31 March 2008

Ethanol Solution is a Lie

NYT review:
In “Gusher of Lies,” Mr. Bryce, a freelance journalist specializing in energy issues, mounts a savage attack on the concept of energy independence and the most popular technologies currently being promoted to achieve it. Ethanol? A scam. Wind power? Sheer fantasy. Solar power? Think again. For the foreseeable future, which is to say the next 30 to 50 years, fossil fuels will reign supreme, as they have for the last century. Deal with it.
Hey! What about solar power? Mr. Schwarzenegger has gotten very excited about solar power recently, although he's wrong to say that solar panels have zero carbon footprint. They need to be manufactured, transported and installed. After that, they have no footprint.

Bottom Line: We cannot have the government choosing winners and losers in the technological race to generate greener energy. The government -- even if it is not corrupt -- cannot predict the future any better than my cat. The best thing to do is set incentives for conservation and let markets and competition move things ahead.

Local Heat

There may be global warming, but the West is getting hotter, faster:
The American West is heating up faster than any other region of the United States, and more than the Earth as a whole, according to a new analysis of 50 scientific studies.

[snip]

Globally, warming varies according to region -- with more heating over land than over oceans. In California, with its coastal location, the study showed an increase of 1.1 degrees above the global average over the last five years. Arid interior states, including Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and Montana, experienced rises more than 2 degrees higher than in the world overall.

[snip]

According to Udall, the data suggest that the trend will accelerate -- with the West warming about 1 1/2 times faster than the global average. Martin Hoerling, a NOAA meteorologist, has predicted that the West could heat up as much as 5 degrees by mid-century. In Alaska, the annual mean air temperature has risen 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last three decades.
To see how life will change at five degrees hotter, click here

Bottom Line: Local warming is what we have to pay attention to, and the Western US is going to get it hard. There is little we can do about the climate, but many things we can do to reduce the harm to us from changes in the climate. The most obvious (to me) is to introduce markets for water -- so that farmers can sell to cities (and use less themselves); and increase prices for water -- so people in cities use less. We can do much better in managing our limited water.

So -- do you really need that lawn? When's the last time you walked on it (besides mowing the grass)?

30 March 2008

Posner on Water

Richard Posner comments on water rights. As one of the top legal minds in the country, he does an excellent job on rights (and their perversities), but he misses two points:

First, water does not require private management but community oversight. The firm can be private or public; the problems begin when the firm starts behaving like a bureaucratic monopoly and wastes water and/or money on bad management practices, underinvestment, plush offices, etc.

Second, he states that "prices fluctuate with supply and demand." That would be nice, but regulation, caution, average cost accounting, and a public allergy to charging more when water is scarce means that price fluctuations are more the exception than the rule.

Bottom Line: Water rights are one thing, but they will only work when complemented by good institutions. As we have learned (again!) with bonds for sub-prime mortgages, mere possession of a bond is useless if the bond is composed of fraud and disinformation and no market exists for its trade.

The Prez Talks up That Warmin Thang

video

29 March 2008

Crushing the Galapagos

The Economist has an article on a paper by Ed Taylor, a professor in my Department. Taylor et al. describe the general equilibrium effects of tourism on the Galapagos economy, finding that economic growth has not been all of a good thing. The reason, to paraphrase Notorious BIG, is that more money has led to more problems: Tourists have increased incomes on the islands, which has attracted mainland Ecuadorians. Without controls on this migration, stress on the island ecology has increased -- leading to the conclusion that ecotourism is harming the environment.

This phenomenon is not unusual, and there are many examples of places too distant to attract tourists that remain in the natural state of beauty. (There are also examples of places where tourism could replace slash and burn harvesting of natural resources -- dynamiting reefs, clear cutting rainforest, shooting animals, etc -- so tourism per se is not a bad thing.)

My favorite example of this phenomenon is the DMZ between South and North Korea. Because it is filled with landmines and blocaded from two side by hostile armies, the flora and fauna thrive without experiencing the negative impact of human exploitation.

I explore another example in a paper on deforestation and tourism in Nepal. Because tourist-trekkers like wood fires (and lodges, apple pie, etc.) the locals cut more trees. The result is the same as in the Galapagos: More tourism, less nature.

Now most of you will know that the solution to this phenomenon is more and stronger property rights. If the government of Ecuador had a residency lottery, if fishermen had rights to certain areas, if water and land titles were secure, then most of the depredation would end. The owners of those rights would use their monopoly power to get as much value as possible, and that means bigger fish, cleaner water, etc. (The solution is the same in Nepal; because most forest is owned by "the people," it is over-exploited.)

Bottom Line: Finite resources need to be managed with appropriate institutions. Without owners who have clear property rights, they will be over-exploited.

Permafrost Chasers

28 March 2008

Burning Money to Save Water

Down in San Diego, they have come up with a new ad campaign to conserve water. Their last campaign -- which I denounced as useless -- didn't work.

The difference between the two campaigns is that they are now going to spend more money to save less water.

The new campaign will set a record for spending; instead of targeting ten percent reductions, they are going for an 8 percent reduction. (Prediction: They will fail to reach that target too.)
Today, the San Diego County Water Authority's board will take up a proposal to create the largest public relations campaign for conservation since the drought of the early 1990s. If the panel approves the $1.6 million package – and it probably will in some form – residents will likely hear a lot more about water conservation.

TV, radio, print, online and outdoor ads will be rolled out starting in May, and many of them will incorporate the theme of “Save it or lose it.” The water authority expects to get a boost for its public service message by securing extra promotional spots and discounts worth nearly $1 million.

“We have to get (residents') attention – let them know there is an urgent need,” said Yen Tu, chairwoman of the water authority's conservation committee.

[snip]

The county water authority hopes a major awareness campaign will be more effective than the “20-Gallon Challenge,” the low-profile push that it unveiled in June. The goal of that effort – which relied mainly on free media, such as mentions in news stories – was to have each resident reduce water use by about 10 percent.

The water authority has set a new conservation goal that's not likely to be reached without an advertising blitz.

Its 24 retail member agencies aim to save 56,000 acre-feet of water this year
Note that SDCWA uses about 700,000 acre-feet (AF). That means that their "set a new conservation goal" is lower than their old one. Also note their use of FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) techniques in the ads -- "use it or lose it" -- that they have apparently borrowed from the Bush administration. Can you pleeeeeese treat us like adults -- especially when we will not lose it?

SDCWA is spending $1.6 million, which is just over $2/AF. Given 320,000 gallons/AF, that's about, uh, nothing per AF of additional cost. So, I can see that the ad campaign is certainly cheap. What I want to know is if it is cost effective. Their old campaign did nothing to keep consumption from rising, after all.

