The Trade of the Century

When you think about hot commodities right now, you probably don’t
think of water. Yet the price of water in some parts of the world is
rising…sometimes very quickly. Take California, for example.

Mark Swatek is CEO of Southwest Water Co., a water utility that serves
California and the Southwestern US. You may accuse him of talking his
book when he says: “One of the fastest growing commodity prices is the
price of metropolitan water [in Southern California].”

It may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Since 2007, the
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased its
water rates from $574 an acre-foot to $781 an acre-foot – a 36%
increase. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood a plain
of one acre to a depth of one foot – or about 326,000 gallons.)

More increases are on the way. The MWD has approved an increase to $811
an acre-foot by January 2010 and another increase to $985 by 2011. That
would mean a 71% increase in five years. Despite these increases, water
is still too cheap in Southern California.

“This is a resource that has been underpriced for 50 years,” says Keith
Brackpool, CEO of Cadiz, a water development company based in LA. (More
on Cadiz below.) Even with the increases, a consumer might pay $10 a
day for power and only $3 for water. “You pay more in Manhattan, and
Manhattan isn’t a desert.”

Speaking of Manhattan… As I write these words, I’m at the Grand Hyatt
on 42nd Street in Manhattan, near Grand Central Station. I’m here for
the Gabelli Water Investment Summit, where about 10 different companies
in the water business make presentations to a roomful of analysts and
money managers.

These presentations give you a good look at what’s happening in water –
everything from water utilities to desalination, from irrigation to
flow valves. It’s hard to listen to these companies and think there
isn’t a water crisis unfolding. It may be under the radar in some
places, but in others it’s already a full-blown crisis.

California is a good case study where the water crisis is in bloom.
Brackpool pointed out a number of challenges California faces. Here are

  • Supply limitations – In 2007, a federal judge put limits on the
    amount of water taken out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. The
    problem was as the water flows down from the Sierra Mountains, it also
    flows through an estuary before it reaches the state’s water supply.
    And the estuary was depleted due to excessive pumping, which endangered
    some fish native to the river. In any case, the system is delivering
    only 40% of capacity now. At this point, even several wet years won’t
    get it back to 100%
  • Drought – This is pretty well-known, but California just had its
    third consecutive dry year. Current reservoir levels are at all-time
  • Aging infrastructure – The system is no longer capable of supporting
    the increased population without significant investment.

To combat these problems, the state has done a number of things,
including those price increases I mentioned above. Yet because water is
still so cheap, the increased water rates have not had much of an
effect on water use so far. There is also an $11.1 billion water bond
that will provide funds for storing water. And there is a search for
new supplies of water. But as Brackpool says, “We’ve picked all the
low-hanging fruit. The next frontier requires a large extension

This is where Brackpool’s company, Cadiz, comes in. Brackpool was quick
to say that there was no single solution to the water crisis. Instead,
there will be many ideas – conservation, desalination and more. “Assets
like ours have a role to play in the quiver full of arrows called

Cadiz has an interesting story, and one that could be very rewarding
for shareholders. Cadiz owns 45,000 acres – about 70 square miles – in
eastern San Bernardino County. Its property lies at the base of a
1,300-square-mile watershed. It sits on top of one of Southern
California’s largest natural reservoirs. Rain and snowfall drain down
the Fenner Valley to Cadiz’s property. The water continues its journey
to two natural dry lakes… and eventually evaporates.

Cadiz has a plan to capture this water – to basically conserve the
water before it evaporates in the dry lakes. The Cadiz water project
will store the water and deliver it to Southern California users via a
conveyance pipeline and pumping station. It’s a $240 million project
that will conserve 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.

The quality of the water is superb. “Better than most bottled waters,”
Brackpool says.

For 20 years, Cadiz has been growing melons, squash, peppers, grapes
and more in the fertile soil nourished by the groundwater under its
property. This 1,600-acre farming operation is impressive in photos.
You see these big squares of green in the middle of a desert, almost as
if they’ve been painted on the earth. You can actually see them when
you’re flying in and out of LAX. However, the real value creation story
here is not in farming, but in monetizing the water assets.

Cadiz as a water play, though, is still a young bird yet to fly.
Construction of the project won’t begin until the first quarter of
2011, at the earliest. The company won’t finish completion until the
third quarter of 2012.

That’s a little distant for my tastes, and there are still some
environmental hurdles Cadiz must clear before it can proceed.
Nonetheless, I like the story and the asset. It’s well worth keeping an
eye on, as I intend to do. The ticker symbol is CDZI.

