By Wayne Voelz
There are several interesting correlations to consider with the shift in paradigm that has occurred in the U.S. over the last 40 years from an economy based on physical production, advanced by science and technology, to an economy based on monetarism and it’s contagion, speculation. These have to do with literal “downstream” consequences of the rampant speculative real estate development which has been a primary factor in the financial and economic breakdown crisis we are currently experiencing.
There has been an alarming transformation of hundreds of thousands of acres of inherently productive agricultural land, that had a high intrinsic value, in ratio to it’s ability to produce food and fiber, into residential and recreational property which, in most cases has rendered that land not only useless for agricultural purposes but in many, subdivided land has become an actual detriment to adjacent and downstream property. Ironically, the process has come full circle with the crash of the real estate bubble and the much higher speculative value, which was based on marketing desirable features such as a rural location, pastoral setting, creek frontage, forest, green grass, beautiful view and the like, has all but disappeared.
Agricultural land that had a useful ongoing productive value, through the process of excessive speculative development, made possible by deregulating the banking industry with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, in many cases has been transformed, en mass, into land that actually, as a whole, has not only been financially destructive to the economy but has become physically destructive as well.
I am personally aware of instances where farmland around the perimeter of the Phoenix Metroplex that sold for as high as $500,000 per acre during the peak of the frenzy. That would be approximately 100 times the current price of irrigated farmland. In the wake of the speculative bubble much of that land has reverted, through the process of foreclosure and sale on the auction block, to something much closer to the price of farmland. Its speculative value evaporated in reality, but is still allowed, by congress, to be considered an asset on the books of speculative banks. Something that doesn’t exist in reality is considered to have a delusional monetary value.
I’ll explain. This has mainly occurred through the subdividing of agricultural land typically in fertile river valleys and adjacent elevated land with a view. The trend started with suburban farmland in the late 50’s during the post war boom and steadily progressed, then dramatically accelerated in the decade preceding the collapse of the real estate industry in 2007.
Of course many cities and towns are situated in river valleys for the obvious reason, being proximity to a water source to support people, agriculture and industry. There was a natural progression, population was increasing, and continuing development of land was necessary. The logic was reasonable; just expand the city or town like rings on a tree.
Typically, adjacent land was devoted to agriculture. Through the implementation of more extensive water distribution systems, people in agriculture could relinquish their land adjacent to cities and towns to commercial and residential developers and move further out in wider concentric circles. Farmers and ranchers could receive many times the price of agricultural land that could finance the purchase and development of parcels in these outlying areas. It’s worth noting here that this is not always the case, especially in the last 10–15 years. The proceeds from the sales of certain agricultural properties have been virtual windfalls that have provided the funds for the owner’s retirement and children’s inheritance. There is little or no incentive to continue in what is typically a difficult and risky business.
Water devoted to agriculture could be used to support people and commerce. Thus, the lands highest and best use was to provide space for commercial and residential development that had, at least, equal intrinsic economic value. Simply stated, economic value could be considered to be anything that is either essential to or contributes to the survival and thrival of human beings, and life in general which should be the prime objective.
This was a workable strategy as long as there was viable land and water available. The reality is, this is no longer the case and over the last forty years thousands of square miles of agricultural land have been taken out of production and the water that supported it diverted to other uses without being adequately replaced. In many cases of irrigated farmland, subdivided for residential and/or recreational purposes, there are consequences that seem to have gone relatively unnoticed or at best, not fully understood and addressed.
Typically, when a parcel of rural land is subdivided water rights are relinquished. Where water is in short supply deficiencies in the system are supplemented, in which case the right gets absorbed and doesn’t continue to exist per se. In certain cases the right can be reallocated and purchased. In areas where water is relatively plentiful, unused water that has not been reallocated remains in the drainage system. It’s common for this to occur. In order for these water rights to be effectively redistributed there would need to be available irrigable land. This would require the extension of an existing system or the creation of a new system, which can be cost prohibitive to an individual or small group.
The reason developers relinquish water rights can be both physical and financial. For example, in most cases in outlying areas, city type sewer systems are unavailable or cost prohibitive and an individual sanitary sewer system with a drainage field has to be constructed on every new lot. Most designs are not compatible with mass irrigation and those that are tend to be very expensive.
