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The California water-shortage crisis, largely man-made, according to experts, is getting so bad in some areas that people are facing what is being described as "Third World" conditions.
With the severe drought now stretching into its fourth year, reservoirs are running dry and wildfires are burning thousands of homes. And the human and economic toll is growing fast.
Fox News reported on Monday a Monterey County fire had claimed another life and another 162 homes, pushing the total of loss of homes in recent weeks to more than 1,400.
Reports said more than 5,000 fires had burned six million acres already, and there have been several fatalities.
More fires were breaking out, and more evacuations were being ordered at the time.
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Tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars have already evaporated. And with no end in sight, there may still be years of suffering — and painful decisions — waiting ahead.
Indeed, some experts say this could be just the beginning, with some worst-case scenarios foreseeing mass migrations out of the state if relief doesn't come soon.
But it did not have to be this way. And sensible policies could help protect the state going forward, a number of experts tell WND.
Effects: From nuisance to disaster
For some Californians, the drought is mostly an inconvenience, with bureaucrats and politicians demanding that the public take shorter showers, flush toilets less often, and turn off the taps while brushing teeth, for example.
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For others, especially in the state's vast agricultural sector, the water shortage is proving devastating.
Andrew Lockman with the Office of Emergency Services for Tulare County, an agriculture powerhouse and one of the most severely impacted areas of the state, spoke of "Third-World-type conditions" now afflicting some families there as wells run dry.
Some farmers are already going under, workers are losing jobs, wells are drying up, more than half-a-million acres are lying fallow, production costs are soaring, and more pain is expected – potentially much more.
"With each year that California suffers below-average precipitation, the impacts on California farmers and ranchers have become more significant," said Dave Kranz, communications manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
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The impacts, of course, are not evenly distributed. After all, California is a large state with varying conditions in different regions.
Particularly impacted with the most severe effects has been the San Joaquin Valley – home to some of the most productive farmland on the planet. That includes Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.
"Those regions are particularly dependent on delivery of water from state and federal projects that have seen their allocations slashed due to a combination of drought and environmental laws that reserve water for protected fish species, and because farmers there often have less reliable sources of groundwater to make up the difference when surface water supplies are cut," Kranz told WND in a statement.
However, he added, water availability is becoming a concern for farmers across the entire state, and those concerns will only intensify if relief does not come soon.
For now, with demand for California's commodities still strong, high prices have helped ease the brunt on many farmers faced with soaring water-related costs from activities such as drilling more wells and pumping more water from deeper under the ground. But if markets turn down, the impacts could worsen quickly.
And despite record-high crop receipts in 2014, the fact that production costs are increasing due to water shortages – 2014 also featured record-high production costs for farmers and ranchers, according to the USDA Economic Research Service – means that farmers' net earnings have decreased, Kranz said.
"California farmers and ranchers, their employees and the agricultural economy as a whole have certainly suffered during the four-year drought," he continued. "Everyone is hopeful that the coming autumn and winter will bring plentiful rain and snowfall to help recovery begin, but we also know it will take several years of strong precipitation to replenish above-ground reservoirs and underground aquifers that have been depleted the past few years."
The economic price tag is staggering and growing by the minute, with a recent study from the University of California, Davis, estimating the 2015 cost to the state at close to $3 billion.
A UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences analysis found that the water shortage was squeezing about 30 percent more workers and crop land out of production compared with 2014.
More than 20,000 jobs will be lost in 2015 due to the shortages, the researchers found. Some communities were especially hard hit, with wells running dry and unemployment soaring.
Another study on the water shortage, conducted by researchers at Fresno State University, found even more severe impacts, predicting as much as $3.3 billion in agricultural losses alone.
Effects on public health are also evident, with increased instances of Valley Fever, West Nile Virus and diarrheal illness that experts blame on the water crisis.
Potential increases in mental health issues, including anxiety, stress and depression, are also linked to the shortages, researchers said.