Wait, why not raise prices? If SDCWA increased its prices or (better yet) charged farmers the same as homeowners, water use would fall. People understand that higher prices mean that demand is "stronger" than supply.

(This article notes that California's gas consumption fell, year on year, which is almost unheard of. Instead of rising at the "normal" 2 percent rate, it fell by 1-2 percent.)

If gas demand can fall, water demand can certainly fall. First, there are the farmers who pay less than cities (holding quality equal); second, there is the problem that most people do not even consider how much water they use ("too cheap to meter").

With higher prices, demand would fall. "Profits" could be rebated on a per-capita basis (an idea I love) -- rewarding water misers with cheaper or free water and making water wasters pay through the nose.

How much should prices rise? Given that a 14% increase was only $2/month, I'll be bold: 200-500 percent price increases. Those increases would shift paradigms and lead to an entirely new perspective on water. If it's precious, maybe we should treat it that way.

Bottom Line: We will only use less water if we think about how much we are using. Advertising "use less" is far less-effective than sending a strong price signal.

27 March 2008

How Many Bottles?

Chris Jordan has a project called Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait
This series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 410,000 paper cups used every fifteen minutes. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. The underlying desire is to emphasize the role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.
This method of presentation is brilliant, since it helps you understand the true impact of what we are collectively doing to ourselves and our planet. (As usual, "everybody does it and nobody is responsible.") Take a look at this picture and then decide how much you like bottled water (the website has zoomed images):

Depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.

Water and Public Trust

California courts are debating one way to fix the water mess: Take the water back, in the name of the Public, and redistribute it to maximize its benefits:
The public trust doctrine derived from Roman law that said, "By the law of nature these things are common to mankind -- the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea."

The public trust was referenced by high courts more than 100 years ago to halt hydraulic mining in California because the siltation that resulted in the Sacramento River impeded the public right to navigate the river.

Several months ago, an independent panel appointed to make recommendations on water policy and the Delta concluded public trust and a related constitutional doctrine should become the foundation of decision-making about California water.

The chairman of that panel, former legislative leader Phil Isenberg, told the State Water Resources Control Board this week that the status quo must change, but he added that proposed changes will face stiff opposition.

"Most people want to be assured that what they're doing now, they can continue to do it, and it will be cheap," Isenberg said.

The idea is prompting fierce opposition from some of the state's largest water agencies, who fear water will be taken away from them for environmental benefits.
In economics, the primary objective is the maximization of surplus from any activity -- to produce "efficient results." It is politics that determines how that "pie" will be shared among people. In the tension between efficiency and bargaining, there are often welfare losses (from lawsuits, bribes, power-plays, etc.) that reduce and skew the distribution of surplus.

A return to public trust promises to break the Gordian Knot that entangles water all over the State, but it is also scary -- creating uncertainty over the new distribution and the "rights" that many people believe they have. (Complications may render those rights useless.)

One way to transition between one regime and another is to recognize property rights as such and then allow bargaining over redistribution. It is important that players be prevented from vetoing trading and bargaining, as this "tragedy of the anti-commons" will result in the system freezing up.

Bottom Line: My prediction is that this bold idea will fail because there are too many parties devoted to the status quo -- and arguing over it. Sad for us.

26 March 2008

Virtual Water

Professor John Anthony Allan of the University of London won the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize for introducing the concept of "virtual water," which captures the amount of water is takes to produce a (food product). Examples:
  • Cup of coffee: 140 liters of water to grow, produce, package and ship the beans.
  • One kg wheat: 1000 liters
  • One kg beef: about 15,000 liters
Bottom Line: A kg of rice will use more water if it relies on irrigation, uses lots of other inputs (fertilizer, etc.) or is grown in a hot, dry climate (e.g., California versus Thailand). Since food exports are also water exports, we should worry about growing food for export in water-poor areas. We should worry a lot if that water is subsidized and/or the food crop is grown for nationalist purposes (e.g., wheat in Saudi Arabia).

25 March 2008

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

In this interesting bit on sausage making, we see how local governments hire lobbyists to get federal pork:
San Joaquin County has a full-time lobbyist for which it pays $85,000, and the county also approved funding $11,617 for sending another delegation of officials back to Washington D.C. for the annual One Voice lobbying trip.

The county will pay The Ferguson Group, based in Washington, D.C., up to $50,000 to seek federal funds to improve Delta levees for flood-control purposes and to build a dam to divert Mokelumne River water to replenish the groundwater basin.

"These are both really urgent things," county Public Works Director Tom Flinn said. "We're learning that we need better contacts, particularly with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation."

"We need someone to work through the gears of the federal government," Flinn said. "How do you advance this project? You need some people in Washington who know the innards."

[snip]

Bob Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, questioned why a lobbyist is necessary.

"Why would a local government agency hire a private lobbyist to lobby another government agency?" Stern asked. "Why can't they go through their congressman for free? It's really sad."

Deputy County Administrator Elena Reyes points to the county's main lobbying firm, Fleischman-Hilliard Government Relations, which helped the county get $500,000 for the new county agriculture center that is under construction in Stockton. That's a lot more than the approximately $85,000 the county pays Fleischman-Hilliard annually, Reyes said.

The county needed to hire a specialist to negotiate for money for the Mokelumne River and flood-control projects, Reyes said, because the firm was spread thin lobbying for other county projects such as the county jail expansion, community development, health care, economic development, libraries and emergency services.

Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said that lobbyists have been effective in acquiring federal funds for local cities, counties and other agencies, but taxpayers should watch carefully to make sure the county is getting its money's worth.
This is an amazing story.
  • One part of the government is lobbying another part of the government to get its "fair share" of federal pork.
  • Money will be spent on local projects of no federal significance.
  • They are using outside contractors instead of congressional staffers.
  • They need to hire a specialist in addition to their normal lobbyist who is spread too thin.
  • An anti-tax organization is all in favor "as long as they get their money's worth."
Are you kidding me? Has anyone here heard about collective action problems, i.e., the few will exploit the many because gains are divided among few (think sugar or corn lobby) and the costs are divided among many (taxpayers). The irony is that when everyone goes to Washington to "get their fair share," everyone pays that cost PLUS the cost of Washington and the lobbyists.

Bottom Line: Government is and has always been a source of concentrated power and money. The more it has, the worse the fighting over the division of spoils. We need some serious Tenth Amendment action here: If local projects only used local money, lower federal taxes would mean more local money. Even better, we would have fewer dumb projects and a smaller lobbying machine in Washington.

Old products, New memes

24 March 2008

The Long Emergency

A prescient article from 2005 that discusses the future of energy and makes some dire predictions:
America is in a special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we made as a society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was to let our towns and cities rot away and to replace them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of previous investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.

[snip]

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.

