California's Man-Made Water Shortage

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Joel Kotkin is executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism, which aims to spell out how cities can drive increased opportunity and social mobility for the bulk of their citizens. In May, Reason TV producer Alex Manning sat down with Kotkin, who is also an urban studies specialist at Chapman University in Orange, California, to discuss the structural causes of the state's water crisis.

Q: What is the current state of water in California?

A: The water situation in California is pretty bad. You have to understand that we haven't built any new infrastructure for the last 20 years. This, by the way, is not unique to water. It's roads, it's schools, it's an unwillingness to invest in the future because we spend all our money in government paying the pensions of employees.

Q: What's the exact problem right now?

A: The problem is that we haven't prepared for what was inevitable, which was a drought. California's had droughts for years and years….It's almost like having a kid and deciding that you're going to stop buying clothes after they turn 8—it's no surprise that nothing fits.

Q: Is the solution dams? Is it aqueducts?

A: I agree [that] probably we shouldn't have big lawns. And there's no point in our growing alfalfa and sending it to China. We might as well send all our water to China while we're at it.

Q: Can you describe the motivation behind growing alfalfa?

A: The reason that farmers do these things is they get water that's highly subsidized. So they're not really having to pay what would be even close to a market price. Now, I'm not saying the farmers should pay the same as people in cities—farmers play a very important role in this society. But I do think that you have to be able to say, "Look, we cannot subsidize every crop at any cost."

California is a creation of engineering. It's a state with very fertile soil and huge topographical differences. But that means that you are very vulnerable to something happening, like not enough snow in the Sierra. So you have to continue to invest in the engineering side. And I think the business community in California did not push for that, and the greens, frankly, for them, the less water the better. You can shut down suburbia, you can shut down big agriculture, and you can limit population growth in the state, which is exactly what most greens probably would like to see.

Q: What are some misconceptions about water?

A: It's pretty well established that [the shortage] is not something that's being caused by climate change. We had plenty of droughts before….Most accounts will say that we've actually had wetter weather in the last 50 years than we historically would have had.

Q: Other than conservation, how else can we improve the state of water in California?

A: You can obviously do desalinization—the Pacific Ocean's not going to run out of water for a while. And for the climate change folks, I always say, "Look, you're always worried about rising sea levels. So why do you care?"

Q: What's at stake if we don't sort out water for farmers and cities?

A: Large parts of the blue-collar economy would be destroyed. You wouldn't be building any more houses, you'd be shutting down farms. So what [that does is] accentuate the growing class divide, which I personally think is the single biggest problem facing California in the next 10 to 20 years. Huge populations east of the coast are among the poorest in the country, and are totally ignored by their supposed friends in Sacramento.

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  1. Mr. Kotkin has some good ideas, but the notion that farmers shouldn’t pay the same price for water as people in cities because they play “a very important role in society” is not one of them. It’s the exact same reasoning that got California into this mess, as Kotkin himself points out. Let everyone pay the relevant market price, and then consumers can decide via their wallets which uses of water have the most value.

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