23 September 2014

Rational waste -- my new paper on desalination

I started this paper in Riyadh, where I was trying to understand the government's policy of providing ridiculously cheap water.

Please read it and tell me what you think (where I'm unclear, what ideas are useful, data corrections, etc.)

Title: Rational Waste: The Political-Economy of Desalination

Abstract: This paper explores the economic and political dimensions of responding to water scarcity by increasing supply rather than reducing demand with examples from San Diego (US), Almeria (ES) and Riyadh (SA). Each case explains how leaders benefit by obscuring the costs of desalinated supplies. In San Diego, marginal costs are diffused among customers. In Almeria, they are absorbed by a government eager to reduce unsustainable groundwater use. Rulers in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, absorb costs in exchange for political quiet. Each case discusses potential means of extending current policies (greater regional trust, improved groundwater condition, and reduced agricultural irrigation, respectively) as well as reforms to facilitate the adoption of policies with lower economic and social costs.

You can download a copy here

Anything but water

  1. A Dutch student photoshops her holiday to "prove" how easy it is to lie about reality on Facebook

  2. Peter Thiel (Paypal, Facebook, etc.) explains the difference between a good monopoly that innovates to make excess profits and a bad one that counts on protection for excess profits. This essay, meanwhile, backs Amazon in its quest to drive down book prices, even if publishers get screwed -- like scribes were

  3. An excellent podcast on the abuse of economic models (something that's annoyed me for ages) that every graduate student (and connoisseur of bullshit) should listen to. Related: Academics review papers more quickly when they are paid, either because they like the money or respect for their effort it represents

  4. ...and then they came for the computers: don't believe governments claiming that limits on technology will protect us from piracy, viruses, terrorists, etc.

  5. "Poverty" is not the same in developed countries. Inequality is the real -- and actionable -- problem
H/Ts to RM and anon

22 September 2014

Monday funnies

Conference calls in (painfully) real life


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said "I have seen the work of man:
Vast with pumps, dams, and machines;
Covered with pictures of fruit-and-nut dreams.
I saw a land stretched into dust,
Where men had labored and planted with trust.
They said the water would always be there,
Sucked from ground, chopped from river, pulled from air.
That water, abundant, was spent on crops
Taken far away, save occasional drops.
It took a century to replace Nature's share
With dead engines, cracked cement and dusty air.
The poor lost jobs, the rich drained pools;
The fish were already dead, sacrificed by fools.
I traveled the world but found none to care;
California killed itself, somewhere over there."
Inspired by this New Yorker piece, "Paradise Burning": "Mother Nature is teaching us a lesson. Whenever you have an abundance, don't spoil it."

20 September 2014

Flashback: 15-21 Sep 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

19 September 2014

Friday party!

What kind of accents would you hear at a London party? This guy will help you tell them apart:

Speed blogging

  1. Me on Yahoo Canada: "The Water Wars: Conflicts over water sources continue to grow"

  2. About 20 percent of people (in this sample) often pee in the shower

  3. A very interesting podcast on water infrastructure with Marshall Davert of MWH Global, a good reddit thread on how pipes stay clean (or get clogged) and a nice photo essay on a big NYC wastewater treatment plant

  4. The US Patent system is so broken: patents pending on systems for monitoring, marketing and analyzing water rights?!?

  5. China's S-N water transfer may stunt regional growth. No duh

  6. Delusional mayors plead for subsidies because "local governments pay for 98 percent of infrastructure improvements," but water-system failure would harms the national economy. Their economic illiteracy is exceeded only by their weak grasp of cost-benefit analysis: payment in proportion to benefits. I don't see any benefit to someone in Indiana for a water project in San Francisco.
HTs to RM and LV

18 September 2014

What can a state employee do to fight corrupt policy?

I got this email from a little bird (LB):
After 3 years of having my head deep in ecosystem restoration and coming the the conclusion that our program is just chasing its tail (not addressing the real problem, but doing lots of hand waving so that it looks like progress on the surface), I want to know how to push the debate towards the real issues of water over use, farming in inappropriate soils, depletion of ground water, political corruption, etc.