[snip]

Some regions of the country will do better than others in the Long Emergency. The Southwest will suffer in proportion to the degree that it prospered during the cheap-oil blowout of the late twentieth century. I predict that Sunbelt states like Arizona and Nevada will become significantly depopulated, since the region will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. Imagine Phoenix without cheap air conditioning.
We are lucky that we can even buy gas at $3.50/gallon. If markets are disrupted (by outside suppliers or foolish intervention by our government), we may see no gas at all or black market gas. Now extend that scenario to other energy sources.

Bottom Line: The best thing we can have are deep and robust markets in energy. That means no subsidies and normalized taxes (e.g., on carbon or per unit of energy). On the international scene, we want to keep Iran, Russia, Angola and other dodgy places in the market (not necessarily with US companies or weapons). Given those two conditions, we will be able to adjust to the long emergency using market forces and innovation (BEST CASE). Anything less, and we get gratuitous pain.

23 March 2008

Dean Kamen's Water Machine



Depending on the cost/energy consumption of these machines (1,000 liters/day), Mr. Kamen may be winning some humanitarian/engineering awards. (DEKA research has no info on the machine.)

FYI: He announced the machine in 2003 at TED. At the time it was $1,500 and required 500watts of energy (another machine would generate it. cost $3,700). In this 2006 update, the energy machine generated 1,000 watts and the water machine requires 600 watts to run.

By the way, Colbert has a great spoof on the vast waste that goes into bottled water:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
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21 March 2008

Arctic Meltdown

An excellent essay by a officer in the Coast Guard lays out the pros and cons of melting Arctic ice:
The environmental impact of the melting Arctic has been dramatic. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species, fish never before found in the Arctic are migrating to its warming waters, and thawing tundra is being replaced with temperate forests. Greenland is experiencing a farming boom, as once-barren soil now yields broccoli, hay, and potatoes. Less ice also means increased access to Arctic fish, timber, and minerals, such as lead, magnesium, nickel, and zinc -- not to mention immense freshwater reserves, which could become increasingly valuable in a warming world. If the Arctic is the barometer by which to measure the earth's health, these symptoms point to a very sick planet indeed.

[snip]

The situation is especially dangerous because there are currently no overarching political or legal structures that can provide for the orderly development of the region or mediate political disagreements over Arctic resources or sea-lanes. The Arctic has always been frozen; as ice turns to water, it is not clear which rules should apply. The rapid melt is also rekindling numerous interstate rivalries and attracting energy-hungry newcomers, such as China, to the region. The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock, and that could eventually lead to the sort of armed brinkmanship that plagues other territories, such as the desolate but resource-rich Spratly Islands, where multiple states claim sovereignty but no clear picture of ownership exists.
Bottom Line: We have to start acting -- even reacting -- to global warming. It would be nice if we made some good decisions (e.g., fixing long-running problems that will only get worse with global warming), but doing nothing creates a vacuum and invites trouble, wars, etc.

Global warming is here. Now. Turn down the volume and do something about it! Stop killing innocent people. Stop talking race as if it matters. Stop the War on People and start pretending to lead and act like a government! /rant

19 March 2008

The Economist Has No Clothes

This opinion by Robert Nadeau appears in Scientific American:
Unscientific assumptions in economic theory are undermining efforts to solve environmental problems

The 19th-century creators of neoclassical economics--the theory that now serves as the basis for coordinating activities in the global market system--are credited with transforming their field into a scientific discipline. But what is not widely known is that these now legendary economists--William Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, Maria Edgeworth and Vilfredo Pareto--developed their theories by adapting equations from 19th-century physics that eventually became obsolete. Unfortunately, it is clear that neoclassical economics has also become outdated. The theory is based on unscientific assumptions that are hindering the implementation of viable economic solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems.

The physical theory that the creators of neoclassical economics used as a template was conceived in response to the inability of Newtonian physics to account for the phenomena of heat, light and electricity. In 1847 German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz formulated the conservation of energy principle and postulated the existence of a field of conserved energy that fills all space and unifies these phenomena. Later in the century James Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and other physicists devised better explanations for electromagnetism and thermodynamics, but in the meantime, the economists had borrowed and altered Helmholtz's equations.

The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd--they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline.

Strangely enough, the origins of neoclassical economics in mid-19th century physics were forgotten. Sub sequent generations of mainstream economists accepted the claim that this theory is scientific. These curious developments explain why the mathematical theories used by mainstream economists are predicated on the following unscientific assumptions:

• The market system is a closed circular flow between production and consumption, with no inlets or outlets.

• Natural resources exist in a domain that is separate and distinct from a closed market system, and the economic value of these resources can be determined only by the dynamics that operate within this system.

• The costs of damage to the external natural environment by economic activities must be treated as costs that lie outside the closed market system or as costs that cannot be included in the pricing mechanisms that operate within the system.

• The external resources of nature are largely inexhaustible, and those that are not can be replaced by other resources or by technologies that minimize the use of the exhaustible resources or that rely on other resources.

• There are no biophysical limits to the growth of market systems.

