Saturday, April 11, 2015

Specialists, not regulators

This morning's WSJ opines (as do many these days) re California water ("California's Farm-Water Scapegoat"). The piece begins this way:
Perhaps the only issue on which Bay Area liberals and conservatives down California’s coastline agree is that farmers use too much water and should be rationed. The fortunate in Silicon Valley and Marin County need a tutorial in Golden State water allocation.

According to the fable of the prodigal farmer spun by environmentalists, farmers are producing too many water-intensive crops and over-pumping groundwater. Big Agriculture is said to have negotiated dirt cheap water rates with the government that are subsidized by city dwellers and suburbanites. As a purportedly even greater injustice, Governor Jerry Brown’s new mandate to cut statewide water usage by 25% exempts farmers.

The reality is that farm water has already been rationed for more than two decades by the ascendant green politics, starting with the 1992 federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act. Federal protections for the delta smelt, salmon, steelhead and sturgeon (2008-2009) further restricted water pumping at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, so 76% of inflows, mainly from the Sierra Nevada mountains, spill into San Francisco Bay.
The piece goes on to describe some of the adaptations/distortions that result when allocations are mandated.

But there are two problems in the cited passages. First, water (everything) is always rationed -- by price, by fiat, by convention, etc. To complain of "rationing" is very odd, especially for WSJ writers. The same inaccurate rhetoric comes into the health care debates.  It is never rationing-vs-non-rationing. But, rather rationing how.

Second, the editorial sounds like the Ralph Nader theme that "my regulators would be better than your regulators." The authors of the editorial would regulate California water allocations so that farmers get more and wildlife less than in recent years. But no breed of regulator can possibly arrive at a sensible answer because the details of water allocation are too complex to be knowable by any body of well meaning (or not) officials. All investments and all plans involve risk-taking and are best left to the specialists, those who have a stake in the outcome.