30 June 2009

Working with the Water We’ve Got

A guest post by Chandler Mazour*

Growing up on a dryland corn, sorghum and wheat farm in Lawrence, Neb., my family realized the importance of water to our livelihood. Our area, in south-central Nebraska, receives 25 inches of rain annually, just enough for our sorghum and wheat, but a bit shy for the amount needed for corn on our clay soils. Timely rains made for happy harvests, while stretches of dryness and even drought felt like we were kicked in the gut. Thousands of farmers in Nebraska—and millions around the world—experience those emotions yearly.

Recently, I’ve accepted a new responsibility in Monsanto that will try to help farmers stay on the happier side of the spectrum: I’m the site lead for Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenburg, Neb., which opened on June 16. The facility studies cropping systems comprised of world-class seed genetics, agronomic practices and biotech traits, including water-use efficiency technologies such as drought-tolerant cropping systems. At Gothenburg, Monsanto hopes to provide some insight on how crops can utilize water more efficiently.

Gothenburg provides a prime location for water research on crop production because it is near the transition zone between dryland and irrigated cropland. The area receives roughly 22 inches of precipitation each year. For every 25 miles east that you travel from the town to the eastern Nebraska border, rainfall increases one inch; for every 25 miles west to the western Nebraska border, rainfall decreases one inch. In fact, Nebraska alone has more biomes than the area from eastern Nebraska to the Atlantic Ocean. With a wide range of annual rainfall (a 20-inch difference from east to west) and two different agronomic systems (dryland and irrigated), there are plenty of options to simulate different crop production and water use in Nebraska.

At Gothenburg, Monsanto is taking a “systems approach” to telling the story of water use in crops. On the 155-acre farm, we have broken down each part of the farming system (genetics, biotechnology and agronomic practices, such as weed control, irrigation management and tillage) into 80 demonstration plots that help to inform farmers and visitors how each part plays an integral role in producing more while using fewer inputs. For example, we have plots to simulate residue cover for conversation tillage at no corn residue coverage, 40 percent coverage and 100 percent coverage. At each of those plots, we are controlling for water use, either letting the plot receive a natural rainfall or irrigation to supplement rainfall. Also in those plots, we have various corn hybrids to showcase which seeds may work best under the various conditions.

The side-by-side comparisons and test plots provide an educational experience and represent real life challenges for the farmer and empower him to make the best decisions for his farm.

But the key factor that we’re looking at in all of this is water’s role in crop development and growth. At some point during the growing season, millions of acres of cropland undergo some drought stress. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, annual losses from drought have been estimated at $6-8 billion in the United States. In addition, there are many farmers who are overwatering their crops in irrigated operations. At Gothenburg, we have the ability to control water use in various cropping systems—whether it’s simulating drought conditions or overwatering a plot to simulate a high-than-average annual rainfall. These capabilities enable Monsanto to provide an opportunity for growers to find the best water management practices for their farm and, ultimately, increase yields using fewer key inputs.

Bottom Line: Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of global freshwater use. If the industry reduces its water footprint by 1 percent, we save as much freshwater as five-and-a-half Lake Superiors. With centers like Gothenburg, we may be able to do that faster than imagined and help farmers make adjustments to their farming operation to grow higher yields with fewer inputs.
* Manager of Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center

Speed Blogging

  • Chronicle of a Death [of a River] Foretold (here one year ago): "Last October, Chinese engineers finished construction of the Xiaowan dam on the upper reaches of the River Mekong... the hydroelectric dam will for the first time catch the great Mekong flood that rushes out of the Himalayan mountains, and then gathers monsoon rains and snowmelt as it surges through the steep gorges of Yunnan. The reservoir will eventually be 105 miles long. The first electricity will be generated next year and help keep the lights on as far away as Shanghai, more than 1,200 miles to the east...The Mekong is destined to become China’s new water tower and electrical powerhouse."

  • Bombs Not Bottles: "A plane passenger was able to take a six-inch serrated knife past airport security but was stopped before boarding for carrying a bottle of water." [Insert TSA horror story here...]

  • "Until the world’s population stops growing, there will be no end to the need to squeeze individuals’ consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources... Population growth constantly pushes the consequences of any level of individual consumption to a higher plateau, and reductions in individual consumption can always be overwhelmed by increases in population. The simple reality is that acting on both, consistently and simultaneously, is the key to long-term environmental sustainability. The sustainability benefits of level or falling human numbers are too powerful to ignore for long."

