The narrative going out from conservative commentators about the California drought (see here and here for two examples) is that environmentalists caused the drought and, since Obama is presumably allied with environmentalists, he is to blame for it.)
Now dear reader, it should be clear to anyone familiar with my work that I am no fan of either Obama or the proponents of natural-resource-socialism known today as “environmentalists.” However, this assertion that water allocation had been just fine or would be just fine in California were it not for Democrats and environmentalists is just the sort of shallow and puerile analysis we’ve all come to expect from right-wing pundits.
In this specific case, what has the conservatives so very upset is that environmentalists have successfully pushed through a series of regulations that require that some river water be allowed to actually flow into the ocean for the sake of a fish called the delta smelt.
For people unfamiliar with how water works in California and the American west, they might conclude that this is a case of the government forcibly taking water form the farmers and handing it over to the environmentalists for their pet projects. This is, however, completely untrue. The first thing to know is that there is no functioning market in water in California, and there are no market prices. Virtually all water in California and the American West is controlled by, distributed by, and “priced” by government agencies. This system of water socialism (described by Bill Anderson here, and yours truly here) is what rules the allocation of water in the West, and by extension, it rules any industry or endeavor that requires water. Thus agriculture, is a socialized industry in the West, where the main input for the industry, water, is allocated along socialistic lines. There is no market pricing, because the pricing is done in a way to benefit powerful political interests.
In many Western states, still including California, although cities are quickly eroding their power, the growers are very powerful lobbies who have for the past 70 years enjoyed the benefits of extremely cheap, subsidized water. They do not own the water, and so when one of the farmers commented on the delta smelt situation and said “We are not interested in welfare; we want water” he was being unintentionally funny. Cheap water for Central Valley farmers, who are growing food in a desert, and who only get water thanks to massive taxpayer-funded public works, is a major form of welfare for them.
So, it would be naive in the extreme to frame this story, as the conservatives have, as some sort of battle between the poor, beleaguered farmer who is having “his” water taken away, and the usurper environmentalists.
Indeed, the water situation is just the latest chapter in a long history of using government to pick winners and losers in California and the west using the allocation of water as a weapon.
The conservatives who have declared the farmers to be the rightful owners of the water are simply ignoring the history of river water along the West coast.
Long forgotten is the fact that once upon a time, there were massive fisheries of salmon along the West coast that supported large numbers of canneries, fishing villages, industrial fishing operations, and all the usual support economies that go along with any industry.