At the conference, I also heard Robert Sprowls speak. Sprowls is the
CEO of American States Water, another California utility. His firm owns
groundwater resources of 118,000 acre-feet of water. Asked to put a
value on that portfolio, Sprowls said that water rights in the region
go for $3,000-$7,000 an acre-foot. He ventured a guess of $5,000 per
acre for his company’s water rights – in the middle of that range –
which would yield a value of $590 million for the water rights

As American States Water – which has substantial assets beyond the
water rights – is worth only about $930 million in the marketplace,
this piqued my interest. However, it is difficult to turn these water
rights into cash when you are a regulated utility. It’s not likely the
regulators are going to let shareholders walk off with a haul without
sharing it with the ratepayers.

“It’s a difficult issue,” Sprowl conceded, “but we’re still thinking
about it.” In any event, Sprowls’s benchmark valuation for water rights
was useful information if only to show how valuable water rights are.

The best way to own water rights is to own PICO Holdings (NASDAQ:PICO).
It owns water rights mostly in Nevada and Arizona, some worth as much
as $45,000 per acre-foot. I estimate PICO’s water rights alone are
worth $700 million – and you get rest of the company for practically
nothing, as the market values PICO only for $732 million as I write. It
has nearly $200 million in cash. So just cash plus water rights more
than cover your investment. And these water rights appreciate in value
over time. PICO’s stock price simply does not reflect the intrinsic
value of its assets.

California, by the way, is no longer a hostile state for the water
utilities as far as rates are concerned. Those water increases I quoted
up top ought to be evidence enough of that. In 2005, California made
major changes to its policies, which I won’t detail here. The end
result: “California is great now,” as one analyst – a 10-year veteran
of water utilities – put it to me. “It is more likely now that water
utilities will earn good returns on capital.”

The handful of publicly traded California water utilities may well be
good investments now. Most trade below the acquisition multiples paid
for the last 10 significant takeovers of water utilities. The low end
of that range is about 2.5 times book value. The nearby chart shows you
the discounts in these stocks based on this estimate of private market
value, or PMV:

Cheap Water

Water worries extend far beyond just California and the American West,
as you know if you’ve read this letter for any length of time. Beyond
the ideas mentioned above, the summit served to reinforce my view that
water will be a good place to be in the years ahead.

Chris Mayer

for Markets and Money

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer is a veteran of the banking industry, specifically in the area of corporate lending. A financial writer since 1998, Mr. Mayer's essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the Daily Article series to here in Markets and Money. He is the editor of Mayer's Special Situations and Capital and Crisis - formerly the Fleet Street Letter.

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8 Comments on "The Trade of the Century"

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so the big corporations have polluted what water is left in the US, and we are suppose to believe the same nerds are our salvation ? 20 years of the Federal Clean Water Act was a waste also. Now, while T. Bone Pickens is buying up water rights, and it might be a good play if water ever becomes more precious than gold. But, look a little bit closer at what is really going on in the California Water market… when California has water, it is “sold” to some connected individuals for X, and they promptly turn around and sell… Read more »

The battle of Armageddon will be fought over water.


And what about the hundreds, yes hundreds, of underground nuclear blast sites in the Nevada desert.

The USA truly does have a poisoned heart. So does Australia, thanks to Menzies & the British.

Capacity to pay and internal immigration away from the most burdensome state taxation will increasingly determine such prices. California has closed the budget gap by less than 5% in its latest “deal”. Below from Doug Noland at Prudent Bear January 7 – Wall Street Journal (Sara Murray): “Personal bankruptcies soared last year in Western states hit hardest by the real-estate bust. In states such as California, Arizona and Nevada, where housing prices soared and then collapsed during the past decade, consumer bankruptcy filings rose roughly twice as much as the national average increase of 32%… In Arizona and Nevada, where… Read more »
Phil R
Well I am vehemently opposed to any kind of water trading by non agricultural producer based entities… In australia…water trading is now open to just about anyone..It used to be just open to farmers..Oh..But it got de regulated! I sold my home of 5 acres with a house and shedding near Finley NSW for $47,000 18 months ago after 3 long years of 0% water allocation. Although I was entitled to a 5 megalitre per annum entitlement…I never actually recieved it,although I did have to pay for it!Luckily for me..I wasnt actually a farmer The folks who bought the place… Read more »

I assume the speculators are buying because they are hoping for a capital gain on their ‘paper water’. The government must be guaranteeing a ‘risk free’ return.

That’s probably why you have to pay for the allocation even if you don’t receive any water Phil R, to prop up the water futures market.


…one’s body is 57% water…is the commoditization of water “OK” with the 43% that isn’t…are you “OK” with prostitution slavery or any of the other slippery slopes…?…are you less than 43% “OK” with prostitution, 18%…?…8 and a half…?..i mean, how thin is your end of the wedge…


Great comments baal and Phil R

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