  • "Swedish authorities recommend citizens to reduce their meat and rice consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The first of their kind, the guidelines are now being sent out for reactions and inspiration from other EU countries. ‘Meat – beef, lamb, pork and chicken – is the food group that has the greatest impact on the environment...'"

  • As I said here, water fraud (at Nevada Irrigation District) was NOT the work of a "few bad apples" but a systemic fraud to increase supplies by over-estimating "use it or lose it" use.

29 June 2009

Monday Morning Smile

[This story is funny but is not strictly true wrt inevitable or rockets...]

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with it?', you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horse's asses.)

Now, the twist to the story: When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRB's would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important?

Bottom Line: Ancient horses' asses control almost everything... and current horses asses are controlling everything else.

hattip to jwt

20x2020 in Trouble

On May 29th, I attended the first half of the final public comments session on California's plan to "reduce use by 20 percent by 2020." (They are not, btw, clear on what year to use as a baseline.) The webpage has MANY materials and a video of the session.

First, the elephant in the room: the plan says nothing about water "used" in agriculture. As many of you know, agriculture diverts 80 percent of California's "developed" (controlled) water supply. The rest goes to municipal and industrial use. (Read this post on how much farmers really use.)

So the State wants to reduce overall water use by 20 percent, but it's only dealing with the first 4 percent, i.e., a 20 percent reduction in the sector using 20 percent. I think that this plan will be DOA with the public (they will not care to cooperate) unless the public sees at least a plan for reducing agricultural use. I think such a plan is possible, particularly if farmers are allowed to make better use of markets.

With that said, here are some notes on what I saw:
  • They are making the same mistake that we have seen elsewhere -- requiring cuts against baseline use, which does not recognize earlier conservation successes. The obviously better way to make cuts is to measure aggregate use, reduce that by 20 percent, and then allocate that reduced quantity to cities based on their population. That would mean that cities with low use (e.g., San Francisco) would not have to reduce by as much as cities with high use (e.g., Sacramento). It's both fair and efficient to base targets on PEOPLE, not historic use.

  • The plan is FULL of command and control regulations and BMPs (Best Management Practices). That's sad, since it ties people up with rules. Better to raise prices and let people decide how to conserve water. (OTOH, lots of planners and consultants will get jobs from the current emphasis, and I guess those are "green" -- if wasteful -- jobs.)

  • Watch out for the "public good" charge. This tax comes from a good intention -- water waste is bad for the public, so we should tax it to reduce waste -- but it will attract a firestorm of criticism. The first critique will come from people who claim that water belongs to "the people" already, so you cannot tax them for using it. (That's not true, since some people use more than others.) The second will come from those skeptical of how the State will spend the money. If revenue goes to the General Fund, there will be hell to pay. The third will involve monitoring. The tax will have to be collected on ALL water withdrawals -- surface and ground -- and the biggest current users, farmers, will fight this idea like crazy. If they are not axed, it will be worse; see "elephant," above!

  • 20x2020 only got 57 comment letters. For such an "important" topic, this is appalling.

  • DWR has decided to monitor (and perhaps reduce use) for each of California's ten hydrological regions. That's troublesome for everyone who does not know them and for all the political bodies that do not share their borders. This decision seems to exemplify the importance of bureaucracy over performance.

  • The plan calls for uniform data collection. I hope that they make that data available to the public in XML format so that we can use it for monitoring and decision-making.
I could make many more comments on what's right (30%) and what's wrong (70%) in the 20x2020 plan, but I will wait until someone from the government asked me. If history repeats itself, we will get an plan that's neither effective nor efficient. Then we will get a new plan -- 20x2050, perhaps.

Bottom Line: Bureaucracies are good at setting goals and bad at improving efficiency. People and markets are better at improving efficiency without needing goals. We could have 20x2012, but not if the bureaucrats are in the lead!

28 June 2009

Weekend Discussion: Home!

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss a topic among yourselves -- exchanging views, learning and teaching. (I only read the comments.)

If you are interested, take a moment to check out (and add to!) last week's discussion on useful education. After that, please give us your thoughts on...

Home. Where is it? Does it change? What makes it home? Do you care more about defending it -- or somewhere else?

Dangerous Aliens, Please

Sixty-five million years ago, the Earth went through a deep cycle of climate change, extinction and adjustment. The cause (somewhat disputed) was an asteroid impact that blocked sunlight on the Earth.

