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Nicola Tynan

Tap water in Carlisle is cheap.

It costs less than a penny a gallon to cover the cost of high-quality water treatment, storage, delivery and network maintenance. In drought-stricken California, tap water also is cheap, but should it be?

When something is cheap, this usually reflects its abundance. This might be true for water from the Conodoguinet Creek, but it’s clearly not the case in California, where annual precipitation is 10 to 35 percent below typical levels. With more than half of the state facing exceptional drought — the U.S. Geological Survey’s most severe category for water scarcity — Californians face water shortages, restrictions on use and fines for overuse.

While we feel concern for those living with water restrictions, California is a long way off and it may seem as though we are not directly affected here in Carlisle.

But we are.

The availability of water in California affects the price of food in Carlisle grocery stores, particularly vegetables, fruits, eggs and dairy products that are not grown locally in sufficient quantity to meet demand. The cost of food in the United States rose 21 percent between 2006 and 2013; the cost of a home-cooked meal rose more during the first six months of 2014 than the full 12 months of 2013, partly as a result of the California drought. Water shortages in the west have raised the price of beef, carrots, broccoli and lettuce. If the drought continues, prices are likely to rise further in 2015.

Many California farmers with reduced surface-water supplies have turned to limited groundwater reserves. This will tide them over for the next few months. If the drought continues next year, surface-water restrictions will continue, groundwater use will be limited by the state’s new groundwater laws or diminished aquifers, and agricultural output will fall.

California’s drought is a natural phenomenon, but the resulting water shortages are largely a result of inappropriately low and inflexible prices. To make sure we do not pay more than necessary for our food, we need to pay more for water. If water is priced as the scarce resource it is, users will receive the necessary signal to conserve on its use.

As you take a sip of coffee to reflect on this, note that your coffee is more expensive this year as a result of drought in Brazil.

Nicola Tynan is an associate professor of economics at Dickinson College in Carlisle and part of an interdisciplinary faculty study group on water. The group’s columns, titled “Water Works,” will appear regularly in the Sunday Explore section.

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