Subsidies for virtual water

From Robert Glennon:

In 2012, the drought-stricken Western United States will ship more than 50 billion gallons of water to China. This water will leave the country embedded in alfalfa–most of it grown in California–and is destined to feed Chinese cows. The strange situation illustrates what is wrong about how we think, or rather don’t think, about water policy in the U.S.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank the estimable Chug.


In 2000, the USA used 153,000,000 acre-feet of water for agriculture:

According to Google, that is 4.98552686 × 10^13 gallons, or about 50 trillion gallons if I've kept track of my zeros properly.

So we are shipping 0.1% of our agricultural water to China to feed their cows. And this is a cause for concern?

Besides he makes it sound as if we are giving it to the Chinese for free.

"So we are shipping 0.1% of our agricultural water to China to feed their cows. And this is a cause for concern?"

Actually it's not even close to that much. The 50 billion is the total amount of water required to grow the crop. The alfalfa that is shipped doesn't have nearly that much water still contained in it. So this is an alarmist story from somebody with poor math skills.

Sorry, but you got it wrong. Water can't be transfered across America that easily. Water in Mississipi is irrelevant in the West, thus national data is not appropiate for assesment.

They're talking specifically about Imperial Irriation District. And it says Imperial District has more water rights than the whole state of Nevada. Don't yout think people in Nevada would like to use that water? Problem here is that irrigation water is subsidized, it's cheap enogh to grow alfafa for China.

The article does not mention if water extraction is sustainable or not. It would be crazy that aquifers are being depleted just for having farmers happy.

The 2nd link us just awesome, I just imagined a dollar bills rain (for certain people) =) " In the West, new supplies of water have been generally exhausted, so avoiding shortages in the future will depend on greater efficiency in water allocation and consumption."

The water is not subsidized; it is owned by the farmers.

The alfalfa includes solar energy which is being shipped to China, but you own the sunlight that hits your land you own or rent.

The alfalfa includes carbon and nitrogen and oxygen and other elements that came from the land or were produced on the land owned or rented.

No one says the sunlight and the carbon and nitrogen from the air is subsidized because the land on which it is produced is owned or rented.

Water rights are just ownership of the water flowing off a watershed, or pumped out from under the land owned or rented.

Are you suggesting that farming that depletes the soil or mining of oil or coal is subsidized by government because it isn't sustainable?

Hmmm... reminds me of the excellent novel from Robert Heinlein, _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. In the novel, a lunar colony revolts, in part because they are going to a lot of trouble to "mine" water on the moon to support farming and then shipping it downhill to Earth in the form of grain and other crops. A character says, "our life blood is flowing down hill."

I think this is a straw man argument. The real problem is with domestic water policy, and allowing wasteful water use to grow certain crops in certain regions. If water were priced, or rationed, they would stop growing and shipping alfalfa.

But that's the argument they're making. The "water to China" argument is just a graphic example of market-free water use.

" The “water to China” argument is just a graphic example of market-free water use."

No, that's not the argument they are making. Indeed, their point was the exact opposite of what you just claimed. The title of the article: "Water: Excess of Subsidies, Lack of Markets"

'The strange situation illustrates what is wrong about how we think, or rather don’t think, about water policy in the U.S.'

Or else, it is just the realization that much agricultural export, particularly of grains and other feedstock, is just another form of water export. Not exactly ground-breaking - it is has been a topic on popular German radio more than once over the last couple of decades. And let's be georgraphically honest - some places are wetter and less populated than others.

And more aware of actual geography.

Soon, someone might even mention just how well suited Iowa is to grow corn, and what that means in terms of American meat consumption (and for an extra bonus discussion, why that meant in terms of governmental toleration of illegal immigration destroying unions in the meatpacking industry in the Midwest).

"...on popular German radio more than once over the last couple of decades." Huh?

Radio was INVENTED in Europe. It's not a great surprise that they have them in Germany.

Isn't alfalfa an off-season crop grown to help restore the soil as part of a crop cycle? If so, isn't that water really being used to (indirectly) help grow broccoli, artichokes, etc., and maintain the long-run health of California's agricultural sector?

First of all, water is most certainly rationed in the (western) United States. With a few minor exceptions, largely in the Pacific Northwest and a couple spots in California, water is managed under the Doctrine of Prior Appropriations ("first in use, first in right") and is distributed at the state level using systems of water rights. (Across states, water is managed via compacts.) There are certain incentives issues with this system - it can provide a very strong 'use or lose' mentality - but it does at least reduce the open-access and downstream externality problems otherwise inherent in water as a productive input. Additionally, while for most of its existence the main water provider in the west (the US Bureau of Reclamation) has used an 'ability to pay' standard for its water prices to irrigators, following the 1982 Reclamation Reform Act there has been a general push for 'conservation prices', particularly in California's Central Valley Project. The effectiveness of those programs is a point of argument among water economists, but it is at least the general policy direction.

As for alfalfa as a rotational crop... yes, it can be, but the capital requirements for both the irrigation systems and cultivation/harvest of alfalfa are rather different from 'truck crop' vegetables. There's a pretty serious asset heterogeneity issue there. If alfalfa is grown in rotation, it's usually for a row crop. However, many farmers grow it as a crop in its own right - it's worth more money than many people realize, especially in Asia and the Middle East. It's actually quite common to see alfalfa and grass hay grown specifically under contract for export to Japan and Korea.

Most of the western US has communist water rules.
Any water that falls from the sky is usually owned by the state, so collecting rainwater, for example, is illegal. Furthermore, the federal government owns all navigable water and has control over all waters directly connecting to them.

Washington state recently relaxed our rainwater harvesting regulations. The state now actively encourages local collection and use of rainwater.

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