The Fresno State study found that some agricultural counties are already seeing reductions in household income and even migrations of workers to other areas.
Even beyond California, Americans may start feeling the impact of the shortages reflected in higher produce prices.
For the first time since 1977, the state has placed drastic restrictions on farmers' water usage, even though they have water rights dating back more than 100 years.
And more cutbacks could be coming soon, officials have warned.
A man-made disaster?
But none of this had to happen.
Environmental, water and policy experts who spoke with WND were unanimous in blaming the increasingly severe water shortage on man – not nature.
"The drought came to California courtesy of mother nature," explained Bonner Cohen, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, adding that California's climate, generally speaking, is arid or semi-arid.
"Mother nature serves up droughts to California on a very regular basis," he said.
"Knowing this, one would think the political class in California would prepare for those droughts," he told WND. "Yet, if you look at what the political class in California has done, the one thing that jumps out at you is that they have done absolutely nothing – zero – to prepare the state for something they knew was going to come sooner or later."
Cohen, who also serves as a senior policy analyst with the environmental group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, or CFACT, said a basic function of government is to prepare for events that can reasonably be expected.
The USDA reveals that tiny segments of the state are "abnormally dry," and those are the best conditions in the state. Except for small portions in the far northwest and far southeast, most of the state is in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought.
The most recent figures show more than 99 percent of the state in abnormally dry conditions, or worse. A full 71 percent is suffering "extreme" drought conditions, and 46 percent is considered "exceptional."
Yet in California, policymakers have not allowed the construction of a single new reservoir in more than 30 years to store water for emergencies such as the current drought – a fact seized upon by several political leaders this year as the shortages intensified.
"Given the climatological history of California, policymakers had to be aware that droughts would come," Cohen explained, saying the state should have prepared additional storage capacity, but it didn't.
Secondly, policymakers expended a tremendous amount of time, resources and water in "what is ultimately a doomed effort to save a tiny two-inch-long fish known as the Delta Smelt," Cohen said.
Citing researchers and biologists, he said experts have concluded that nothing can be done to save the fish.
"It's eventually going to go the way of most species since life came along and disappear,” he said, adding that, ironically, the Delta Smelt is an invasive species.
In accordance with the controversial federal Endangered Species Act, Cohen said policymakers diverted an enormous amount of water into the San Francisco Bay in the doomed effort to save the tiny fish – all at the expense of California's human residents.
"They continue to do that and are doing it as we speak," Cohen added.
Pointing to Israel, widely regarded as a global water superpower and a leading example of sensible water policies, Cohen said California could have taken steps to facilitate the expansion of desalinization capabilities as well.
But California's regulatory regime is so hostile, and energy prices have been artificially boosted so high on the basis of supposed environmental concerns, that such efforts have been largely impractical and uneconomic thus far.
Global warming vs. policy
As the drought intensified, the blame game become more heated as well.
GOP presidential candidate and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina made headlines in April by blaming progressives and environmentalists for the water crisis.
"Droughts are nothing new in California, but right now, 70 percent of California's rainfall washes out to sea because liberals have prevented the construction of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades, during a period in which California’s population has doubled," she said. "This is the classic case of liberals being willing to sacrifice other people's lives and livelihoods at the altar of their ideology."
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents the 22nd congressional district in the Central Valley, also blamed environmentalists and the control they have over California policy.
"The environmental groups did not expect to run everyone out of water, but they got greedy, shut down the whole system, and ran the whole damned state dry," he fumed, pointing to how much water washes out into the ocean each year. "If we had stored water and built three new dams, the state would be flush with water."
The federal government has indicated that none of California's major reservoirs is in good condition. Shasta Lake is at only 37 percent of capacity and, except for Castaic at 38 percent, is the fullest in the state.
Lake Oroville is at 30 percent, Folsom at 19 percent, Don Pedro at 32 percent, Exchequer at 9 percent, Pine Flat at 12 percent, Perris at 36 percent, Millerton at 34, San Luis at 21, New Melones at 12 and Trinity at 24 percent.