If the environmental crisis did not exist, the fact that neoclassical economic theory provides a coherent basis for managing economic activities in market systems could be viewed as sufficient justification for its widespread applications. But because the crisis does exist, this theory can no longer be regarded as useful even in pragmatic or utilitarian terms because it fails to meet what must now be viewed as a fundamental requirement of any economic theory--the extent to which this theory allows economic activities to be coordinated in environmentally responsible ways on a worldwide scale. Because neoclassical economics does not even acknowledge the costs of environmental problems and the limits to economic growth, it constitutes one of the greatest barriers to combating climate change and other threats to the planet. It is imperative that economists devise new theories that will take all the realities of our global system into account.

~~~~~~~~

Robert Nadeau teaches environmental science and public policy at George Mason University.
I agree.

Dirty Food

Who cares about clean food? Probably not the FDA:
Twenty serious outbreaks of E. coli have been traced to fresh lettuce or spinach since 1995. One of the most troublesome was a 2006 outbreak in bagged spinach processed by California-based Natural Selection Foods that sickened more than 200 people and was linked to three deaths.

The FDA acknowledged gaps in its food safety efforts after that episode. But the report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says the problems were worse: It showed that spinach facilities were inspected about once every 2.4 years despite federal guidelines that say most should have been visited at least annually.
Bottom Line: If big businesses can avoid responsibility for food by deferring to the FDA, and the FDA can avoid responsibility for food through incompetence, then we need our retail food sellers to monitor the food. Ironically, WalMart and others are looking out for us, but it's not a bad idea to meet your local farmers and wash your veggies!

In a related story, we learn that solid waste from sewage is not a good thing to out on fields:
...according to test results provided to the AP, the level of thallium - an element once used as rat poison - found in the milk was 120 times the concentration allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The contaminated milk and the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo raise new doubts about a 30-year government policy that encourages farmers to spread millions of tons of sewage sludge over thousands of acres each year as an alternative to commercial fertilizers.

The program is still in effect.

Alaimo ordered the government to compensate dairy farmer Andy McElmurray because 1,730 acres he wanted to plant in corn and cotton to feed his herd was poisoned. The sludge contained levels of arsenic, toxic heavy metals and PCBs two to 2,500 times federal health standards.

Also, data endorsed by Agriculture and EPA officials about toxic heavy metals found in the free sludge provided by Augusta's sewage treatment plant was "unreliable, incomplete, and in some cases, fudged," Alaimo wrote.
Bottom Line: Shit (and worse) has to go somewhere, and if it not cleaned up, it ends up in our food.

China and Resources

From the Economist:
Messrs Rosen and Houser contend that the boom in heavy industry is a product mainly of poor regulation rather than of inexorable demographic forces. They believe that China's development is becoming more capital-intensive not so much because labour is getting scarce but because capital is too abundant.

Local officials, keen to register impressive increases in output that might earn them promotion, lean on state-owned banks to lend to state-owned firms for investment in heavy industry. The banks can lend cheaply because the government sets the interest they pay to depositors at a very low rate (in real terms, it is currently negative). The industrial firms, in turn, seldom pay dividends, usually receive land free of charge and often ignore environmental regulations that push up costs. All this makes them much more profitable than less privileged companies, providing further funds for investment.

China's rapid transformation from a big importer of steel to a big exporter suggests that global production is moving there to take advantage of the exceptionally favourable investment climate. In other words, much of China's industrial bonanza exists only thanks to subsidies paid by its frugal households and its long-suffering taxpayers.

If this argument is correct, it is heartening because it suggests a clear remedy: an overhaul of the financial sector.
Bottom Line: The huge increases in resource consumption and pollution in China are partially due to government subsidies to capital-intensive businesses. Just as subsidies to ethanol are wrecking the US (and world) agricultural system, subsidies to industry in China are wrecking their economic development.

End the subsidies! Governments do not know how to manage an economy any more than they know what you want for breakfast!

18 March 2008

You Want Lox wit Dat?

Salmon fisheries off the California/Oregon coasts are in trouble:
Fewer than 60,000 chinook, known in fish markets and on menus of swank restaurants as king salmon, are expected to spawn this fall in the river, less than half what regulators say is needed to justify a nominal fishing season and just a fraction of the 800,000 that arrived from the sea during the bumper crop of 2002.

Federal scientists blame the anemic returns on a variety of factors, but have focused on poor ocean conditions, potentially linked to global warming, that have caused the chinook's food sources to plummet.

But anglers also blame troubles in the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where fish populations have plummeted because of pollution, predators and increased water exports to the south.

"There's no smoking gun here, but there's a lot of spent shell casings and people who created problems in the delta," said Duncan MacLean, a Half Moon Bay commercial fisherman. "What started out as trouble for little fish like the delta smelt has blossomed into a problem for salmon and the whole state."

[snip]

Federal lawmakers, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the governors of Oregon and Washington have petitioned the Bush administration to take steps toward renewing disaster assistance for the commercial fleet and its support network of packinghouses, fuel docks, tackle suppliers and other businesses.
This "industry" has gross revenue of $150 million/year. Last year, the Congress gave them $60 million in "disaster relief" because the season was 10% of "normal." This year, they are asking for more "temporary/emergency" support. Why?

The fishery needs time to recover -- if it is ever going to recover -- and the Feds [Why is this a federal issue? What does this have to do with Ohio? I am amazed by the ways the 10th Amendment is abused!] are keeping the zombie alive. If any aid is to be given, it should buy out fishermen (at book value, obviously*) so they can move to sustainable jobs.

Better yet -- the Feds should put property rights on rivers/estuaries and put them up for auction. If one owner has rights to an area, the owner will do all that's possible to restore the fishery for sustainable yields. That includes suing for environmental damage to his "asset" (the fishery) by various actors -- including the government [earlier post].

Bottom Line: This is a complex issue, but bureaucratic solutions are too slow and myopic. Political fights over water, smelt, and fish wil go on forever -- while all of these resources continue to decline.

*Many businesses depreciate there assets faster than actual depreciation to get tax breaks. If the feds buy out their gear, they should use book value because the gov't already paid for those boats...

17 March 2008

Silly Sources of Water Supply

Global warming appears to be affecting people's thinking. Here are two not-so-good ideas on increasing water supply in the West:
  1. Dick Speed proposes that Imperial Valley build a canal from the ocean to the Salton Sea and then desalinate water from the Salton Sea to "provide a never-ending supply of that quantity of desalinated water every year for the foreseeable future. The water would be fully desalinated for residential use and partially desalinated for agricultural or industrial purposes. The gulf water should be made to generate electricity as it falls 220-plus feet to the level of the Salton Sea."

    Interesting idea, except for the canal that goes through Mexico, massive energy for desalination, and problem with salty waste discharge. I have a better idea -- why not move to somewhere with water?

  2. How about build more dams! And this idea comes from the Big Agency for Building Dams:
    “The West and the Northwest are increasing in population growth like never before,” said John Redding, regional spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Boise, Idaho. “How do you quench the thirst of the hungry masses?”
