24 Nov 2009

Academic Water Economists

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the International Water Resource Economics Consortium at Berkeley.

Many big wheels were presenting (Dinar, Hanemann, Howitt, Libecap, Olmstead, Zilberman and others who are probably more famous than I know :) and others were in the audience, giving comments, questions and suggestions. (All the best stuff happened between talks, of course.)

Here are a few notes:*
  • The penalty for illegal water diversions in California have increased from $500 to $1,000, but that doesn't matter if the SWRCB continues to not enforce them (via Hanemann)
  • In Tucson, there's a well that sends water in two directions. The water that goes to ag is priced at $33/ML (about $41/af); the water that goes to the city costs $5,532/ML ($6,826/af). Same water, different customer (via Libecap).
  • 17 percent of all irrigation water in the US goes to corn (via Madhu Khanna). Khanna is a critic of ethanol and says that tenure has been useful. (She's at U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.)
  • Henning Bjornlund (U South Australia) gave a great presentation on water rights and markets in Australia. They have severed rights from the land, deliver "contracts" according to annual supply, and allow carry-over storage between years. The western US needs more of this. I'm excited to go learn more when I get to Oz in Jan 2010.
  • Alberta's tar sands have created an immense environmental problem waiting to happen (via Uijayant Chakravorty). The second biggest dam in the world (after Three Gorges) is holding back toxic tailwater left from processing tar into oil. Industry is promising to clean up, but wants government payments. (This is CRAZY; they profited from the mess!)

Overall, this meeting brought few a-ha moments to me. I updated some ideas, added some facts, and put faces to names.

Without getting into too many details, the meeting also made it clear to me why academics have such a hard time affecting policy/getting their ideas into the public debate. This meeting made it very clear that I need to spend more time in different countries (in the developed and developing worlds) and spend a lot of time and money on communicating (teaching and learning) with politicians, scientists and citizens.

That's why (if you didn't know it), I am going "into the field" to visit Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand for three months (Jan -- Mar 2010). I'll be blogging, of course.**

Bottom Line: We can learn from academics, but only when they take the time to communicate with us.

* These may not accurately represent what people said. Contextual notes are my own.
** It's a pity that few people at the meeting seemed to care about or understand the importance of blogging as a communication tool. What they do understand is academic publication, which furthers their careers, even as it remains inaccessible to 99.999% of the people "interested" in water. (If only one-percent of the people on the planet "care" about water, that gives them an audience of 6,500 people, which is probably high by an order of magnitude.)