21 May 2009

Unquenchable -- The Review

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor, has written a second book about water. (I have not read his first, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters, but I should!)

On first glance, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It (333 pages) seems like it comes straight out of this blog ("Glennon's answer is a provocative market-based system that values water as a commodity and a fundamental human right."). It turns out that the book does NOT contain a "provocative market-based system." That's good (for me), since I want my book to cover that area. (NB: This review is therefore biased by my own view of what belongs in a book on water economics.)

Fortunately, Glennon's background as a lawyer, years of experience, and heavy research ensures that he approaches the topic from a different angle than I do, and he offers a useful perspective to people who want to learn something about water policy, politics, economics and institutions.

The book is divided into four parts:
  1. The Crisis: Glennon ranges far and wide, telling stories of how water is mismanaged. This part is full of stories and details, but it has little analysis (why did things go wrong?) and few solutions (what do we do?).*
  2. Real and Surreal Solutions: This section covers the conventional wisdom (e.g., dams, groundwater pumping, etc.) and crank ideas (massive pipelines, cloud seeding, etc.). After saying no to business as usual, Glennon has good chapters on desalination and reclamation, water conservation, harvesting and recycling. But very little discussion of "market-based solutions." :(
  3. A New Approach: Glennon examines the state of American infrastructure and condemns conventional solutions. Instead of replacing aging pipes, we should install dual-pipe systems, composting toilets, etc. Page 222 has my favorite quotation:
    What we have not attempted in the United States is to encourage water conservation through price signals that create financial incentives to conserve. Quite simply we must raise the price of water.
    This chapter and the ones that follow are quite good. Chapter 15 gives a case study of how to manage water rights with an eye towards sustainable development. Chapters 16 (private vs. public) and 17 (ag-urban transfers) are also good, but I was disconcerted by this conclusion (p. 271):
    Control over water must remain with the state or with a broadly representative elected body; otherwise, parochial interests may encourage the crude commodification of water without regard to how transfers may harm workers, other businesses, or the environment.
    I completely disagree -- and the example Glennon gives (IID is dysfunctional) makes it seem like he contradicts himself within the same chapter. In fact, he says in the next chapter ("The Future of Farming") that farmers will be more efficient with water when they can sell the water they save. The chapter after that gives an example of how farmers in Oregon made a "win-win" deal to sell their water for environmental uses. The chapter that follows gives a good motivation and defense of property rights as a means of ensuring sustainable water use. I am guessing that Glennon's split personality on this topic would come down in favor of trading water within a system of strong property rights.**
  4. Conclusion: I was disappointed -- after so much discussion and dropping of hints -- to find that this part of the book did not have a thorough, concise and integrated presentation of market solutions to the problems outlined in Part 1, not-solved in Part 2, and discussed in broad terms in Part 3.*** Instead, page 317 has a bullet list of 16 often-overlapping recommendations (e.g., "meter water use, secure water for the environment, use price signals, create market incentives, encourage creative conservation," etc.) At a minimum, I would have preferred to have these suggestions included WITH the problems Glennon discusses in earlier chapters AND explained in greater detail.

    I was also surprised that Glennon suggests a central role for Federal policy in water (and a national water tax). This idea makes little sense to me -- except after state and local water laws are reformed to approximate something close to normal.
Bottom Line: Glennon describes many of the problems that we face with water management. He also provides some good examples of what to do (and NOT do!) and solutions that vary from sensible to radical. Overall, these virtues were obscured by non-comparable statistics (how do you compare 2.5 gallons of water to make a gallon of gasoline to 0.7 gallons of water to generate a kilowatt of electricity?), failure (IMO) to offer a "provocative market-based system" with more structure,**** and too many stories stuffed with Proper Nouns.

For people who know lots about water (many readers here), I give this book THREE stars (out of five) -- just skip the first 100-200 pages. For beginners who want to know the many dimensions of the water problem, ways to solve it, and new things to consider, I give this book FOUR stars. Read it.

In an email chat with Glennon, he said:

* that he wrote many examples to give newbies an idea of the size, scope and importance of the water problem. He did this because many people do not understand our complete dependence on water in every part of our lives. Good point!

** that he is between radicals in favor of markets (e.g., PERC) and radicals opposing them (e.g., Food and Water Watch). He, like me, sees a role of government in the regulation of water allocation and trade, but not a need for the government to monopolize control/provision of water...

*** Glennon said that the editors forced him to cut the length down below 400 pages, which is why this section was not larger. Darn.

**** I am prepared to blame the lack of a "provocative market-based system" on PR people looking for catchy ways to promote the book.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Thanks for the posts. They give me an opening to ask what appears to be an important question, which goes to the heart of 'good governance.'

Are there agent based models of economic behavior in which agents/people can have particular qualities?

I ask because water policy and other policies that seem clear at the high level are clear but in the other direction at the agent level (see "The Logic of Delegation").

At a high level water may be wasted, but the individual employee who controls money for water policy makes a different calculation. The individual employee seems to be asking, 'How do I move this task off my desk, keep my job, and not get yelled at.' The answer, at least for many bureaucracies, is give the money to some place that is 'safe,' often the same place that is causing the high level problem.

So self interest of individuals (local rationality) routinely trumps high level 'rationality.'

There is a much longer version of this comment. Ask if you want it, but please give me feedback on this thought.

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