Indeed, aside from a few politicians and environmentalists determined to blame global warming or climate change – even NOAA denies climate change is to blame – virtually everyone agrees that the deepening crisis is at least in part man-made.
"We are being told that this is further evidence of climate change, formerly called global warming," Cohen said. "One look at the climatological record will debunk that completely."
In the 20th century, he said, California experienced eight severe droughts. The most severe was from 1928 to 1937.
A worse drought struck the state in the early- to mid-1860s, he added.
"These cannot have been caused by man's emissions of greenhouse gases, because they weren't there," Cohen said, adding that there's no evidence man's emissions drive climate change anyway.
"The climate in California is doing exactly what it has always done – serving up very severe droughts," he added.
Policymakers and interest groups "created an absolute mess, and it never had to happen," Cohen said.
"California is not suffering from water shortage," he continued. "It lacks distribution system to get water where it is needed. It failed to build storage capacity. It has wasted unfathomable amounts of water resources to save a fish that can't be saved."
"What you have here is a complete failure on the part of policymakers – the Assembly, governors going back decades, and others – to prepare the state for something they knew was going to happen," Cohen concluded.
In a 2010 paper for the "Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education," agricultural and resource economics scholar David Zetland, Ph.D., concluded that "business-as-usual is over" when it comes to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a crucial source of fresh water for much of California.
He was right in more ways than one.
But the water-policy expert, who earned his doctorate at UC Davis, has a somewhat different view concerning the various causes of the water shortage, telling WND California already has "too many dams."
"Additional storage is not necessary, as current storage is now underused," said Zetland, who runs a blog called called Aguanomics, which focuses on the political economy of water.
What is missing, he said, is better accounting and systems for transferring water between where it's located and where it's needed.
"Groundwater is unmanaged and untracked," he said. "We need systems for allocating the water we've got."
Blaming "outdated institutions for managing drought," Zetland explained: "Nature makes a drought, man makes a shortage."
"The government has promised too much water to too many people and places, and has no mechanism for deciding who should get it in a shortage," he said. "Senior/junior rights are supposed to work, but they are poorly accounted for."
However, the "worst" water policies are those that subsidize sprawl and irrigation, he said, citing cheap water prices from government suppliers and subsidies for drilling wells as examples.
Zetland, who now serves as a professor of economics at Leiden University College in the Netherlands, has studied water policy for more than a decade. He has also written two books on the subject: "Living with Water Scarcity" and "The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity."
Asked about California's future amid the crisis, he said, in the short term, lots of money will be wasted on inefficient emergency actions.
In the medium term, the environment will be damaged as private parties take water from "the commons."
And over the long term, people and businesses will likely have to leave California.
Smiling, he recommended Detroit and other areas that have abundant water supplies as potential destinations.
"It can get worse," he added.
Even those pinning their hopes on the expected weather event El Niño may be disappointed, because even large amounts of rainfall "doesn't fix anything."
"It may cause floods, and additional supplies won't help if people keep watering lawns," Zetland noted.
Solutions: Markets and prices
California officials have responded to the shortage by implementing various rationing schemes, spying on resident usage through "smart meters" and fining citizens or businesses that use more than their allocated share.
Policy experts, though, lambasted the governmental approach as part of the problem.
As for solutions, Zetland and other experts support the introduction of more market forces in the distribution and allocation of scarce water resources.
Among other policies for "wholesale" water, H2O used for agriculture and the environment, he proposed reforming water rights, tracking and limiting the use of ground water, and allowing water markets to develop.
As far as retail water, or water used by urban consumers, Zetland proposed elimination of laws requiring green lawns, for instance, and hiking the prices of city water so demand falls in proportion to supply.
Of course, all of that would mean higher prices for farms, food and households. But Zetland said that would be a good thing, considering the alternatives.
"I prefer higher prices over regulations because people can find their own ways to adapt. Some will do nothing, but the overall impact is lower demand," said Zetland.