Access to smaller parcels requires the construction of roadways that dissect fields and interrupt irrigation patterns. Drainage is a primary consideration in commercial and residential land development and the goal of the civil engineer and planning authorities is to move the water off the land and back to the drainage channels, not retain it. In certain cases retention basins can be used where drainage conditions are marginal or nonexistent. Though they are typically not designed as component of an irrigation system, they can work extremely well as mosquito breeding ponds.
From a financial perspective, the cost of subdividing water rights and reorganizing an irrigation system that was designed to spread water over, say a 100-acre field, into one that serves 20 five-acre parcels is usually cost prohibitive. It has been done but it’s not the rule. Where it has been done the systems tend to be difficult to manage and are often not used, generally because it requires too much time and effort on the part of the recreational landowner.
The lack of irrigation, particularly on land that has been cultivated, has a direct consequence on the property itself, especially in the wake of the recent collapse of the real estate development industry where major subdivisions lay deteriorating unattended.
These outlying properties can be typically 2, 5 or 10 acre parcels or larger that can no longer participate in existing formal irrigation systems, many of which were implemented as a result of the National Reclamation Act of 1902 and within the scope of FDR’s water management projects. The only alternative for irrigation is to drill a well that has enough volume to make a difference. This usually isn’t feasible due to the initial cost of drilling, the pumping system and the subsequent cost of operation. The result of the lack of irrigation is that land tends to deteriorate to the point that it will only support detrimental grasses and weeds that spread to surrounding land. If the property is being used as a hobby farm, overgrazing is common which exacerbates the problem.
The circumstances described above are not isolated cases here and there. One can find these conditions in every area of the country. The issues I am bringing up for consideration are not intended to be an argument against developing desirable property on which people can live and work. My purpose here is to focus attention on what might be called unrealized, indirect consequences resulting from land development essentially driven by excessive speculation.
With perhaps certain exceptions, where land was only platted without the construction of infrastructure, it has been rendered useless for agriculture. There can be little or no reclamation due to the loss of the water right and the cost of remediation. In particular cases, developed subdivisions and even large-scale master-planned communities lay dormant and deteriorating and require remediation even for their intended purpose.
There are two problems that have a circular reference and both deserve immediate consideration. The most apparent of these should be the loss of productive farmland that has not been replaced, which is alarming enough, but also the fact that during the years with the most decline, 1997-2007, in which there was a net loss of 33 million acres or 51,500 square miles, we needed to be adding 45 million acres of arable agricultural land to support the increasing population of the country, let alone any consideration for reserve or export. The result has not only been the reduction of food reserves in the U.S. and the world (down to 1-2 months) but a growing dependence on foreign countries for food and fiber. This is becoming extremely relevant in the wake of recent weather events that have and continue to impact agriculture negatively, not just in the U.S. but also worldwide.
The second problem is not as obvious but deserves equal attention and that is the problem created by runoff resulting from the changes required to subdivided land that can exacerbate downstream flooding that was heretofore being, at least to some degree mitigated by the flood control mechanisms of organized irrigation projects. One thing that may not be fully understood is that organized irrigation systems not only distribute water to crops but can also act as the final component of flood control. During rain and/or runoff events from snowmelt, water can be distributed over broad expanses of agricultural land, which reduces the volume in the river or creek channel from which it is drawn. Even in the case of major recent events, where land is saturated and/or subjected to deluge, flood energy can be dissipated and deferred to some degree.
This issue may be a more complex challenge than replacing farmland given land development projects completed in the last 25-30 yrs. are typically designed to handle 100 year flood events but feed into older drainage systems that have not been effectively modified to handle increased volumes. This is an area where further investigation needs to occur and creativity applied to solutions that better manage flood control in concert with new methods of redirecting existing water resources to productive uses.
It is my contention that the extreme flooding that we have witnessed in various areas of the country especially in the more developed areas has probably been exacerbated by the circumstances and conditions I have described above. I’m proffering these observations for consideration to those civil engineers and hydrologists who may be able to add to the discussion.
NAWAPA will provide all the water necessary to replace and expand agricultural land in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It will also provide the platform for the study, development and application of biospheric engineering methods and technology needed to address the problems discussed above while in the process of laying out and developing whole new regions of agricultural land and attending cities and towns.
Thrival: The creative development, advancement and expansion of mankind and his universes to ever high states of existence for the purpose of experiencing the greatest good, prosperity and happiness for the greatest number of beings. Yup, I coined it. You won’t find it in the dictionary.
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