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Cheap water, not lax regulation, at core of Arizona shortage

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The recent New York Times article, “The Water Wars of Arizona,” goes into detail about Arizona’s diminishing water resources and blames the problem entirely on “lax regulation,” which, the author says, has enticed large corporate farms to come and suck up all the water. I’m sure they have. But “lax regulation” doesn’t come close to getting to the heart of the problem: water is too darn cheap in Arizona.

Dan Jones

Dan Jones

The article points out, correctly, that we are basically “exporting water” to foreign countries. Companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have begun farming the Arizona desert and shipping the crops back home. But why? It’s not just Arizona. The same Saudi company mentioned in the article also purchased farmland in California in 2016.

One important fact to consider might be that in 2015, the Saudi government raised the price of water for businesses — significantly. It seems possible that foreign farm operations are flocking to the United States not because of lax regulation of our water resources, but the ultimate market-distorting regulation of them all: price controls.

On the broader point about irresponsible water usage, I couldn’t agree more. The way we use water in Arizona and many other places around the world is unsustainable long term. The article points out that we grow alfalfa and various types of nuts in Arizona, two crops that require tremendous amounts of water.But it’s not just farms. We also have lush green lawns, swimming pools, fountains, and tropical plants in our yards. Maybe it ought to be expensive to live such an extravagant lifestyle in a barren desert landscape. Presently, it’s not.

When 12 News’ Brahm Resnik tweeted about the Times’ story, I responded by saying that price controls on water are more to blame than lax regulations. Brahm told me to “Read the story,” but I had, perhaps only with a more critical eye.

We survive out here with the blessing of an ancient engineering marvel, literally dusted off by prospectors and Mormon pioneers after hundreds of years of dilapidation. The Hohokam people are believed to have first constructed the Valley’s canal system around 600CE. They grew beans, squash, corn, and cotton in order to sustain life here.Today, most of those crops also require a lot of water, but the varieties used by the Hohokam probably used significantly less. We have a lot of advantages the Hohokam didn’t have. To name just one, we can genetically modify crops to give them more of a certain characteristic such as more of a specific type of vitamin or to be resistant to viral pathogens, among other qualities.Whatever you think about GMOs, those breakthroughs happened as a result of cost incentives. It costs money to lose a season’s worth of crops to a viral pathogen. Imagine if there were a cost incentive to fund research that might reduce the amount of water needed to grow certain crops.

Learn before it’s too late

Where the Hohokam went when they disappeared from the archaeological record around 1450, we can only guess. But recent studies suggest a serious drought beginning in the 1200s in the Four Corners area might have had a lot to do with it. We’re in a deep drought of our own, and it shows no signs of letting up.Today, our government controls most of the water in Arizona in the name of “preserving” it. Then they “benevolently” sell it back to us at well below the market rate. Basic economics tells us this will suppress the price of all water, private or government owned, and eventually lead to a shortage — drought or no drought.

One way to speed up the coming shortage is to artificially stimulate desert farming with free money. We do that, too. The United States spends $20 billion annually on farm subsidies. With an endless stream of federal dollars and dirt cheap water, it’s no wonder Middle Eastern agribusiness is flocking to the U.S., where we’re foolish enough to subsidize their ventures.

A piece of wisdom from friend and local farmer John Augustine: “Water is the only thing that you need, everything else is what you want.”

Hear, hear.

—Dan Jones is a higher education consultant who lives in Phoenix.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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