He pointed to Singapore as a leading example of sensible urban water markets, praising its robust supply-side engineering projects complemented by "sound demand-side management and incentives."
Another shining star when it comes to water, he said, is Australia, where, among other key differences with California, water rights are separated from land and can be traded in the market.
Without adopting sensible policies, California, and even the rest of America, will eventually see more water crises going forward, Zetland warned.
Learning from experience: Chile leads the way
Another water-policy expert, Fredrik Segerfeldt, wrote a book, "Water for Sale: How Business and the Market Can Resolve the World's Water Crisis," on how to deal with precisely the sort of problems California is currently facing.
In his comprehensive review of why water shortages still plague humanity despite the fact that the planet has abundant supplies – about 8 percent of the water available for human consumption is actually used – Segerfeldt concluded that bad government policies are the primary problem.
To illustrate that fact, he examined, among other examples, the wettest place on earth – Cherrapunji, India. Despite the most abundant water supplies, Cherrapunji suffers from chronic water shortages due to bad government policy.
But while Segerfeldt's work focused chiefly on how to get clean, safe water to the poorest one billion people – potentially saving millions of lives in the process – the conclusions are just as applicable to California or any other place.
Simply stated, privatization works, Segerfeldt said. And economic laws hold true in California just as much as they do in Cherrapunji.
"California should overhaul its approach to water and introduce various market mechanisms," Segerfeldt told WND.
"Subsidies, government involvement and too low prices are the root causes of the present crisis," explained Segerfeldt, adding that the current crisis is also a result of the "tragedy of the commons" in which communally controlled resources are exploited.
But the solutions are already available, and have been used successfully in regions as diverse as Africa, Asia and South America.
"Private water rights and trade in such rights are efficient ways of safeguarding water and making sure we get the most value out of each drop of water," Segerfeldt said.
He pointed to Chile as "probably the best example of how reforms in this direction helped save water and develop agriculture."
When the government of Chile introduced private ownership of water in the 1980s, water supplies grew faster than in any other country, he observed.
"Thirty years ago, only 27 percent of Chileans in rural areas and 63 percent of urban communities had steady access to safe water," Segerfeldt wrote in his 2005 book, "Water for Sale." "Today's figures are 94 and 99 percent, respectively – the highest for all the world's medium-income countries."
The reforms also led to drastically more efficient agriculture and lower water prices.
In other words, everybody wins – especially the poor – except the laid-off government bureaucrats formerly trying to oversee water.
Separation of water and states
Wayne Crews Jr. is vice president for policy at the nonprofit Competitive Enterprise Institute, which focuses on environmental policy and other subjects. Crews summed up his solution in five simple words: "separation of water and state."
In 2013, Crews took his argument to Congress, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power that the real answer to water shortages, especially in the dry Western states, is to get the government at all levels out of the way.
"No one should be surprised in the 21st century when political management of water, and all its hostility to market pricing, results in shortages," Crews told WND.
"The answer is the 'separation of water and state,' and market pricing in particular, but politicians lack the inclination, let alone vocabulary, to make that happen," he added.
As a free society becomes wealthier, Crews continued, cross-industry infrastructure creation to bring about abundant water supplies should become ever easier, not harder.
"The vastly poorer America of 100 years ago built overlapping, redundant infrastructure," he said. "So if we can't do it today, shortages happen because of man-made policies, not genuine drought."
Like other experts, Crews said water resources "should be better integrated into the property-rights, wealth-creating sector, an evolution toward abundance and larger-scale free enterprise long-since derailed not just in water policy, but elsewhere like in electromagnetic spectrum, electricity and transportation grids.
"Infrastructure can take countless forms when price signals, which are indispensable, let us know where to invest," he said. "Better reservoir storage, pipelines and canals, trucking and transport, and crude oil carriers can aid supply and lessen artificial drought."
Among other possibilities, Crews pointed to improving water trades between cities, farmers and private conservation campaigns.
