24 Jul 2009

Bleg: Water and Population

Hey Folks,

I am writing another article for the Encyclopedia of Water Politics and the Environment. This one is on the relation between water and growth (population and sprawl). It's a juicy topic, and I basically say that cheap water has driven growth/sprawl in the western US.
Here's an interesting fact: Clark county (Las Vegas) had <3,000 people in 1900. It had 750,000 in 1990 and over 2,000,000 in 2008. Tell Pat Mulroy that I've found the reason for her water "shortages." Oh -- and don't forget that Vegas has some of the cheapest water ($30/month on average) and highest per capita consumption (260 gcd) in the US!
I've posted a draft here [PDF]. If you can read/comment on it before July 30 (my deadline), I'd be grateful!

The PDF has line numbers so you can reference your comments (helpful to me and others) in this post. Anonymous comments welcome -- as usual.

Addendum: Here's a .doc version for you markup fans...

Bottom Line: For many years, cheap water drove growth. That pleased politicians and real estate developers, but it was not sustainable. The end of abundance means that we can no longer have cheap water. Raise prices!


  1. Who is the audience for this article? What are their expected backgrounds?

  2. Is your article a persuasion piece, an academic review article, an encyclopedia piece, or something else?

  3. David -

    Nicely argued.

    A minor point: in your LA-SF population comparisons (lines 24 - 26) you seem to be using county population numbers. I think that's misleading, as county boundaries are so arbitrary - SF constrained with growth spilling over into neighboring political jurisdictions more quickly than LA. Maybe MSA's or something like that would be better there? I don't think it changes your underlying point, but the numerical change would definitely be less dramatic.

  4. @Eric -- encyclopedia -- for whoever reads those...

    @Fleck -- Agreed. But -- I needed data and 1900 is "old" :) I also think (not sure) that county boundaries are stable. I'm gonna punt on this, but perhaps add a caveat...

  5. Hey David,
    I found your blog doing some cursory research on a couple of ideas I had. Now I have some catch-up reading to do! Looking at your article these are the things that kinda stood out to me. I might be too much of a nit pick or just wrong with them. I'm only a high school grad. Anyway this is what I saw:

    Page 2 27-29 Incomplete sentence for total population of Lincoln County

    Page 3 line 53 spelling. patters instead of patterns. slipped under the check

    I don't know how nit picking proof you need this paper but at line 68; I think the 2 sentences with different objects should be separated by a semi-colon instead of a comma.

    page 5 lines 121-123 it seems like a run on sentence. I'd suggest :

    Political opposition to Los Angeles' growth slowed further expansion (see article on MWDSC). A pattern of using water to increase areaand population density emerged inspite of the opposition.

    Or maybe just add the word emerged or maybe a semi-colon in there? The sentence as it is just seems unwieldy to me. I had to reread it but that happens alot to me so it maybe just me. :~)

    page 5 128-129 I'd suggest:

    The Californian city of Bolinas is famous for a no-new-meter policy that's been in place since 1971

    I was amazed at the price of water there. That's actually the information I was looking for. (Accurate and timely information sometimes seems like a scarce resource too) At $3/748 gallons, the price is only $.001 more than poor Gazans pay for brown, sudsy water out of the back of a truck!

    I'm a Canadian. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around water shortages. I started to count(my blessings!) the lakes within a 25NM radius and stopped when I reached over 25. That's not including river systems, ponds, swamps etc. I fish streams where the springs flow all wear long. And we've just got like 3 inches of rain or more in the last 2 days. That's the distribution problem though isn't it? People have to go somewhere? Ideally they should go where there's water. Not an ideal world though.

    Agriculture is the big issue there in So Cal. That's a huge percentage of US grocery food production and sun is ideal even though the water isn't. What about a price rise of something really relatively affordable like a doubling to $.008/Gal? I understand that pipeline infrastructure in the past has led to population growth but what if future water was increasingly available by some means of transport and increasingly allocated specifically to the farms which is that base of the local economy and a big domestic food source. I'm just thinking that if the Libyans could build the Great Man-Made River; why can't America do something similar in the Southwest? I'd have to say all that green grass in the desert is living proof that capitalism does not lead to efficient use of resources. People who want to grow lush green grass in the desert by irrigation ought to pay through the tooth for it!


  6. @Andy -- thanks for the comments. I favor higher prices (to reflect scarcity), not an end of deliveries. The Libyan project is one of the biggest unsustainable boondoggles ever...


    line 37 - 38: recent projects TO desalinate

    128-129: THE California city of Bolinas is famous FOR a no-new meter...

    158: Importance. This seemed like a vague title. Maybe something like "The Future of Water Management?"


    For me (as a non-expert in the field) the 2 sections below were very powerful. I wonder if these concepts could come earlier or be highlighted or be expanded on.

    line 91 - 92: "Why are prices so low? Because they are based on the cost of service." Aha!

    102 - 105 "These facts, taken together, help us understand how an existing population will pay for a expansion that creates capacity far beyond current demand. Once built, these projects sell water below cost to new customers (since capital costs are paid by existing customers) who buy property in recently-developed settlements that are cheap because they are built on land that previously had no water."

    So THAT's how it works....


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