27 Aug 2007

Tap vs. Bottle -- Energy

It continues to amaze me that people buy bottled water. Not just because they can get perfectly good tap water for "free" (about $1/100 gallons) but because bottled water comes in bottles that are used once and thrown away. Even if you use those 5 gallon, returnable bottles, the energy cost of moving those bottles is extraordinary. (Remember that one lt of water weighs 1 kg. One gallon is about 8 pounds!)

The New York Times editorial page recently said the energy used in bottling alone could power 100,000 cars for a year. The Pacific Institute says the NYT figure is off by a factor of ten: "more than 17 million barrels of oil were used to make the billions of plastic water bottles American's consumed in 2006. That figure that does not include the energy used to fill, transport, chill and dispose of the bottles. Much of that water was tap water, refiltered and packaged for purchase."

Why do people do it? My answer is brainwashing (It's worth the money, its safer, it's clean, I care about my baby, etc.) Few bottled water manufacturers mention that tap water is subject to more safety regulation than bottled water. (Although I believe that markets can be better police than regulators, people worry more about water and want to know a regulator is there...)

Bottom Line: Bottled water is a scam -- and a wasteful one at that!

22 Aug 2007

Government Floods

In a recent article, an area that residents' claim is unlikely to flood is set to be re-zoned as a flood plain. If that happens, residents are going to pay more for flood insurance -- if they can get it at all.

The relevant concept here is moral hazard, i.e., when people fail to protect themselves because they know the government will "save" them. In the case of flood areas, they means they under-insure. The solution is to make them buy insurance.

But what if the government decides they are in a flood area when they are not? What if they are then forced to buy insurance? Moral hazard is reversed, with the insurance companies gaining from over-insurance.

Curiously, these problems are less-relevant for fires, theft, car accidents, etc. Why? Because floods tend to affect large -- politically united -- areas. These areas unite in favor of a bail-out and politicians roll-over. This result (from public choice economics) is common in interest-group politics.

I know that the classification of flood plains is hard, but a better solution requires ALL property at sea level (+2-3 meters) to have insurance. Competition among insurers should keep premia down.

Bottom Line: When the government is on the line for flood damage, it also has the power to force insurance coverage. Two wrongs don't make a right. The government should step to higher ground.

15 Aug 2007

Water, a Victimless Crime

We often think of black markets in drugs and sex, but black markets in water also exist. The LA Times reports [see below] that police have "busted" truckers for delivering water that didn't meet regulatory requirements. Not surprisingly, the buyers and sellers of this illicit substance are not happy -- they were making useful, mutually beneficial trades. Now that the trucks are gone, what happens to the hapless residents?

Bottom Line: The State is not always thinking of our best interests when they "protect" us.

High desert water delivery halted; A state sting shuts down many haulers, alleging their cargo was non-potable. Some residents say they just want cheap deliveries.;

Sara Lin (sara.lin@latimes.com). Los Angeles Times. Aug 8, 2007. pg. B.3

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. -- Despite the 95-degree heat this week, Elsie Wenger has shut off her evaporative cooler, stopped flushing her toilets and forgone showers.

Wenger, 86, and others who live in remote high desert patches started saving water in a panic Friday after state health officials and the California Highway Patrol impounded several water trucks that supplied these far-flung homesteads with the precious resource.

Authorities said the trucks were delivering non-potable water. But some customers said they didn't mind -- the water was cheap.

"There's nothing wrong with the water. We got it tested years ago and it's good, clean water," Wenger said, her voice shaking. "All of us who live out of town depend on these water trucks. I don't know what to do."

The California Department of Public Health stopped three water trucks during a three-day sting, issuing three citations for unlicensed and unsanitary vehicles.

Two of the trucks were impounded by CHP officers because their operators didn't have drivers' licenses or permits. The third was cited for mechanical problems and ordered out of service, said CHP Sgt. Jim Fonseca.

As news of the sting spread Friday, water deliveries across eight desert communities were halted.

Residents have been conserving water ever since in Johnson Valley, Morongo Valley, Landers, Pioneertown, Wonder Valley, Lucerne Valley, Yucca Valley and Fairview Valley.

