23 January 2009

Ethics and Water

Speaking of water managers out of control, Aquadoc mentions "ethics" in this WaterWired post:
Several years ago, I listened to a talk by a Federal scientist about climate change in the Southwest. After the talk, he was unusually candid. What really annoyed him was seeing Western governors trekking to DC, hats in hands, asking for Federal government help to cope with the drought. But once back home, that message is forgotten, and it is "grow, grow, grow", for local consumption. Is that ethical?

How about water managers who don't want to tell it like it is, or like it could be, or keep doing the SOS, for fear of stifling growth and upsetting the public. Granted, predicting the hydrologic future in the face of climate change is not easy. But it can be done, at least in probabilistic terms. Certainly you can inform people that serious problems may be on the horizon. Shouldn't the public be apprised of this? Shouldn't people/firms who are thinking of relocating to these areas be given more than Reclamation's "all is rosy" graph
Aquadoc is dead-right on this issue, the problem of water managers NOT managing their water in a sustainable way that serves their clients, the People.

In fact, I think that water managers serve two different groups: themselves and their political masters. By serving themselves, they are avoiding the uncomfortable task of telling people "no, you can't use more water." In serving their political masters, they are allowing unsustainable development to continue way beyond appropriate levels.

Although anyone in the water business can tell you a story of how long-term wisdom was sacrificed for short-term profits, I want to highlight what I consider a fact of political-economy and public choice in water: Politicians and water managers are interested in serving themselves -- not the people.

Of course, those water managers and politicians who do speak out for sustainable water use often lose their jobs (e.g., the scientist at the Bureau of Reclamation or the governor of California who was defeated in the 1920s for opposing the formation of the Metropolitan Water District). They lose because their opponents claim that unsustainable growth is possible, jobs will flow, etc. There are plenty of people willing to promise you two burgers tomorrow if you give them one today. Yes, Mayor Sanders of San Diego, I am talking to people like you.

I've actually done research on this topic, i.e., "how selfish are water managers?" My conclusion (see chapter 5 of my dissertation) is that water managers are basically the same -- in terms of selfishness -- as random groups of undergrads. When managers are motivated by self-interest like everyone else, they are unlikely to take the high road (Serving the Public Interest) when the low road ("sure -- use as much water as you want") is so much easier, the tradition, etc.

Of course, few water managers lose their jobs when rationing was declared, so their inaction is completely rational. The incentives are to keep your head down, collect developer fees, and ration water when the shit hits the fan.

Note that the shit just hit the fan -- and water managers say rationing is coming.

Also note that these incentives and dynamics are in place worldwide. California is facing a man-made shortage now, but other western states and regions in the world (China, India, Bolvia, Spain) are facing shortages from water managers and politicians unwilling to sacrifice today to secure a better tomorrow.

Bottom Line: Believe it or not, there's a solution to this messed-up situation that does not involve men turning to angels.* It's to use insurance and prediction markets to monitor water managers, rewarding success and punishing failure.

* The Federalist 51 (by James Madison 1788):
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know why there is not more discussion/action on the functionablity of reclaiming waste water. We use billions of gallons of water whose sole purpose is to remove our waste. We could process that water and return it for use. It could be in the form of a special purple pipe as are used in many places and that water could be purchased at a discount price for the use of our landscape, gardens, farming. I for one would gladly pay my proportional amount for the initial infrastructure. Why don't you guys that have some clout in the water areana push for more reclaimed water usage. Regards Errol

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