut production in the last decade, in an area that would be a near-desert if it relied on local rainwater. And it has been enabled to grow, and to consume water on a grossly unsustainable basis, because it gets water from the mountains artificially cheap with the help of the state and its engineering projects (like, you know, those giant dams MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow stands in front of when she talks about government doing “big things”). In addition to the ecological destruction involved in creating artificial lakes and diverting water, agribusiness also pumps ground water faster than it can be replenished. That’s water that, rightfully speaking, is the common property of everyone in the region it underlies. California agribusiness is enclosing the water commons and draining aquifers at the expense of future generations.
California, by the way, is a textbook example of the so-called “Green Revolution,” falsely presented as a way to “feed the world.” It’s an agricultural model ideally suited to those operating on stolen land (many of the largest operations were originally Mexican haciendas, themselves property of a neo-feudal landed oligarchy), with heavy reliance on subsidized inputs.
Meanwhile, urban residents are paying higher rates and rationing just to enable this wholesale corporate looting. To compound the outrage, the rationing applies to residential vegetable gardens and edible landscaping, which — you can bet the farm — use water far more efficiently than Big Agri. And they reduce household dependence on the output of factory farms as well. Conflict of interest, maybe?
That’s not to say urban water rates aren’t artificially low, or waste isn’t subsidized. Water prices should be sufficient to limit consumption to sustainable levels. But that should be true everywhere — not just of the 20% of water consumed by urban residents. And efficient pricing shouldn’t be a temporary emergency measure, taken by the state to offset its own dole of corporate welfare water to powerful business interests.
When the state preempts regulation of the commons, it inevitably treats them as the private property of the economic interests that control the state. It’s time for us all to realize that water is a natural resource commons that belongs to the people — not the state — and should be directly regulated by the users themselves.
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