10.29.2009

Pay for Rain


Earlier this week, I had a morning meeting with my two pastors at our church. As we all ducked inside from the steady downpour, we each made our snide comments about the rain. But, I offered after we were done chuckling, we need the rain. Then I added somewhat sheepishly, "Although local basement owners may beg to differ."

But I have been trying to be more thankful for rain. For while water falls from the sky for free, it doesn't fall in equal amounts everywhere in the world. And, because it is costly to clean, move, and store, water may very well become just as contentious a liquid as oil, geopolitically and economically. I've always maintained, for example, that it is just a matter of time before oil decreases in importance and water increases in importance to the point that it is water and not oil that causes conflicts in the Middle East.

Closer to home, I believe it was California that Mark Twain had in mind when he famously said, "Whiskey is for drinkin', and water is for fightin'." Indeed, I love this quote from a recent Economist article about the Golden State's north-south water wars: "Californians hate rain but love water, so three-quarters of them live in the arid south, spurn the wet north where three-quarters of the rain falls, and expect water to come to them by pipe, canal or aquifer, preferably courtesy of the taxpayer."

Pretty soon, it's going to be clear that there can no longer be any free lunch (or, in this case, free water that has been treated for use in drinking, bathing, and watering plants) in Cali. This is a battle that pits north against south, farmer against farmer, and has race, ethnic, and class dynamics. Oh, by the way, infrastructure is crumbling, and in case you hadn't heard, Sacramento has no money.

The long-term story is that if we can price water correctly, we will eventually get to an efficient use of it, as well as an efficient way of distributing it. Not insignificantly, we may very well move ourselves towards a more efficient way of distributing ourselves and our land uses: if you want to have a golf course in the desert, you have to either expect to pay dearly for it, or else otherwise adjust your expectations.

All well and good to consider in theory, but Californians are rightly holding their breath as they think through the political, economic, and engineering consequences of having to move towards such a structure. In the meantime, I'll continue to be thankful for the relatively abundant amount of rainfall we get in the Northeast. Tony! Toni! Tone! once catchily sang, "It Never Rains in Southern California," symbolizing an easy and breezy way of life in La-La Land; I wonder if someday the title is spoken of more as a lament.

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