Don't blame frackers for U.S. water shortages
Giant aquifers such as the Central Valley aquifer in California and the Ogallala beneath Texas and the other Plains states have fallen, in some cases by 100 feet or more, over several decades. The drop in the water table started long before the fracking revolution.
By focusing on just a tiny handful of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States that happen to have large numbers of oil wells, small populations, lots of farming, and droughts, the report makes fracking look like the culprit.
At the margin, fracking may make the existing water stress situations worse, but it does not cause them. The solution is not to regulate fracking on its own but to pursue a comprehensive reform of water allocation. The number one target has to be cutting wasteful water use by farmers.
Other sources of water stress come from the massive expansion of metropolitan areas in the arid of Southwest, which have seen the most rapid population growth of any cities in the country, in a region already severely short of water.
Pricing Scarce Resources
In its report, Ceres makes a string of recommendations to fracking firms and their investors to conserve water. But the real challenge is to force everyone (farmers, urban developers, homeowners and golf course owners as well as frackers) to think more carefully about water use.
At a regional level, water consumption is far too high across much of the Great Plains and Southwest. Low prices and poor regulation have encouraged over-consumption.
The solution is a better specification of water rights, higher water prices and a more market-oriented approach that allocates water to the customers who value it most and are able to pay the highest prices for it.
At the county level, the problem is excess consumption coupled with the lack of transport infrastructure in small rural counties. Again the solution is to improve regulation and raise prices to ration the available supply and encourage frackers, farmers or local water companies to bring in more water from outside the county.
Ceres spotlights the experience of Kern County, California, the country's largest producer of almonds, pistachios and citrus, where the oil industry and farming have coexisted for decades. Many farmers receive royalties for oil wells on their land among their groves.
"Although the oil and agricultural industries have coexisted for many years in Kern County, elevated water use for hydraulic fracturing in the context of massive drought could alter this course," it warned. "There are growing concerns that the agriculture sector will find it more lucrative to sell their water for oil exploration than growing crops."
But that is surely the point: in a market economy, clear property rights coupled with price signals channel scarce resources such as water to those who value them and can pay the most. If farmers can make more money selling water to fracking firms than by irrigating their fields, they should be allowed to do so.
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