It now appears that humans are causing the same kind of "climate change," but is it inevitable? On the one hand, we are causing it with our own actions, which implies that we could stop causing it if we wanted to. On the other hand, we appear to have no hope of coordinating a stop to the activities that are causing it. That's mostly because everyone is waiting for everyone else to move first, to blink and reduce their own consumption so that others may follow.*

One reason that countries hesitate to make such a first mover action is that other countries may not move in the same direction, choosing instead to increase their own output. Another reason is that the first mover will face higher costs of adjustment; those who move later will be able to learn from the first mover's mistakes when/if they move. Thus, we can see how the "first-mover disadvantage" has got everyone locked in paralysis.

What we need is a good alien invasion (as in the movies) -- something that will unite all earthlings against a common cause and allow us drop all the strategic hesitation in our haste to work together to save humanity. What if there are no aliens (or no aliens interested in our increasingly-damaged earth)? Well, then, perhaps we need to invent them. Some people may claim that "global warming" is itself an invented bogeyman designed to move us to action. If so, it's a pretty poor invention, since some people still dispute its existence and others think that its effects will be mild to non-existent.

Notice how aliens JUST APPEAR and then do harm IMMEDIATELY. If global warming dropped down (into Central Park, Tienanmen Square, etc.) and started conducting random anal probes of people, you could be sure that Will Smith would be there in no time, saving the earth. And we'd back him up, pitchforks in hand!

Bottom Line: We need an international rallying point if we -- as humans -- are going to reduce and adapt to global warming. The IPCC is trying to create such a rallying point, but their reports are hardly emotional. Does anyone have any better ideas/examples?
The House voted for the Waxman-Markey bill on Friday. It calls for 17 percent reductions of GHG (against 2005 levels) by 2020 and 83 percent reductions by 2050. The agricultural lobby weakened the bill in several ways, and the Senate will weaken it by more. The Economist says that the bill may be worse than nothing at all if other countries see it as a non-commitment. OTOH, Billy Pizer (who represented the US Treasury on the negotiations) told me after his plenary talk yesterday that the bill was a step in the right direction and "wildly successful" in some ways. I'm not sure if this bill will be interpreted as a strike against the aliens or a strategic attempt to look busy while doing nothing.

27 June 2009

Smart Meters and Smart Competition

In the comments to this post, DW writes:
On the electric side, smart grid is all the rage. Utilities are installing smart meters that can tell customers how much energy they are using in real time and what it will mean for their bill at the end of the month. I expect it will take the water industry a decade or so to catch up.
A decade may be right (I've said the same), but there are MANY people/companies coming up with smart water meter ideas. If the number talking to me is any indicator, those smart meters will be on market in the next few years.

Widespread adaption will take longer, of course, but the key driver will be the ease of installation for homeowners. If they can put in smart monitoring devices on their own, then the industry will be driven by early adopters (the 20 percent who "care"). If it's only through (monopoly) utilities, then it will take longer -- mostly because the utilities will believe the "ten years" conventional wisdom and plan accordingly :)

Bottom Line: Our water efficiency -- like all efficiency -- will improve with competition. Smart meters are one great way to bring more of that (and more information!) to a business that's traditionally been very slow to innovate.

Flashback: 21 - 27 June 2008

These posts are STILL relevant, so please comment (I'll approve them ASAP.)

Paper or Plastic? prices don't work all the time. Sometimes they are not allowed to (How NOT to Raise Prices), but a lack of prices (e.g., metered water in Sacramento) leads to Failing at Conservation and a lack of consciousness (SD Water Manager Fails) will continue shortage. OTOH, we know that prices will reduce demand for water, i.e., Water Demand DOES Slope Down

What do we get when we mismanage water? The Water Industry

The King is Dead, Long Live the King: George Carlin, RIP

DC Follies begins with a staffer who doesn't understand logrolling and goes to There is No Energy Shortage. Playing with Our Future reminds us how the Bush administration avoided dealing with climate change by refusing to open emails... Speaking of stupid, Irrigation Subsidies to Ag add up to $4.4 billion; Mexican, Indonesian and Pakistani farmers pay less than 15 percent of the cost of their water! In a related stupid, Sustainable Flooding will happen ONLY when we stop subsidizing flood insurance.

26 June 2009

Shocking News! Prices Change!

