29 October 2007

Carbon Neutral is the New Black

There's not a day that goes by without some company or celebrity announcing that they are "going carbon neutral". Very trendy, I think, and -- like most trends -- based less on science and more on social norms and image.

In one, recent example, a water desalination plant announced its CN-policy. Given that the plant is not operating, and is, in fact, seeking permission to operate, the announcement is probably more about PR than a careful economic or scientific conclusion.

For those of you who don't know, desalinating water is very energy intensive. What they do is push sea-water though a long filter to remove the salt. (This is more efficient than distilling the water though evaporation.) That pushing means that the cost of desalinated water is mostly the cost of energy.

The reason that these guys are going CN is that desalination uses far more energy than pumping groundwater or delivering water via aqueducts. People are nervous about the amount of energy used and the "waste" that implies. Unfortunately, the logical sources of water (farmers) don't sell it, as I have said here, here and here. (The solution is to improve the market for water.)

Desalination is popular because it provides reliable water without waiting for the farmers. Too bad it's so bad for the earth.

Bottom Line: Carbon Neutrality, like lipstick on a pig, does not make a bad policy good. We need to address the real, underlying problems. Don't go CN -- turn off the light!

27 October 2007

Meters for Water? You Crazy?

For many years, people paid a flat fee for water -- essentially an all-you-can-eat plan. Just as you would expect (and do observe at all-you-can-eat restaurants), people used lots and lots of water.

That worked fine while there was "too much" but when demand began to exceed supply, the obvious flaw in the system became apparent. While it was not "price effective" to meter people's water use in the past, it is now a more-pressing idea: First, because we want people who use more to pay more and second, because we want people to consider how much they are using -- having to pay for it helps them decide.

These sensible ideas face opposition in many communities where water has never been metered. This article tells the story of the "challenge" of metering Woodland -- just 10 miles from Davis. The big problem appears to be that some homes will be metered and others will not, which is "unfair". Their solution is to install -- but not use -- meters until all homes are connected. Woodland plans to meter 25% of homes by 2010. According to state law, they have to have all homes metered by 2025.

This time schedule seems rather leisurely.

Bottom Line: If it's important, it gets measured. Water is getting pretty damn important, so I hope the water agencies move a little faster in the measurement department!

25 October 2007

State-Sponsored Fools

A column in our local paper gives details of plans to reform land use in areas subject to flooding. The issue -- as always -- is government support or insurance of people who build "underwater". Land in floodplains tends to be cheaper than at higher altitudes (Think New Orleans), and those lower prices reflected flood risk.
Our tendency has been to ignore the potential perils and build homes, even entire towns, wherever it suits our fancy, with little thought to the potential consequences. When calamity strikes, as it does periodically, we clean up the mess and, with insurance settlements and government funds, rebuild and await the next episode.
The troubles began when "big hearted" (or developer-bribed) politicians began building "defenses" around housing in low-elevation areas or providing subsidized insurance to those areas. Those actions pleased developers (return on investment) and created a political constituency for more protection. The vicious circle spins further.

There is hope that changes in laws will re-balance incentives:
Among other things, the legislation would create new maps of flood-prone regions, bar local governments from approving development not enjoying 200-year flood protection and make them liable for damage if they unreasonably approve developments later stricken by flooding. Fittingly, a day after Schwarzenegger acted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cracked down on development of North Natomas.
Apparently these laws have been enacted. Let's see if people react by behaving sensibly instead of going to politicians for more favors.

Bottom Line: Politicians have been using other people's money for years to subsidize unsustainable land development. As these subsidies become more costly and harmful, we need to stop them.

20 October 2007

Davis has water trouble

The City of Davis (where I live) is planning to spend $150 million on water treatment and new supplies. For a town of 60,000 people, that's a lot of money. Unfortunately, they seem to be pursuing the standard engineering requirements model of water and waste management ("projections indicate we should build this capacity...")

Bottom Line: Even one of the nation's smartest towns has no imagination of how to improve water management. Spend more on demand management and market forces and less on hardware.

18 October 2007

Westlands Rips off the People -- again!

In the midst of California's most-recent "crisis", let's not forget that Westlands Water District is in the middle of another asset grab. This time, the Bureau of Reclamation is giving Westlands more water in exchange for Westlands' promise to clean up its own toxic runoff. (Westlands' past judo moves put the burden on the Feds.)

The feds want to get rid of a problem, and they can claim Westlands will take care of it. In a few years, when Westlands fails to do so, the problem will end up back in taxpayers' laps. Meanwhile, Westlands will still have that extra, nice-and-valuable water. Just another day of water policy in the West.

It's all in an excellent column by Bill Stahl at the Los Angeles Times.