State health officials said their investigation was prompted by anonymous complaints.

"We are trying to make sure the water meets state and federal drinking water standards. You don't want the water contaminated by a dirty truck," said Lea Brooks, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health.

But locals were puzzled by the sudden crackdown -- most local water-haulers have been operating for years without licenses. The state didn't complain, and residents said they didn't either.

Mary Lou Huffman, 50, of Lucerne Valley said it was no secret that most trucks delivered non-potable water. She uses the delivered water for her evaporative cooler, showers, toilets and laundry."We buy our drinking water," she said.Sharon Edwards of L&S Water Delivery in Johnson Valley even asks her clients to sign a waiver acknowledging that they're receiving non-potable water.

"We're delivering water to tanks that are old and aren't sanitized themselves. I think all my customers care about is getting water at a good price," she said.

Larry Edwards, Sharon's husband, was one of the drivers caught in last week's sting.

He got a call Thursday morning from state agents posing as a construction crew who said they were laying tile and needed water delivered. As soon as Edwards handed over a receipt for the delivery, two men in bulletproof vests came around the corner of the house, he said.

They cited him for allegedly putting non-potable water in a storage tank where someone could access it for drinking or food processing.

Upgrading his truck with a food-grade tank, hoses and fixtures to comply with state law for water-haulers will probably cost him $4,000, he said. And until he does that and applies for a state license his 60 customers are trying to make their water last.

State health officials on Monday announced that they would expedite applications from unlicensed haulers and allow them to resume their deliveries as long as they were making good-faith efforts to come into compliance.

But for some residents, it might be too late.

"We're coming up on one of the hottest months of the year and we don't have any alternatives," Wenger said.

She went to a restaurant for lunch Monday so she wouldn't have to wash any dishes.

Wenger lives in a wooden ranch-style home off a narrow dirt road three miles from the highway.

On Monday, she tried to hire Ron Caruso, a water carrier from Hesperia, but he refused to come to Lucerne Valley after he said he received death threats -- some residents believe he called state authorities to report the unlicensed water carriers, an allegation Caruso denies.

"I'm the only legal guy. I guess because I'm legal and they're not, I'm the jerk," he said.

Because he has to haul the water farther than the local carriers did, he charges twice as much.

"I'm on a fixed income. I can't afford that," Wenger said.

7 Aug 2007

Why Desalination is Popular

In a recent article, a reporter discusses the appeal of using desalination to turn ocean water into drinking water. This method is certainly feasible, but it's expensive and energy-wasting relative to using existing water supplies. Why then is desalination so popular? Because its easier to "make" water using energy bought in the market than negotiating for water through the political process. The sad thing is that water trading is so hard to do that people who want water go and find it elsewhere. This response parallels the response to illegal drugs (grow your own, go to the black market) and sex (go to a prostitute).

There is plenty of water in California. The farmers have it, and many want to sell it. Let them.

Bottom Line: Overregulation of water markets leads those who want it to use environmentally-unfriendly means to get it.

6 Aug 2007

The Salton Sea Must Die

The Salton Sea was "created" by the error of man (a levee on the Colorado River gave way around 100 years ago, filling the ancient depression), and it continues to exist through the errors of man:

First, the only source of water to the "sea" is runoff from over-irrigation in the Imperial Valley. If and when this toxic runoff decreases, the "sea" will dry up.

Second, the effort to "save" it is led by real estate developers eager to maintain the value of their property. They claim that the "sea" has environmental value as a stop for migrating birds. They choose to ignore the fact that the Colorado Delta is a far better places for the bird to stop -- perhaps because the Delta is in Mexico, a place inhabited by brown people who do not need Federal assistance ($8.9 Billion?) as much as the local lobbyists do.

“My big concern is the sea will die before we can save it,” said Rick Daniels, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, a public agency involved in preservation.

Read more (including a good debate) here

Bottom Line: People are using Baptist and Bootlegger arguments to help themselves. What was wrong 100 years ago (a flooded depression) is even more wrong. The Sea must die. Restore the Colorado Delta instead. Nature will thank us.