Water certainty is important. Without water certainty, there are real declines in economic output and value added diminishes.
To illustrate the importance of certainty let’s focus on irrigation water shortages in a four-county region in Texas called the lower Rio Grande Valley. Before we get into the details of the case study let’s suppose for a minute you are a farmer growing a high-value specialty crop (i.e. vegetables, citrus or sugar cane in this study) that depends on the timing and availability of water use. As you plan for the current crop year, you and your neighbors are talking about the uncertainty of water supply and anticipated water shortages that will affect your ability to irrigate. How long would it take you to make a decision to change the type of crop you plan to grow if you have the option to switch to a different lesser valued crop, one that is less water intensive?
The answer always depends but is likely sooner rather than later because actions will be made based on the producer’s marginal cost curve, the cost to produce one more unit of a good at a given market price for that good. When water is in short supply the real cost of acquiring water goes up which impacts margins. For the larger economy, any uncertainty in the availability of water is significant because small changes can cause shifts in behavior (i.e. growing a lower value crop, water transfers) driven by anticipated water shortages. These farm-scale level decisions add up to a loss in economic productivity for much larger geographic areas.
Economic Loss in the Lower Rio Grande Valley
Most people don’t know may not know this fact, but the southern portion of the Rio Grande River is largely fed by rivers that originate in northern Mexico. Any shortage in the delivery of water impacts farming all through the southern border of Texas. A paper published by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension estimated the economic impact of irrigation water shortages of Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV), an area that relies heavily upon irrigated agriculture. The area suffered water shortages starting in 1992 when Rio Grande River treaty obligations were not met. The United States and Mexico have a long-standing treaty in place which governs available supply to both nations from the Rio Grande River waters. Surface water shortages began because Mexico started undersupplying the average minimum annual amount of 350,000 acre-feet (based on a 5-year cycle).
$395 Million Lost Economic Output
The Texas A&M analysis estimated the total economic loss of irrigated crop production lead to an estimated $394.9 million loss in economic output (2012 dollars). Likewise, the loss of irrigated crop production in the LRGV region generated a loss of $217.61 million in forgone value added. In terms of employment, the loss of irrigation results in an estimated loss of 4,840 jobs that depend on the production and sales of agricultural commodities for some portion of their income.
As large as these numbers are we should consider this is the loss for a small four-county region of the lone-star state. The analysis only includes the farm-level sale of crops, such as transportation, storage, processing, packaging, and marketing. The estimates based on the modeling used in this study are specific and limited to direct economic impact and do not consider losses external to farm production. There are other economic costs wrapped up in water administration systems which are important to consider in the broader context of economic valuation. For example, the opportunity cost of water abstraction, downstream or lower priority benefits lost to upstream demand. Similarly, secondary economic impacts of water transfers experienced by buyers or sellers.
Irrigation Dependent Farm Land
The Texas A&M study only focused on a small four-county spot in Texas. Why should you care if don’t live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley? Consider the economic impacts as you look at a map that shows how many western counties depend heavily upon irrigation (orange to red). All counties shown in red have a significant amount of cropland area all susceptible to the water uncertainty. Roughly one-third of the United States.
Public Policy Challenges
Also consider these western states are governed by institutional frameworks that were intended to address issues surrounding equitable apportionment—fair, reliable sharing of water within a specific historical context. The rules that govern water allocation vary location by location and tend to defer to historical evidence of production, not adaptive management. Diminishing snow packs, reduced streamflow and earlier spring-runoffs are further complicating the challenges of managing water.
How will regulating agencies and farmers address the issues of certainty?
Periodic severe droughts and population growth are not going away. Water scarcity issues such as irrigation water shortages will continue to get worse, not better in the arid and semi-arid part of this country. As water scarcity issues continue to become more common how will institutional frameworks respond to the economic losses associated with water shortages? At the farm-scale, what impact will the uncertainty of water have on cultural practices? How will crop selection, the timing of planting and geographic distribution of where crops are grown shift over time in the context of available water supply?