Home > Uncategorized > Culp and Glennon: Parched in the West but Shipping Water to China, Bale by Bale – WSJ.com

Culp and Glennon: Parched in the West but Shipping Water to China, Bale by Bale – WSJ.com

Most water rights in the arid West were obtained under a legal system known as prior appropriation, which granted the first user of water the right to continue using it. As a result, the historic users of water in the West, predominantly agricultural districts, typically hold rights that are senior to the growing cities and industries that came later.

In many Western states, moreover, farmers who conserve water by modernizing their irrigation systems don’t get to use, lease or sell the water they save. Instead, the conserved water typically belongs to the next junior user (usually another farmer), in an extended chain of historic uses and priorities. Transfers of water rights from historic senior users can require the consent of multiple parties, making the movement of water rights to serve changing demands costly and legally complex.

Even when a transfer is possible, complicated regulatory procedures mean that final approvals can take years. Interstate transfers typically fare even worse. For example, if a California farmer sought to sell excess water to water-starved Las Vegas, he or she would encounter a Byzantine array of laws that make interstate transfers on the Colorado River all but impossible. Yet U.S. trade policy fosters the international export of those same water resources embedded in high-water-use crops such as alfalfa.

The export of alfalfa to China reflects a larger trend in U.S. international trade. America increasingly exports raw materials that China converts into valuable products: cotton into shirts, hides into shoes, logs into furniture. It doesn’t have to be this way. New Zealand’s highest-value export these days is powdered milk destined for China.

Instead of exporting alfalfa grown in the water-starved West, the U.S. could capture more of the economic benefit of the embedded water by feeding it to cows here, supporting the growth of the dairy and milk-processing industries. Trade policies should encourage development of such value-added activities, particularly where essential natural resources are concerned.

In the midst of a drought, rising food prices, growing urban populations and demands on agricultural land, federal and state governments need to promote policies that maximize the potential benefits of water resources.

via Culp and Glennon: Parched in the West but Shipping Water to China, Bale by Bale – WSJ.com.

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