In terms of the CVP & SWP, Westlands Water District (and other junior water right holders farming in salty soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley), Federal Biological Opinions for the pumps in Tracy that address environmental symptoms instead of the cause (over-allocation), and subsidized water deliveries to billionaire farmers who are very cozy with state and federal politicians... What can someone like me -- a CA State Government employee working to protect our natural resources -- do to fix a system that is, well, already "fixed" for the benefit of special interests?
In reply, I said:
Thanks for your insights. I'm surprised that I don't hear, more often, from state employees...

You're in a tough spot. There's a bit of robber barons going on here -- they stole the gold and laundered it into mansions, etc. How to get it back?

I agree with you that many policies (and employees) focus on details while missing the big picture, e.g, WHY are we sending water in huge aqueducts to huge farms?

Perhaps the best way to push back on the current system is to imagine -- and project -- two different futures: (1) with business as usual (collapsing aquifers and ecosystems; dust bowl, etc.) versus (2) with changes in flows, smaller farms, etc.

The vision thing can help people grasp an alternative which can THEN result in huge policy overhauls. It's like busting a dam and seeing a river revive. People THEN understand the point.
LB wrote back:
I think a reason why you don't hear from state employees more often is because they are either too busy in their specialized tasks to have time to come up for air to see the big picture or following the "state worker golden rule," i.e., don't make more work for yourself.

I agree that vision is a powerful tool. I'm not sure how to apply that in a department that is reactionary and can't keep employees long enough to build institutional knowledge to see the vision through.

I've often joked to colleagues that only Oprah can save the environment due to her ability to sway the masses and plant the vision... but then this is a conversation about water, fish, farms and money, not sexy celebrities. We ecologists are not allowed to contact elected government officials. They can ask for information from us, but it's not to be given unsolicited. It is very "chain of command" here, and I'm still figuring out how that end of the machine functions.
Can any of you offer advice, sympathy or ideas to help LB do their job and/or cope in an environment that is designed to minimize innovation and feedback?

17 September 2014

Anything but water

  1. A really good backgrounder on the origins of ISIS (goes back to 570AD) and the influence of poorly-chosen borders. (Obama should send the bill to France and Britain)

  2. Don't waste your money on vitamins. They do nothing for your health (exception: folic acid for expecting mothers)

  3. A really fascinating website to explore people's priorities (healthcare, reliable energy, honest government, etc.) around the world

  4. Were we happier in the Stone Age? Perhaps, yes, when you consider the perverse impacts of consumerism

  5. An inquiry into social isolation and unhappiness: "Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun."

16 September 2014

The practical ways in which laws are undermined

A water bureaucrat (WB) explained to me how laws that sound good in theory may be worthless in reality.

Water users in his state can pump groundwater with permission, without permission (exempt), or in excess of their permission (illegal).

Problems result from exempt or illegal pumping, so WBs (who want to represent/protect the public) should either monitor everyone (assuming adequate resources) or go after the largest abusers (prioritizing given a lack of resources).

WB told me that neither of these strategies are pursued. Politicians have withheld funding to monitor all uses, and they have directed WBs to monitor permitted uses. Given that most permits (say 90 percent) go to small users, these instructions mean that WBs spend 90 percent of their time on users who may account for 10-20 percent of total use (and very little abuse). WBs do not pay extra attention to large users, and they entirely ignore exempt users. The upshot is that the WBs are busy but useless.*

Bottom Line: Vague regulations and mis-prioritized enforcement can lower bureaucratic impact to zero, even with hard working, qualified staff. Pay attention to outcomes, and pay more attention to politicians who talk about sustainability but then hinder its pursuit.
* We would predict this result if we knew politicians condone over-use of groundwater. We can assume they do condone such over-use, given the predictable and known impact of their instructions.