    Says the Bureau, famous for selling water below cost to farmers. We don't need new dams -- we need markets where farmers pay full price and urban users can buy as much as they want!
Bottom Line: Desperate times call for careful thought, not silly ideas. If something is broke, don't build something on top of it -- look and see why it broke (too much demand for cheap water and falling supplies) and then address that problem: Raise prices to reduce demand.

16 March 2008

What Does the CEC Do with $62 Million?

The California Energy Commission is supposed to spend its $60million budget (from gas taxes, I gather) on research that "benefits Californians." In this hearing, you will see some very pointed questions from State Senator Levine (start watching at 34:00; it gets good at 53:00).

Nicely dressed bureaucrats hiring outside consultants to do their jobs. Amazingly -- this is not just a "your government in action" but checks and balances in action. I do not know if they just got a slap on the wrist but I do know that they are still going to get their $60 million. Houston, we have incentive problems....

15 March 2008

Vegas versus Imperial

A few weeks ago, a small war of words broke out between Las Vegas and farmers in Imperial Valley. As everyone knows, Vegas is famous for its Sinwater management, but the City can only reuse water so many times before it runs out, and supplies are under even more strain. Imperial Valley, OTOH, is well known for Dry Heat using its abundant water rights to grow essential crops (hay, sudan grass and switch grass). Imperial and neighboring regions have rights to 85% of California's water from the Colorado River. (The other 15% goes to cities in Southern California, providing about one-third of the water used by 18 million people.)

So, the surprise is not that someone would say that Imperial's water will end up in Vegas. The surprises are the how people say things and react to each other. The Imperial Valley Press had this:
it came as no surprise to Brawley-area farmer John Benson that Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman holds his city’s water needs higher than the Valley’s.

Goodman was quoted as saying no one would allow Vegas to dry up.

“The Imperial Valley farmers will have their fields go fallow before our spigots run dry,” Goodman said at a news conference last week.

“I understand that Mr. Goodman has made a political career of outrageous statements,” said Benson, who is farming and fallowing some of his fields. “If he wants to make flippant statements, more power to him. But it’s meaningless.”

Benson, also a Brawley city councilman, said it isn’t the first time the Imperial Valley agricultural industry has been insulted.

Water use is an ongoing battle between agriculture and urban users, he said, as evidenced by a claim a San Diego newspaper made in 1983 about water being used for cattle feed.

“They said that we should not be able to use water except on human food. But alfalfa becomes human food when it goes through a cow,” Benson said.

[snip]

Nicole Rothfleisch, director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said Goodman’s words were “fighting words.”

The suggestion that food produced by local farms is less valuable than Las Vegas’ water need is incomprehensible, Rothfleisch said.

“What does Las Vegas want the water for … casinos and landscaping? That’s hardly a justifiable use for a commodity as precious as water,” Rothfleisch said.

[snip]

“If the Valley is looked at as the sole means of these urban areas continuing to grow their populations and economies, then at what point are they satisfied? If you carry that line of thinking out to its logical conclusion there will be no water left in the Imperial Valley,” Kelley said.
No water left in Imperial? That sounds like an excellent idea -- especially if the water can be used in much more valuable ways (e.g., casinos and landscaping) instead of cow food.

The Desert Sun has much of the same story, with a nice comment on food-nationlism:
Westmorland farmer Al Kalin understands the Las Vegas area is growing rapidly, and is short of water. "But we need it to feed the nation," he said. "I don't think we want to bring in all our food from overseas, like we do our fuel."
According to California's Farm Bureau and Department of Food and Agriculture, Imperial Valley produces total agricultural value of $1.3 billion -- four percent of California's agricultural output and about one-half percent of the nation's agricultural output. Imperial's top "crops" are cattle, alfalfa and carrots.

Contrast these number to total personal income in Las Vegas ($70 billion; gambling revenue -- a different measure -- is $11 billion) and then remember that all of Southern Nevada (including Vegas) uses about 20 percent of the water that Imperial uses.

Bottom Line: Imperial Valley is certainly not maximizing the value of water. Farming in the desert is probably not a good idea when precious water could go to people in the desert. Don't take away the water, but let farmers sell their water to cities. It's a win-win-win for the farmers, the cities and Mother Nature.

14 March 2008

Water Prices up 14%

That's the good news -- water in Southern California (and in general) is too cheap to encourage conservation. The bad news?
The MWD increase will translate into a boost of about $2 a month in the bill of an average household in Santa Monica and $1.40 a month in Long Beach, not including any local rate increases, city officials said.
Few people will notice an increase of $2/month for water, few people will use less water, and water utilities will have to cope with the same level of demand. They will react with "conserve water" advertising and "water cops", but that will not work either. SoCal's water supply will get stretched again and then we'll have a crisis.

Bottom Line: There are two ways to effectively save water: Raise prices for farmers (in Imperial Valley, they pay 1-2% of the urban water price) or raise prices for households (about $50/month will get people's attention). When water is too cheap to care about, we don't. Raise the price -- and we will.

Water for Energy for Water for Energy

This article discusses a growing problem:
As the United States tries to lower its dependence on foreign oil by producing more energy from domestic sources such as ethanol, however, it's running low on fresh water.

Water is needed for mining coal, drilling for oil, refining gasoline, generating and distributing electricity, and disposing waste, Gleick said.

"The largest use of water is to cool power plants," he said at a panel of experts on "The Global Nexus of Energy and Water" in Boston last month.

According to Vince Tidwell, a water-management expert at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., more than 40 percent of the water that's withdrawn from rivers, lakes and wells is used for energy. The rest goes mainly for irrigation.

Most of the water used for energy is returned to its source, but by then it's often heated or polluted and of lesser value.

Conversely, vast amounts of energy are needed to pump, transport, treat and distribute water.

For example, the California State Water Project, which pumps water over the Tehachapi mountains to the Los Angeles Basin, is "the largest single use of energy in California," Gleick said.

[snip]

"Future fuels are likely to be very water-intensive," he said. "They all require a lot of water."

For example, driving one mile on ethanol consumes 600 gallons of water to irrigate the corn from which it's made, Webber said in an e-mail. Even plug-in hybrids, which are touted as the most efficient way to power electric cars, need to withdraw 10 gallons of water for every mile traveled, he said.

"Instead of miles per gallon of gasoline, we're switching to gallons of water per mile," he said.
Bottom Line: There's no free lunch, and we need to count all the ingredients of the lunch we have: Driving a car consumes gas and produces pollution. If that gas is produced in a non-sustainable way (e.g., ethanol with subsidies and intensive resource inputs), there is an additional cost. These costs are financial (taxes and out-of-pocket) and non-financial (pollution, reduced water, political corruption). Do the entire accounting before you believe any "free lunch" stories!

13 March 2008

No more bottled water in U.K. gov't

LONDON: The British government will be taking it from the tap starting this summer. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government will phase out bottled water in all of its departments. Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell says the switch is one step in a bigger program to make all government departments more green and sustainable.

The policy starts this summer. The Cabinet office said Friday that three departments have already been serving tap water at their meetings. Tap water uses 300 times less energy than the production of bottled water and cuts out bottle waste.

