EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Stabilizing Water Tables: Cities Versus Farmers

At the international level, water conflicts among countries dominate the headlines. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Neither economics nor politics favors farms. They almost always lose out to cities.

In many countries farmers are now faced with not only a shrinking water supply but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. In large areas of the United States, such as the southern Great Plains and the Southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. Meanwhile, the demand for water continues to climb in the region’s fast-growing cities, including Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The growing water needs of these cities and of thousands of small towns in the region can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. 22

A California monthly magazine, The Water Strategist, devotes several pages in each issue to a listing of water sales in the western United States during the preceding month. Scarcely a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Eight out of ten are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities. 23

Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the world’s most active water markets. Cities and towns of all size are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas River basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 9,600 hectares (23,000 acres) of cropland in the Arkansas valley. 24

Far larger purchases are being made by cities in California, a state of 36 million people. In 2003, San Diego bought annual rights to 247 million cubic meters (1 cubic meter of water equals 1 ton) of water from farmers in nearby Imperial Valley—the largest rural/urban water transfer in U.S. history. This agreement covers the next 75 years. In 2004, the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 18 million southern Californians in several cities, negotiated the purchase of 137 million cubic meters of water per year from farmers for the next 35 years. Without irrigation water, the highly productive land owned by these farmers is wasteland. The farmers who are selling their water rights would like to continue to grow crops, but city officials are offering much more for the water than the farmers could possibly earn by using it to produce crops. 25

In many countries, farmers are not compensated for a loss of irrigation water. In 2004, for example, Chinese farmers along the Juma River downstream from Beijing discovered that the river had run dry. A diversion dam had been built near the capital to take river water for Yanshan Petrochemical, a state-owned industry. Although there were bitter protests by the farmers, it was a losing battle. For the 120,000 villagers downstream from the diversion dam, livelihoods would suffer, perhaps crippling their ability to make a living from farming. Whether it is a result of outright government expropriation, farmers being outbid by cities, or cities simply drilling deeper wells than farmers can afford, the world’s farmers are losing the water war. 26

In the competition between cities and farms, cities have the advantage simply because they can pay much more for water. In China, a thousand tons of water can be used to produce 1 ton of wheat, worth at most $200, or it can be used to expand industrial output by $14,000—70 times as much. In a country where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, scarce water is no longer going to farmers. Agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the world’s increasingly scarce supply of water. 27

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22. Noel Gollehon and William Quinby, “Irrigation in the American West: Area, Water and Economic Activity,” Water Resources Development, vol. 16, no. 2 (2000), pp. 187–95; Patrick O’Driscoll, “Dry West Sends Out for Water,” USA Today, 27 July 2004.

23. Joey Bunch, “Cities’ Water Needs Uprooting Colorado Farms,” Denver Post, 11 July 2004; The Water Strategist, various issues at www.waterstrategist.com.

24. Arkansas River basin from Joey Bunch, “Water Projects Forecast to Fall Short of Needs: Study Predicts 10% Deficit in State,” Denver Post, 22 July 2004.

25. Dean Murphy, “Pact in West Will Send Farms’ Water to Cities,” New York Times, 17 October 2003; Tim Molloy, “California Water District Approves Plan to Pay Farmers for Irrigation Water,” Associated Press, 13 May 2004; California population from Californians for Population Stabilization, population figures, at www.cap-s.org, viewed 1 October 2004.

26. “China Politics: Growing Tensions Over Scarce Water,” The Economist, 21 June 2004.

27. Calculation based on 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, op. cit. note 1, and on global wheat prices from IMF, International Financial Statistics (Washington, DC: various years); industrial water intensity in Mark W. Rosegrant, Claudia Ringler, and Roberta V. Gerpacio, “Water and Land Resources and Global Food Supply,” paper prepared for the 23rd International Conference of Agricultural Economists on Food Security, Diversification, and Resource Management: Refocusing the Role of Agriculture, Sacramento, CA, 10–16 August 1997.


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