Citing findings from a Competitive Enterprise Institute report, Crews also said shoring up existing infrastructure could reduce waste that now depletes almost 20 percent of the annual U.S. supply.
"All these can supplement sourcing alternatives including drilling; gray and wastewater treatment and reclamation; stormwater harvesting and surface storage," he added.
The primary challenge, then, is "to discover the true value of water itself, to integrate modern water resources further into the market process and the sophisticated pricing, property rights, and capital market systems of the modern world," he said.
"The good news is, water is not getting more scarce overall," he concluded. "The bad news is, management and allocation of that constant supply does matter, and those in power inevitably foster 'Declarations of Dependence' on the state when it comes to infrastructure, and maintain a hostility toward free market pricing."
Federal and state relief urgent
As debates over how to handle water heat up across California, long-term solutions are probably a long way away, experts say.
But there are some actions that the federal and state government could take right now to provide some much-needed relief to the people of California, according to Cohen, of the National Center for Public Policy Research and C-FACT.
Ironically, though, many of those steps involve reversing previous decisions that contributed to the crisis in the first place, making it politically much more difficult for policymakers who often refuse to acknowledge or correct mistakes.
At the state level, Cohen said California should get rid of its "renewable-energy mandate" purporting to require that some arbitrary percent of the state's energy needs be met with so-called "renewable" sources – solar, wind and so on – by some arbitrary date.
"As long as they keep trying this, they're going to drive up electricity costs, creating an even more hostile environment for things like desalinization and other energy-intensive options to expand water supplies," he said.
Another option California policymakers could exploit, "but probably won't," is to expand the state's network of reservoirs.
"Even one or two more could do amazing things to help alleviate California's struggling residents," Cohen said.
He also criticized the state for squandering massive amounts of resources on problems that "do not exist" – the multi-billion dollar "high-speed rail" scheme, for example – instead of focusing on problems that do exist, such as the crippling water shortage.
At the federal level, Cohen said policymakers could also work to help California, and other states, deal with the water crisis and numerous other government-created problems.
The Endangered Species Act, which forced California to bend over backward to save the apparently doomed Delta Smelt, for example, is an "absolute monstrosity" and a "monumental failure," he said.
While ostensibly aimed at helping to save species, it was really designed to be a "land-control apparatus" in which federal bureaucrats impose draconian restrictions on property owners under the guise of protecting some species of plant or animal.
"As long as that law, which is very rigidly written, is on the books, when an emergency such as severe drought comes along, and that law covers areas where the drought is in effect, that law will keep certain necessary measures from being taken in the name of protecting some species," Cohen said.
There are much easier, cheaper and effective ways of protecting species, he added.
Cohen also blasted the National Environmental Policy Act, noting that a project such as the Hoover Dam could never have been built today due to the statute and the "straight-jacket" it imposes.
"We have imposed on ourselves, just from those two statutes alone, restrictions that encumber our ability to deal with emergencies when they come along," he said.
To fix it, though, requires action at the federal level, including an act of Congress.
None of the experts who spoke with WND sounded optimistic about policymakers undertaking the reforms they say are necessary to deal with the water crisis.
Instead, at least for the foreseeable future, officials at all levels are likely to continue doing what they have been doing – all-but ensuring more crises going forward.
"Evidence is overwhelming that policymakers are not sensitive to the suffering their policies have produced," Cohen said, lambasting California's "gigantically bloated public sector" at the state and local level. "They're not about to blame themselves for a problem they are complicit in creating – the political class in California never takes responsibility for anything."
It will be especially tough in California, he added, citing the state's bizarre political scene, where so much of the wealth and power comes from the "la la lands" of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco-type urban dwellers and money managers, all of whom "live in a bubble and are largely unaware of reality outside the bubble."
"Sometimes the only way to bounce back is to hit rock bottom," Cohen said. "California is heading that way fast. It is becoming a basket case."
"When the house of cards comes crashing down, maybe these people will come to their senses," he said.