I get lots of emails with water news, and many of them have headlines like "XYZ agency raises prices..."

Now, I do not get emails from shoe stores, gas stations, advertising agencies -- or pretty much any other industry on price changes. Why? Because price changes are normal in those industries.

From that simple observation you can gather what is NOT normal in the water business: price changes. Why? First, because price has never mattered very much. Price was set as a residual decision, after the more important decisions of where to build pipes and plants was made. Second, prices were often set by political processes, and -- as most of you know -- getting agreement in a political setting is quite the WIN.

So here's my hope: The price of water rises and falls with scarcity abundance -- signaling to people whether water supplies are trending below or above demand. That would be so... normal.

Bottom Line: Prices are the most powerful signal that we have in economics. It's time to use them with water.

25 June 2009

The Last Lecture -- The Review

Like many people, I learned about Randy Pausch in 2007, when the video of his "last lecture" became an internet sensation. Pausch gave his lecture to students, family and friends at Carnegie-Mellon University when he only had a few months to live. (He died in July 2008.)

A book by the same name was released soon after the lecture as a complement to what he said in that hour. I just read it and found it to be profound, wise and emotional all at once. I recommend that you read it. The parts that stood out were his strong desire to leave a clear and strong "I love you and I will miss you" communication with his family. Although he struggled to deliver the message (it's hard to convince someone you love them when you are soon going to be dead), he was lucky to have the time to deliver his message. (My mother had time to communicate such things to me before she died of cancer.)

The other aspect that struck me was his teaching style. As an author, he is ``Randy Pausch, Professor,'' and you really learn what that means throughout the book: Trust your students, push them, set no upper bounds but be firm on your lower bounds, put them into teams and then make those teams the unit of measure, etc. This is a man who clearly loved teaching and building his students "to be all they could be." I am sure that he did sound like the SOB he said he was, but I am also sure that more than a few students owe their current success, happiness and fulfillment to him. That's what real professors do. I take these views seriously, and I hope to emulate them when I teach in the fall at Cal. Stay turned.

Bottom Line: The meaning of life (after reproduction) is accomplishing your dreams. Is your life meaningful? FIVE STARS.

Humans, Incentives and Righteousness

A few, slightly-scattered thoughts on morals...

We tend to pursue self-interest, to the point where we feel it's ok to harm others -- even when that harm is far greater than the benefit we get for ourselves (breaking a car window to steal change in the cup holder). This problem will persist as long as men are less than angels. We try to control this behavior with incentives (punishment, social stigma, guilt) but these are imperfect AND costly. Will we ever be able to get along?

This problem (need to control self-interest) lies at the root of many problems:
  • Some people think we can get there by "altering consciousness," but that implies we can walk away from one of our deepest instincts (self-interest over group-interest). This is the role of religion...

    Religion can improve in-group survival/performance. It works in this way: We are told that it's good (in God's eyes) to take care of others -- if we give now, we will be rewarded later. Others, being told the same thing AND seeing us act so cooperatively, cooperate in turn. Thus, a religious community tends to thrive in an atmosphere of "taking care of your brother and sisters in God." Such a solution works quite well, until one religious group runs into another, and "kill the infidels" is invoked by political leaders more interested in their power (and their group's power) than the interests of other humans (and their leaders). Thus, we see how politics/religion can turn from good to bad in the pursuit of selfish human needs.

  • The police are there to "protect and serve" and they do so by enforcing the law. But what should they do when the "law" bans something that's "socially beneficial"*
    1. Cops know that people should obey the law.
    2. The violator is not obedient.
    3. The violator is thus unworthy of respect/should be punished.
    4. Besides prison, is it ok to take a bribe to let the violator go away? It's not like anyone cares. People care about murder but not about socially beneficial crimes like smoking marijuana.
    5. Thus are cops corrupted, and corruption -- as a gateway drug -- will lead to more abuses (extrajudicial murder, bank theft, violation of other civil rights, etc.)
    6. This gets MUCH worse when drug dealers/felons fire back/kill cops. Now druggies are deadly :(

  • Many water management problems can be traced to collective action problems -- the few trying to exploit the many (by free-riding, etc.)
Bottom Line: Although it seems that we are a long way from "just getting along," we can structure institutions and incentives to make it easier to cooperate and harder to exploit. It just takes time.
* No person or group could collect enough money (votes) to oppose that action, e.g., a murder victim could pay more than the murderer (as % of income) but few are willing to outbid someone who wants to smoke marijuana...