Bottom Line: Bottled water is incredibly wasteful when there is good tap water around -- and British tap water will get better as soon as politicians start drinking it! People drink from bottles when they fear their tap water -- or when it's free. Start by charging for it. When people do not die from tap water, they'll stop buying bottled water too.

Six cheap ways to save the Earth

From here:
  1. Recycle
  2. Don't buy new stuff (except underwear -- not kidding!)
  3. Do it yourself cleaning fluids
  4. Green your commute (bike, carpool)
  5. Grow your own food
  6. Turn off the power!

12 March 2008

Fighting for Labels of Nothing

Monsanto, an unloved agricultural biotechnology company, is behind a "grass-roots" organization dedicated to preventing consumers from knowing if their milk is free of the synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBST), which Monsanto sells as Posilac.

This case is a sad example of corporate PR masquerading as citizen activism -- and trying to get politicians to pass laws banning labels that state "rBST-free." Believe it or not, "evil" WalMart is one company that wants to serve consumers by using accurate labeling.

Looks like Monsanto is going to lose this one.

11 March 2008

Conversation with My Dad (part one)

My dad turns 75 this year, and we have long conversations on many topics. The other day, he said something like "well, life is tough." Now this is coming from a guy who was born in India and arrived to fame in Canada, married my mom (obviously a winner) and has lived in California for 40+ years. So, how tough is life?

I mentioned to him that we humans are always looking at relative prosperity ("Keeping up with the Joneses") when, after awhile, we have to consider absolute prosperity, and I gave him this example: Every morning, I get out of bed (in my own room), I turn on the light (fiat lux!), and pull on my slippers from Morocco. I can go to the bathroom -- just across the hall -- to drink water from the tap or take a hot shower. I can put on music, either streamed from the internet or from the 10,000+ tracks from my computer. Hungry? How about some fresh eggs, bread that I made in my gas oven (gas oven!) and organic coffee from somewhere in Central America. I use my italian espresso machine of course, and I put my coffee in some cups from Scotland (crappy weather but nice coffee cups). Oh, and perhaps I will read one of the best newspapers in the world (Economist), a paper that arrives to my door each week. How much do all these things cost? Putting aside rent -- gas, electricity, phone/internet, newspaper, eggs, coffee, water -- all these things are SO CHEAP, i.e., they take such a small share of my income, that I forget what a miracle they are.

Consider the situation of an Indian villager: He shares his home with a wife and several children (probably a few cousins), has intermittent electricity (at best), water is often a ten-minute walk and the "toilet" is the field. He probably has tea for breakfast but must often grow his own food or trade for it in the market. Music is live (when there is a festival), and his illiteracy makes newspapers irrelevant. Ignoring caste, there are problems with the land-owners and local politicians: The former ask high rents and offer low prices for milling rice or wheat; the latter take money intended for "village development" and buy satellite television.

Now, we might consider ourselves relatively better off than this indian chap, but he may consider himself better off because he has a radio now and had none ten years ago. But relative measures are deceptive: We get used to them, and then we want more. It's not a bad thing -- as far as evolutionary strategies go -- to want more and better all the time, but it can leave us dissatisfied with all the benefits we enjoy as the result of technological, economic and political progress.

On an absolute level, we've never had it so good. And by "we", I actually include the Indians and many others in the world who have better lives than 20, 50 or 100 years ago. India has self-rule, people in Africa have cell phones (and they are not just gadgets -- people use them to trade, communicate, and improve their lives), and so on. Citizens of OECD countries enjoy a far-higher standard of living than most of the world, and we should be thankful for that.

But.

I wonder if my dad's lifespan (roughly 1930 -- 2030) will end up being the last century where things were looking up and getting better all the time. From the depths of depression, WW2 and the cold war came rock and roll, global trade, and advances in technology that made most of our lives amazingly good. The trouble is that we have mined the planet's resources (water, oil, fish, timber) to achieve this standard of living -- in fact, to go far beyond a simple, yet comfortable, standard of living -- to the point that we fly thousands of miles for a day (I did last week), buy new cars because they have cup holders, and have even bigger flat-screen TVs.

With the onset of global warming, we are finally seeing the end of an era of relentless prosperity. Now perhaps I sound like previous generations of thirty-somethings who complained that the sky was falling, but the signs from nature seem rather different -- difficult to ignore -- and the inaction and indifference of many men seems rather naive. This time may be different.

It's sad to think that we've never had it so good but that this might be as good as we have it. A pity that we couldn't turn down the evolutionary drive for relatively more and better and enjoy our simple, absolute level of prosperity: a light switch, some tap water and cup of coffee.

I'm going to enjoy them for all their worth -- they're worth more than we think.

Water Wisdom

Kenneth E. Boulding's Feather River Anthology, a ten-stanza poem on water policy [here], is as true today as it was 40 years ago:
Water is needed for use as detergent
But washing is seldom exceedingly urgent
Water for drinking is all very fine
But Frenchman get by with the drinking of wine.
Water is useful for flushing the toilet,
But sewage is good if you filter and boil it
Water has many industrial uses
But most kinds of cooking can stew in its juices.
Water is flexible, water is plastic
And both its supply and demand are elastic.
So what is the fuss about, what is the hurry?
And why is this fluid the source of such worry?
The answer, perhaps, will be found in the time it
May take to ensure against the changes of climate
For water in storage, stashed safely away
Is a rainy day fund for the non-rainy day.
Boulding is credited as the founder of evolutionary economics: "The World is a very complex system. It is easy to have too simple a view of it, and it is easy to do harm and to make things worse under the impulse to do good and make things better." He died fifteen years ago, on March 18. R.I.P.

10 March 2008

Drugs in Water

Investigative journalism on drugs in the water [my Nov 2007 post]:
A vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones - have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.

To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.

But the presence of so many prescription drugs - and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen - in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.

In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas - from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.
Although there's an element of hysteria here (below dose level), there's also the unknown -- most water is not tested, we don't know what the combination of drugs does, and we don't know the long-term impact. Think bottled water will save you? Nope. And the "problem" is growing as we pop more drugs.
Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems.

Perhaps it's because Americans have been taking drugs - and flushing them unmetabolized or unused - in growing amounts. Over the past five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion, while nonprescription drug purchases held steady around 3.3 billion, according to IMS Health and The Nielsen Co.

One technology, reverse osmosis, removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants but is very expensive for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable.

Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.
Bottom Line: We live in a closed system -- what goes in comes out (somewhere), and overdosing ourselves leads to environmental pollution that comes back to haunt us. OTOH, there could be an upside: We can use an "ancient technology" to get enough fluid: drinking beer.

Your Stuff -- and Terrorism

Watch this excellent video, The Story of Stuff, and pass it along to all your conspicuously-consuming friends. Although it suffers from a slight bias ("factory products are full of toxic waste"), it does get at the big-picture problems: Weak property rights in the developing world, fast consumption patterns, problems with waste in the environment, etc.

