Eric Schuck: Drought exposes vital mistake

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


April 10, 2015
By Eric Schuck, Guest Writer


Eric Schuck, professor of economicsExample of how not to handle water rights is drawn from dried-up Californian aquifers

Outside Boardman, about 30 miles west of Pendleton, the Navy’s footprint in Oregon is fairly small. So, for most of the past two years, when my Reserve weekend would roll around each month, I’d pack up my seabag and hop on a plane to Fresno, then drive to the Naval Air Station in Lemoore. It’s not exactly a short trip, and I did my best not to think about my carbon footprint each time it was my turn to help defend our country.

Carbon emissions aside, I liked the trip. In the 28 days or so each month when I’m not in uniform, I’m an economics professor and, more specifically, an agricultural economist. Driving through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley gave me a great chance to do some informal field research simply by looking out the window. It’s one of the best ways I know to get a sense of trends and changes in agriculture. And what I’ve seen in the past two years scares me: fields of sunburnt trees and parched crops, a landscape gradually surrendering to drought.

While it’s easy to write this off as simply another California problem, there are certain unavoidable truths: according to the USDA, California produces more than half the United States’ fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t take much for a lack of water in California to translate to a lack of food in Oregon. Like it or not, a drought in California matters to all of us.

But droughts are funny things. Most people think of drought as a purely physical problem, a simple lack of water. That’s not the entire picture, though, for we also must account for institutional drought: shortages of water stemming not only from physical scarcity but also from bad laws that encourage poor management. Institutionally, California presents a serious lesson for its neighbors.

By now, most people have heard that California Governor Jerry Brown has issued an executive order requiring California’s cities to cut water usage by 25 percent over the next year. The order conspicuously — and contentiously — omits agriculture, despite the fact that farms historically have used 80 percent or more of California’s water.

At first glance, letting agriculture off the hook may seem like a critical oversight. It’s not. While California’s farms use the bulk of water in the state, the rules governing their use of water are sufficiently stringent to pass on very clear signals of drought and scarcity.

Most irrigation water in the state is managed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation under a system of priority rights, and it’s distributed to farmers through regional irrigation districts. And for the past two years, the USBR has, basically, filled none of those rights. Most California farmers have received a very clear signal of the drought in the state, and they manage accordingly.

Unfortunately, “most” farmers does not mean “all farmers,” and initially, a gap in California’s water laws allowed irrigators with access to groundwater to pump their way out of the effects of surface water shortfalls with little or no limitations on their water use. In what quickly turned into a pumping free-for-all, irrigators trying to escape the effects of empty canals and reservoirs instead created empty aquifers. The result of this loophole was unforeseen: the state’s bad laws had traded one type of drought for another.

In reaction to aquifer depletion, California passed a law in 2014 creating regional groundwater management agencies to cover all the state’s major aquifers. Essentially, the goal is to create a series of local water management boards to allocate and protect groundwater in the same manner the USBR and irrigation districts handle surface water.

The target is to achieve “sustainability” — a term regrettably not defined in the law and unfortunately not a standard term in existing water law — in California’s groundwater resources by 2020. What remains to be seen is how much damage has already been done to the state’s water resources.

Indeterminate, unseen long-term harm is what makes California’s problems all the more tragic. So many of them could have been avoided if the state’s water management laws had effectively covered all resources prior to the drought.

Mercifully for Oregon, this kind of scenario is less likely here. Oregon water law is far more specific on how groundwater and surface water rights are allocated and managed, and we have a much more comprehensive and integrated understanding of the state’s water resources than our southern neighbor.

Yet, if I have learned nothing else during my monthly trips to the San Joaquin Valley, it is the simple, straightforward lesson that it is best to plan for droughts before the well runs dry.


Guest Writer

Eric Schuck is a professor of economics at Linfield College and is an expert in irrigation water management. As a third-generation naval officer, he serves in the Naval Reserve. He lives in McMinnville with his wife and three children. The views expressed are his own.