24 June 2009

Housing and Barney Frank

I think Barney Frank deserves to be ridiculed and booted out of Congress for his past role in the housing mess, his continued idiocy, and this current idea which makes me believe he still has no idea what his or the government's role in the mess was (It was substantial). His main campaign contributors include the real estate sector and many financial services companies. Conflict of interest? He would say no. I strongly disagree.

Bottom Line: It is unsurprising when people react to incentives.

Lousy Water Editorials

A recent Merced editorial discussed water problems in the state, and although I criticize this one specifically, there are countless others that are lousy in similar ways. A few passages need to be repeated:
"They (the legislators) are the ones who have been standing in the way of getting anything done. That dirty little secret is finally getting out to California residents, and many are becoming angry."
Of course they are standing in the way of certain projects—we put them there to oppose and support bills, so the claim is obvious. It is neither dirty nor little nor a secret.

The writer says both sides must sit down and compromise (a new idea?),
"...but it also will take the cooperation of the federal government. The feds must help pay for new water projects..."
Bullshit. If legislators agree on more storage, then Californians ought to pay for it with higher water prices. If these higher prices choke off demand, then we shouldn't be building.
"Water politics are complicated, but a solution can be found because everyone knows the issues, and what's at stake."
I disagree that there is a solution. In the few years I have been studying California water, I have learned that our state has argued about water projects, water rights, the delta, environmental flows, etc. for more than a hundred years. The worst thing is to act quickly and irrationally.
"California's population has doubled since the last major water project was built in the state, and demand for water has gone up by an even greater factor."
Total water demand was about 30 million acre feet in 1960, now it’s about 44 million acre feet, according to the Pacific Institute. (page 9 of the pdf) That is not a doubling. Furthermore, lots of storage has been built since the last “major project.” See Gleick's blog.

They conclude
"The time couldn't be better for a comprehensive water plan. Let's step back from the finger-pointing and get this resolved for all Californians."
Not even sure what that means. Do you mean build a new delta facility? There still will be water supply concerns, water quality concerns, water rights problems, environmental flow issues, etc. This water problem, which is less of a problem and more of a situation to be continually managed, will not go away by throwing money at it. In fact, doing so is incredibly wasteful.


Bottom Line:
This simplistic reporting does not educate anyone.

How Drought Promotes Entrepreneurship

A guest post by J. David Foster*

We all know the impact of rainfall on crop production and we know, or think we know, the impact of rainfall on economic growth but how many even think about the impact of rainfall on entrepreneurship? Although sociologist Max Weber has long been famous for his theories on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, based on my observations in India, I believe that differential patterns of rainfall have often had far more impact on “the spirit of capitalism” than any differential religious persuasion.

First, by way of background, I want to give you a little information on the nation of India where I have worked as an environmental advisor for the past 5 years and have been visiting since the early 70s. Although in most respects India is a remarkably unified and stable country, for outsiders it is often useful to think of India as analogous to Europe with an even greater variety of languages, ethnic groups, customs, cultures and cuisines. There is as much difference (both geographically and culturally), for example, between Kashmir (in the North of India) and Tamil Nadu (In the South) as there is between Norway and Greece.

One of the most striking geographic variations within India is the difference in rainfall patterns. In the semi arid tropics of Andhra Pradesh (South Central India), where I live for example, serious droughts can be expected to occur about once in 7 to 10 years. By contrast, in more arid Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat droughts will occur every 3 to 4 years. And at the other extreme, in Kerala (blessed with two monsoons per year) droughts of any kind are extremely rare, no more frequent than once in 20 years.

The question we want to pursue is: What may have been the cultural impact of those variations in rainfall? Now, let’s think about what happens to people (or at least those who prosper) in the most drought prone regions:
  • They develop off-farm options for employment (handicrafts, trade & manufacturing) to enable them to survive during those seasonal or even year long droughts,

  • They develop savings habits initially designed to tide them through the droughts (the obverse of saving for a “rainy” day) that can later be used to raise capital to finance a variety of business ventures, and

  • Those who fail to develop these aptitudes (either through lack of discipline, ill health or bad luck) often wind up having to sell their lands to the most successful ones and frequently wind up working for large landowners.
Now looking back to the cultural and entrepreneurial patterns across India it is unmistakable that the most drought prone states, like Rajasthan and Gujarat, produce by far the most Capitalists while the well watered states like Kerala and West Bengal produce the most Communists. [Kerala and West Bengal have regularly voted Communist for at least the last 20 years and are the only states in India to have done so.] What is even more remarkable is that it is the rainfall/drought variable that appears to dominate regardless of variation in religion, ethnic group, or differential exposure to foreign trade or colonialism.