While you're at it, read this opinion (from 2003!), "The War on Terrorism is Bogus." Written by a British MP, he asks a sensible question: If the U.S. wanted to find and defeat al Qaeda, why did it invade Iraq? He also makes the conjecture that the U.S. executive branch did not react to rumors of an impending 9/11 because Bush and the Neocons wanted to get America into Iraq in 2000, i.e.,
We cannot allow North Korea, Iran, Iraq or similar states to undermine American leadership, intimidate American allies or threaten the American homeland itself. The blessings of the American peace, purchased at fearful cost and a century of effort, should not be so trivially squandered.
We got regime change, and we (not the Neocons) got a lot of dead and wounded soldiers and $3 trillion (that's "T" as in trillion) in debt. Think about it: Nobody wanted to invade Iraq until 9/11. Then we were told that al Qaeda was in Iraq, and Saddam had WMD. Neither were true (though al Qaeda is sure in Iraq now), and now we (not Bush or the Neocons) are stuck.

Remember that Nixon took 5 years to get out of Vietnam. How long will it take us to get out of Iraq, to escape a war that was not necessary? (The MP notes that FDR probably knew about Pearl Harbor, but that case was different -- Americans didn't want to get into WW2, but if we didn't, the Nazis would defeat Britain. There was no such threat from Iraq.)

When they put Bush et al. on trial for deceiving the American people, killing thousands and hundreds of thousands and destroying our economic security, remember to ask yourself: Why didn't we go after al Qaeda? We knew where he was but never carried through because we (rather Bush et al.) wanted to invade Iraq.

I am not sure which topic makes me more depressed, an environment that cannot cope with our waste or politicians who waste our lives. Looking for a connection? Bush et al. wanted Iraq for the oil, and we use plenty of oil for our stuff. See it?

Perfect post for a Monday.

09 March 2008

A phone is ringing at 3am...

...in the White House: Someone wants to know what time it is.

Daylight savings is [fill-in your expletive], but it doesn't save energy. Like other forms of social engineering, it probably causes more problems than it "fixes." [Don't forget the suspicious correlation between the onset of global warming and DST -- both around 1920!]

07 March 2008

Lease a Forest, Save a Tree

The economist has two stories on entrepreneurial ecology, e.g, leasing forests to save them for the animals and from the loggers. The sad story is that many environmentalists are unable or unwilling to pay to save the forests. They prefer laws that require the forests be set aside -- at a cost to the people who lose income from them. Scenic perhaps, natural perhaps, but not sustainable. People living with nature who have no income are more likely to poach and illegally cut trees to put food on the floor (They are often too poor to have tables.)

There is a big literature in economics on willingness to pay/accept money for various non-monetary items (whales, forests, clean air). Skeptics claim that the values assigned are unrealistic because people are not really required to pay their own money for things they say are "so valuable." (See also #4 here, where I point out that yuppies want taxpayers to fund their nature parks.)

Bottom Line: If we want things to stay around we have to support them. We pay the Rolling Stones for concert tickets, the Church for services, the farmers market for fresh, local food. If we want nature and clean air, we have to pay those who own and protect it. There's no free lunch.

Clarification: When I went from non-monetary (whales) to monetary (tickets), I was not trying to mix both into one to claim that they were the same. I was implying that current "non-monetary" items should be (and can be) managed through markets using prices. Although a preserved forest may be a public good that benefits all and a felled forest may be a private good that benefits loggers, those who want the public good must overcome their collective action problem (free-riding, etc.) to find a way of aggregating their purchasing power to out-bid the logging firms. That's an important point, and I am glad to reinforce it. (The cited articles make it as well.)

Low Flush Saves Water

Low-flush toilets, via the Straight Dope, i.e.,
as more than a quarter of all the water used indoors in
the U.S. goes down the toilet -- about six billion gallons daily --
conservationwise, flushing is serious business.

Environmentalists vs. Luddites

A thoughtful essay at Spiked:
The radical sentiments which increasingly clung to the Luddites are at some distance from the pro-government toadying of today’s greens. This derives from a key difference in the make-up of the movements. In short, the Luddites were a popular movement. Their cause was one which resonated with many working men, hence the diversity of workers hauled to the scaffold in June 1812. As the radical pamphleteer and journalist William Cobbet remarked of the rampant conspiracy theories doing the Westminster rounds: ‘And this is the circumstance that will most puzzle the ministry. They can find no agitators. It is a movement of the people’s own.’

The greens by contrast are not ‘a movement of the people’s own’, a problem which has been reified as human nature. ‘(W)e are inherently selfish’, concludes one prominent environmentalist commentator, ‘(b)ut the question is whether or not this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe that they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.’ Far from defying the state’s canons and muskets, the greens rally to its side: greater intervention in people’s lives is what’s needed, because we simply cannot be trusted to behave in the correct responsible manner. This expresses contempt for the mass of the population, for our motives and interests. Human needs and aspirations, self-interest and self-respect underpinned and developed through the Luddite protest; for the hairshirts of the environmentalist cavalcade, our needs and interests are the problem. Top-down regulation is the answer.
Power to the People? Luddites. Power to the Elites? Environmentalists. Your thoughts?

06 March 2008

Developers Drive SD off a Cliff

Speaking of water shortages in Southern California, the city council and environmentalists are fighting the mayor and developers over plans to curtail water use:
“Part of the problem is, at one of the [water conserving] stages, there is in essence a construction moratorium. When you’re dealing with a region that is developing very quickly, you need to be able to build. If we have to go there, we will. It’s a policy decision you have to make, but to all in this community, it’s incredibly important that we grow [as] a region and we continue adding to our community.”

Some water-conservation advocates are concerned that Sanders is merely looking out for the many developers who have donated money to his mayoral campaign. California law requires that all new housing projects of 500 or more units have a guaranteed 20-year water supply. In San Diego, the city Water Department issues that guarantee.

“If you declare a water emergency, that seems inconsistent with telling people we’ve got enough water for 20 years,” said Tom Zelany, a lawyer in the City Attorney’s office who works on water issues. “If I were an attorney opposing a big project, that would be one of the first buttons I’d push.”
Even worse, the mayor is opposing plans to supplement water supplies with a water recycling plant that was planned ten years ago. (I wrote on his silly stand a few months ago.) The mayor's staff is stonewalling with the usual excuses of "public safety":
“In 1998, we were ready to go with the final design. We had the pipeline routing; we just needed the funding,” he said. “I cannot see what new information is being obtained from the pilot study other than to update the project costs, which are now 10 years old.”

Water Department spokesperson Arian Collins said that producing the report is time consuming and that staff needs to check for updates to state regulations.

“We’re proceeding forward in a deliberate manner so that nothing is overlooked, because it’s an issue of public health,” Collins said. Sanders “wants us to make sure that we’ve got everything that we need to know in order to have the proper report to council so that no stone is left unturned.”
Bottom Line: San Diego has enjoyed quite a party on cheap water, and 85 percent of its water is imported. It's time for the mayor and his friends to cap growth and establish a secure, sustainable water supply. If they don't, many residents in the area will be reminded that San Diego is in the middle of a desert.

05 March 2008

Love that Bottled Water

NorCal Called -- Wants Its Water Back

Just when you thought water supplies to Southern California couldn't fall farther, Northern California areas now calling the "loan" of water they gave to SoCal 30-40 years ago. Here's the scoop:
water contracts were signed at a time when optimistic state planners were counting on major new dams to supply water from the Eel, Klamath and Trinity Rivers on the North Coast.