17 October 2007

Sex, Gender, and The Public Toilet

Just when you thought academics were getting respectable... or is it "Only in New York"? Coming soon: 3 November 2007

Presented by New York University & The Center for Architecture

Panel I: The Social Construction of the Bathroom
Presenters: Beatriz Colomina (Professor, History and Theory Princeton University School of Architecture), Clara Greed (Professor of Inclusive Urban Planning, Planning and Architecture, University of the West of England), Ruth Barcan (Lecturer, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney, Australia)

Panelists: Barbara Penner (Director of Architectural Studies and Lecturer Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), Deborah Taylor (AIA LEED AP, Executive Director for Special Programs and Materials and Equipment Acceptance, New York City Department of Buildings), Matthew Sapolin (Executive Director of the New York City Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities), and Bronwen Pardes (Sexual Health Educator, HIV Counselor, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital)

Panel II: Building Gender / Building Toilets
Presenters: Joel Sanders (AIA, Principal, Joel Sanders Architect; Associate Professor, Yale University School of Architecture), Andrew Whalley (AA Dipl AIA RIBA, Partner-in-Charge, New York Office, Grimshaw)

Panelists: Mark Tsurumaki (AIA, Partner, LTL Architects), Charles McKinney (Chief of Design, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation), Pauline Park (Transgender activist), and Lori Pavese Mazor (AIA, Associate Vice President for Planning and Design NYU

Mopping Up [WTF?]: Harvey Molotch (Acting Director, Program in Metropolitan Studies; Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis; Professor, Department of Sociology, NYU)
Bottom Line: The toilet is an emotional place for some people. Ignore them at your peril!

12 October 2007

Charge more for water in San Diego

In one sensible editorial, the NC Times staff points out that more money (on dams) is not going to solve Southern California's water problem. Instead, they call for "conservation" and "market-based alternatives that would provide the most effective incentives for responsible water use." BRAVO! In fact, they sound so sensible (like me, it seems), that I prefer to quote them at further length:
For instance, a program that increased the cost of water once a household hit a monthly or yearly limit would do more to curb water waste than any public relations campaign. Households that had water left over could sell it back to the water district for use by someone else or for storage.
Bottom Line: The solution is in front of our eyes. Why does the governor and legislature insist on building more dams? Are construction firms such big political contributors?

11 October 2007

Unite or Die

Water districts have a hard time dividing water among themselves, but the least they should do is unite as a common front when negotiating with other water users. According to a recent article, the members of Imperial Irrigation District cannot even make this first step. As a result, they have lost the interest of a potential consultant and look weaker politically.

The consultant is a big wheel at MWD, an urban water district that some claim to be a rival to IID. While this is technically true, MWD is more likely to BUY water from IID than take it. From this perspective, therefore, IID could use a little help, which they have decided not to take. The losers will be farmers who should convert their water into cash and leisure. Too bad.

Bottom Line: If water user groups do not keep their own houses clean and united, others will help them rip those houses down.

08 October 2007

Politics of water

Politicians are used to promising everything to everyone, but a fixed quantity must be split some way. Water in the West is getting tighter, but pols appear not to believe it.

In one story, San Diego politicians demand that the California Coastal Commission give a permit for a new desalination. That plant worries environmentalists, but the pols claim it's now necessary.

Meanwhile, Arizona politicians want to eat their cake and have it. "We worked hard to try to put together this agreement, and the only thing Arizona asked is that it did not harm Arizona water users," said Herb Guenther, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

That's silly, because any form of price or administrative rationing is going to "harm" water users. The point of markets is that they minimize that harm.

Bottom Line: Politicians are reacting to screaming lobbies. The real solutions to these problems requires that people face the fact that water supplies are limited.

04 October 2007

Coping with Shortage the Hard Way

California is running into water shortages after summer usage has drawn down water stored from the 2005-6 winter (last winter was too dry). Urban areas are doing their bit to reduce demand and increase supply, but -- as usual -- they are leaving market forces (price) off the menu of management options.

In San Diego, farmers are being told to use less NOW or pay more LATER. The regional water agency (SDCWA) is negotiating to buy some (not very much) water from farmers.

While these ideas are reasonable, they are not nearly as effective as raising prices to decrease the quantity demanded. (Poor people will be protected if higher prices exempt the first block of personal use.) If water were priced like gasoline (or bottled water!), we would use a lot more -- both in the short (don't flush!) and the long run (rip out the lawn).

Bottom Line: The supply and demand for water can only balance if price signals are added.

01 October 2007

Farmers get hit for water

California is already in water shortage, if the reductions in deliveries to farmers (the canaries in the mine) are indicative of what's coming down the pike.

Farmers, predictably, are reacting with indignation and fear:

Mike Wade, Executive Director, of the California Farm Water Coalition claims that farmers use "only" 41 percent of California's water (not 80 percent, as I and others claim) because environmental flows get 48 percent of the "controlled" water. His claim is silly, as environmental flows are not just required by law, but required to keep our ecology intact. Cotton and alfalfa -- crops he claims "are in demand in the marketplace" -- are water hogs that should not enjoy special protection. This guy clearly misunderstands supply and demand: Everything is in demand in the marketplace -- the only question is the price, and cotton and alfalfa would not be in demand if their prices reflected the true costs of water.

More relevant is the quandary that avocado farmers face in San Diego county: Because they get subsidized water prices, they face cuts of 30 percent in their deliveries when water is short. It's short now, and they face the prospect of low yields and/or dead orchards. If given the chance, a number would probably want to buy water to get a better harvest and/or protect their investment.

Bottom Line: Farmers pay too little for water they claim to "use wisely", but they cannot get water when they actually are willing to pay for it. Water needs to be allocated in markets -- regardless of the final use.