Although not blessed with great ports or other natural resources, drought prone Rajasthan has produced more billionaires (including the owner of the world’s largest steel company) than any other area of the country, Neighboring Gujarat (also drought prone but not quite to the extent that Rajasthan is) is widely known for exporting successful small businessmen to East Africa, North America (especially motels and sandwich shops) and the UK. Interestingly, in well watered West Bengal where the British established an early capital of its colonial empire, the native Bengali people excelled as civil servants but the most successful businessmen were ethnic Mewari, originally from drought prone Rajasthan.

It is the Southwestern state of Kerala which benefits from both the Southwest and Southeast monsoons; however, that provides the greatest contrast to arid Rajasthan. Despite having the highest literacy rate and best health care of any state in India, Kerala has relatively few successful businessmen. Kerala has also welcomed European, Arabic and Chinese traders for centuries and is home to Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians. {Many people even claim descent from early Christians converted by the apostle Thomas.} Kerala is widely known for its food and spices, its beautiful scenery and tourism, its Doctors, Nurses and labor unions but not for its entrepreneurs. With few exceptions, Kerala is largely known as a region of small farms and relatively even income distribution. In fact, any conspicuously large home is most likely the consequence of remittances sent back from a family member working abroad rather than from domestic business success.

Finally, although this theory regarding the role of adversity in promoting entrepreneurship is based primarily on observations of drought in India, it is fully consistent with observations regarding the long recognized entrepreneurial role of ethnic Chinese people throughout Southeast Asia. Whether in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines; there is a common aphorism that: “if there is a store in town, there are probably people of Chinese origin that run it.” The generally accepted theory behind this observation is that ethnic Chinese arriving in tropical rainforests from colder, drier, more seasonally affected regions of China had a cultural advantage over their tropical counterparts when it came to saving, investing and other entrepreneurial activities. If “every cloud has a silver lining”, maybe occasional droughts have a silver lining as well.

For further information on droughts in India, check out: Droughts and Integrated Water Resource Management in South Asia: Issues and Alternatives by Jasveen Jairath and/or my review of it.
* Environmental Advisor, Centre for Energy, Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development, Administrative Staff College of India. Email: dafoster@aol.com

23 June 2009

Water Footprints Are Stupid

Lynne has a post on waterfootprinting, and it got me to thinking of the reason why footprints matter or should be used.

They should be used when we need to know the non-price impact of a behavior, e.g., our "carbon footprint" tells us how much harm we are doing to the environment. We do not worry about "coffee footprints" because we pay the full price of coffee when we buy it.*

Anyway, the whole idea of (or need for) water footprints stems from underpricing water, and water is MUCH easier to price for sustainability. First, because water supply and demand is LOCAL. Second, because water is a renewable resource that we merely reuse. (We are mining and emitting fossil carbon...)

Bottom Line: A water price that keeps demand in line with supply is sustainable, and a sustainable price does not require that we pay attention to any other measures of water use (i.e., footprints).
* Purists may say that we are not paying the price of indigenous land rights, seed biodiversity, the carbon from transport, etc., but let's leave those costs to separate footprints.

22 June 2009

Monday Morning Smile

Indian Chief Two Eagles was asked by a white government official, "You have observed the white man for 90 years. You've seen his wars and his technological advances. You've seen his progress, and the damage he's done."

The Chief nodded in agreement.

The official continued, "Considering all these events, in your opinion, where did the white man go wrong?"

The Chief stared at the government official for over a minute and then calmly replied. "When white man find land, Indians running it, no taxes, no debt, plenty buffalo, plenty beaver, clean water. Women did all the work, Medicine man free. Indian man spend all day hunting and fishing; all night having sex."

Then the chief leaned back and smiled. "Only white man dumb enough to think he could improve system like that."

hattip to JWT

Bootlegger Irrigation

Fleck asks if we should agree with those who claim that their outdoor irrigation is okay because it "recharges" local groundwater.

Besides the obvious engineering problem (pump up, irrigate, percolate SOME back is a net user of energy AND water), there's the more interesting (to me) claim that "my green lawn" is for the public good.