Those dams, which might have supplied an additional 5 million acre-feet of water to the Delta, were never built.

The result is that just like what happened on the Colorado River, parts of California developed on overly optimistic water supply estimates and an obligation to eventually return "surplus" water.

"They've known that water supply wasn't going to be there for about 25 years," said John Herrick, manager of the South Delta Water Agency. "Nobody planned. That doesn't mean the solution would be easy, but they've had 25 years."

The laws, referred to collectively as "area of origin" laws, require water users in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley to give Delta water back when the region needs it and can use it.
Bottom Line: Water rights are notoriously sticky, and no matter how perverse they may seem, courts generally recognize them. If NorCal's rights to water are upheld (a likely scenario), SoCal will lose access to some of the water it "enjoys" today. (Don't be surprised if SoCal politicians start arguing that people will have no water to drink; they will be reminded that most of SoCal water is used for agriculture.) Hopefully, there will be a market, and SoCal will be able to "buy back" the water. Don't forget the adage in water: "Markets are the best option -- after you've tried everything else."

04 March 2008

The Farm Bill Must Die

It's well-known that so-called "program crops" (wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton) get tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, that most of these payments go to "industrial ag" farms, and that most of these farms are in the midwest.

California farmers sometimes complain and sometimes boast that they receive very few subsidies at all. They grow fruits and nuts and other garden crops that we find in the produce section of stores. California farmers are not supported by the government, but they are pleased to feed people because they just love people and what's better than having some California strawberries in Wisconsin in January?

Well, it turns out that these California farmers are not as selfless as they appear. In this op/ed, a Minnesota farmer complains that he cannot increase production of garden crops by growing them on former-program crop land because these acres will lose their corn subsidy forever if non-program crops are grown on the land for a year.
Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.
He cannot expand, the market for "local food" stays small, and farmers from California, Texas and Florida maintain their dominance.

In other words, it seems that non-program crop states have been willing to support continued subsidies for program crop states because they are facing less competition in return. Less competition, higher prices and more money. Voila!

So forget about local foods, fresher foods, seasonal foods, and community cohesion -- we've got truckers to employ, gasoline to use and big farms in California to support by preventing the market from working for the benefit of people.

Bottom Line: Government is rarely interested in protecting consumers or small, competitive producers. They like their friends to be big -- so they can give big bribes donations in support of democratic justice.

Thanks to SA for the tip -- and the AWESOME graphic!!

Climate Change Is Official

The Bush-appointed head of the EPA now says Global Warming is happening:
Even more startling for an administration that has spent seven years in denial, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” that man-made emissions are largely responsible and that the consequences could be devastating — more wildfires, more droughts, rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more outbreaks of insect-borne diseases.
Unfortunately, like "Mission Accomplished," these statements may mean nothing for a long time322 days.

Bottom Line: The Bush Administration has blocked scientific evidence, policy debate and regulatory action for seven years. Although his oil buddies have done well in the short run, we are paying -- many times over -- in the long run. (They screwed the Public in the short run as well, but what's $500 billion among friends?)

03 March 2008

Costly Cows...

Irrigation districts are too timid to raise the crazy-low price of water:
With irrigation season just two days away and a large showing of unhappy water users at Wednesday's meeting, the board abandoned a five-year plan that would have capped increases an average of 6.5 percent each year, or 32 percent total.

Instead, the board will revisit the rate increase a year from now to allow for more public input. This will provide ample time to find a solution to what some ratepayers consider unfair increases at a time when they are struggling with higher gas and grocery bills.
I read the rest of the article and did the numbers. The rate increases would cost ranchers $8 more per year per irrigated cow. Fewer than 3 percent of customers protested rate increases, and that was enough for them to back off from the "large" showing. Did the NID panel ever receive a protest in FAVOR of higher bills? No. Have people ever protested federal tax increases (and been heard?) No.

Water is already cheap (subsidized even) and it will not be conserved if people do not have to pay to use it. At a time when a tank of gas costs $50, why are people worried about $1.50 a MONTH more for water. It's not as if we will die without driving.

Bottom Line: Water prices need to rise at LEAST to cover costs if not more. If they do not, there will be less water tomorrow.

02 March 2008

Politics

China Exports Dams

This story was in the WSJ in December.
Home to almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams, China has embarked on a push to export its hydropower know-how to developing countries -- even as it contends with environmental damage and social upheaval at home from the massive Three Gorges Dam.

Many other countries and international organizations have begun to shy away from dam building. But Chinese companies and banks are now involved in billions of dollars worth of deals to construct at least 47 major dams in 27 countries, including Sudan and Myanmar, nations criticized for human-rights abuses and poor environmental track records.

[snip]

China and other hydropower advocates such as the International Commission on Large Dams, a trade group, say building big dams can raise living standards in the poorest parts of the world. Africa has only developed about 8% of its hydropower potential, according to the commission.

"We don’t want to be misunderstood," Li Ruogu, head of the Export-Import Bank of China, said in an interview. "We want people to understand we are not hurting the environment. We are helping nations to develop.
I have written on the problems with big dams before, but this story is scary for two reasons: Dams once built (paid for or not) are hard to remove. That's a real problem if the dam turns out to be an ecological disaster. Second, China is subsidizing construction of dams in many countries run by thugs and dictators. That means the dams will be too cheap and the economic/ social/ environmental analysis will be weak. (The story mentions how some of China's clients just kill anti-dam protesters.)

Dams can be a good thing, but they are even less necessary (for hydropower) now that better technology allows in-stream power generation. It's sad to see China pushing yesterday's technology on tomorrow's people.

Bottom Line: China's entry into the dam business promises a lot of bad dams. Too bad for the poor people who will be displaced, in debt and suffering from bad water management that results. Too bad for the Earth. Good for corrupt politicians, Chinese workers and bosses. Good for the commodities traders who will pay below-market prices for the oil and minerals that the Chinese are getting in exchange for dams.

01 March 2008

Bush the Genius

A man in touch with the common people:
Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked: "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing ... "

"Wait, what did you just say?" the president interrupted. "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

Maer responded: "A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline."

Bush's rejoinder: "Oh, yeah? That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

The president, once known for his common-guy skills, sounded eerily like his father, who in 1992 seemed amazed to discover that supermarkets had bar-code scanners.

The $4-a-gallon forecasts were reported widely in newspapers and on TV in the past week. The White House press secretary took a question about $4 gas at her Wednesday media briefing. A poll last month found that nearly three-quarters of Americans expect $4-a-gallon gas.

The president, however, had difficulty grasping the possibility, even after Maer told him.

"You just said the price of gasoline may be up to $4 a gallon — or some expert told you that," Bush repeated. "That creates a lot of uncertainty."
Thanks George. How are your shares in oil companies doing?