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Senior Katie Wright pre­sented about California’s water reg­u­la­tions and their effect on con­ser­vation. Madeleine Jepsen | Col­legian

Too often, gov­ern­mental reg­u­lation forces a decision between the envi­ronment and the economy — but that doesn’t have to be the case, according to senior Katie Wright, who gave a lecture about California’s water reg­u­lation system March 29.

Wright said the envi­ronment is con­sidered a public good, since one person’s con­sumption doesn’t affect another’s con­sumption.

“After all, if you don’t use it now, someone else will,” Wright said. “Even if your intention is to con­serve, your efforts could be can­celled out by someone else.”

In the Eastern United States, where water is plen­tiful, landowners are given water rights, but they don’t own the water itself.

“That approach would be prob­lematic for states like Cal­i­fornia, where any water use nec­es­sarily means that someone else is getting less,” Wright said. “This is why a dif­ferent system evolved in the Western United States.”

Instead, Cal­i­fornia uses a pri­ority-based system that developed during the influx of miners during the Cal­i­fornia Gold Rush.

“It is assumed that users will have access to dif­ferent amounts of water during times of drought, and con­se­quently, the issue that needs to be addressed is who gets the water, not how much,” Wright said.

California’s use of prior appro­pri­ation, however, creates a problem of free-riding, which occurs when someone else can take part in a costly activity without having to pay the price, Wright said. She com­pared the problem of free-riding to bor­rowing swipes from a friend’s larger meal plan.

“Rivalrous users have an incentive to free-ride off of non-rivalrous users, and it just so happens that non-rivalrous uses often­times promote con­ser­vation,” Wright said. “This does not incen­tivize envi­ron­mental users to pur­chase a water share.”

In Cal­i­fornia, the state cur­rently uses a blend of prior appro­pri­ation and the command and control approach in which the state owns water rights and the Cal­i­fornia water board issues reg­u­la­tions.

“Embedded in this approach is the assumption that only gov­ern­ments and experts know how to ration water effec­tively,” Wright said. “If left up to the indi­viduals, the only outcome would be unfair and detri­mental to the envi­ronment. Con­se­quently, the gov­ernment inter­venes to ration the water.”

Eco­nom­i­cally, a lot is at stake during a drought. Reed Watson, exec­utive director at the Property and Envi­ronment Research Center, esti­mated $900 million dollars were lost in crop rev­enues, $590 million in increased ground­water pumping costs, $350 million lost in dairy and live­stock revenue, and more than 10,000 sea­sonal jobs were lost.

“The impli­cation of envi­ron­mental scarcity reveals itself in our economy,” Wright said. “If this con­nection is so strong, why is it that leg­is­lation, espe­cially in Cal­i­fornia, choose one without con­sid­ering the other?”

She cited California’s almond sub­sidies as an example of a reg­u­lation that encouraged the growth of a water-intensive crop.

Wright said that since farmers must put their water to ben­e­ficial use in order to maintain their claim, con­serving water is dis­couraged under the current system.

“If farmers implement tech­nology that con­serves water, they’re not using their full water right and it could be taken away,” Wright said. “The result is that wasteful behavior is not mit­i­gated, it is encouraged… Through inter­vention, Cal­i­fornia pro­vides envi­ron­mental quality as a public good, and doesn’t charge cit­izens directly for pro­tection of the envi­ronment.”

As a result, indi­viduals don’t realize the true cost of con­ser­vation and its value. As an alter­native to the current system, Wright said water markets would promote water con­ser­vation — a system she said has demon­strated success in Aus­tralia.

“In water markets, share­holders can freely trade and barter based on current scarcity,” Wright said. “Gov­ern­ments and non­profits could pur­chase shares for municipal or envi­ron­mental reasons, but they would be required to pay a price like everyone else… No matter the envi­ron­mental cir­cum­stance, share­holders receive com­pen­sation for their takings.”

Wright said that this system pro­motes con­ser­vation of water since it becomes the most cost-effective practice.

“Price may have moti­vated his decision, but con­ser­vation was the result,” she said.

Wright also sug­gested the insti­tution of water judges who can allow for effi­cient transfers of water shares between dif­ferent parties — a more effi­cient alter­native to California’s current bureau­cratic transfer process. Trans­ferable property rights allow people to exchange their shares when they are most valuable, thereby pro­moting water con­ser­vation, Wright said.

Con­ser­vation Club Pres­ident senior Andrea Wallace said Wright’s pre­sen­tation shed light on how real steps can be made to help con­serve natural resources.

“After hearing her talk last year on the pri­va­ti­zation of endan­gered species, we really knew that we wanted her to give a talk for Con­ser­vation Club,” Wallace said. “Water con­ser­vation is a really important topic with very real impli­ca­tions.”