That rhetoric has been coming up a lot in my conversations with reporters in the past week. Bruce Yandle called it "baptists and bootleggers" (i.e., Baptists want to ban Sunday alcohol sales in stores "in the name of God." Bootleggers agree -- because they prefer less competition.)

In the water business, these images come up all the time
  • The Nature Conservancy and Central Valley farmers both backing the Peripheral Canal. What if the PC only delivered water but didn't "fix" Delta ecology? (Oh, and what if TNC didn't get any restoration contracts?)
  • Homeowners who claim they need cheap water for landscaping irrigation to "save the community" from wildfires -- when it really saves their lifestyle.
  • Activists claiming that water flows will maintain jobs -- when the flows will obviously benefit land owners by far more.
  • Your example?
Bottom Line: Always pay attention to who is claiming what benefit -- and who is benefiting while remaining quiet. In other words, follow the money!

21 June 2009

Weekend Discussion: Useful Education

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss a topic among yourselves -- exchanging views, learning and teaching. (I only read the comments.)

If you are interested, take a moment to check out (and add to!) last week's discussion on Community. After that, please give us your thoughts on...

Education. Have you learned more useful stuff in the "real world" or academic world? (Examples are nice.)

Human Rights Redux

Aguanaut Jay Wetmore writes this:
I was pleased to see that our exchange on the human “right to water” developed into a blog post.

While I struggle to define how I would characterize the human right to water, I am still uncomfortable with using the term “right”.

Let me explain. As a person who tries to be very precise with words, I believe the word “right” has evolved considerably over time so it no longer has a precise meaning. It seems much of the change in the definition has been intentional, by individuals intent on creating new “rights”...

My own bias is for the term “right” to mean personal protections from government or other institutions in keeping with the definition of rights in the Bill of Rights, and natural rights as defined by classical liberal scholars. The term “right” has come to be used to mean, “wants” and “expectations”. These new “rights” are often proposed by individuals who seem to not believe that the Constitution protects individual liberties and places limits on the federal government, so I hope you can understand my discomfort with your use of phrase “right to water”.

[snip]

I may be able to come to terms that the “right to water” is a natural right like the right to breath after additional analysis, but I am not quite there yet. To me this is not just a quibble. The foundation for lasting institutions (and personal philosophies) must be solid. I agree with you that nature has first call on water and that just because man can control water, does not mean he has a moral authority to divert all of the water to his own uses. Governments certainly have no moral authority to withhold water from any of its constituents. However, if you as an individual, own water rights, I do not think you have a legal obligation to provide water to others. (I have left open the question of moral obligation because I think it is dependent on circumstances.) This hypothetical ignores the original mistakes that may have been made in granting of water rights, but as you said, there is little utility in unraveling the fairness of the status quo.
What do you guys think?

20 June 2009

Bleg: Learning Water Management

A reader asks:
I am particularly interested in water economics. Does Berkeley offer a water management program and if so, does it include water economics? If not, do you know any programs that offer that coursework?
I am not sure about a masters degree in water management. Is that something that you can learn in business school?

I think that such a course should include classes from economics, engineering, business, sociology, law, etc.

Can readers recommend courses at schools?

Flashback: 14 - 20 June 2008

These posts are STILL relevant, so please comment (I'll approve them ASAP.)

The Morality of Price... increases in an emergency.

BEST: Educating Water Managers: Managers are myopic to issues of economics and human behavior.

Texas Pump 'em T Boone Pickens tries to harvest blue gold that's not his. Midwestern Canary: Dead zones are a sign of worse things to come...

BEST: Hayek, Knowledge and Prices: How little we know and how to manage that ignorance.

BEST: Useless Gestures: Senator Boxer tells us how to use less water brushing our teeth. I tell her how to REALLY fix the water problem.

Environmental Skepticism ...for people who don't believe in climate change; Water Rights: What do those words mean?

Time Magazine Gets Fooled: Firebaugh/Westlands are not typical; they are exceptional -- in their bad luck. Don't Take My Water! The sad story of a farmer's water seized by the state.

19 June 2009

Waterflows II (Shawn for Spreck)

A guest post by Shawn Coburn*

This [image -- click for larger view] is what Spreck bases his claim that WWD is at 86% of normal, well why doesn’t he use the last five years of rescheduled water data, WWD would be at 1000% of normal. Cherry picking data from previous years is disingenuous at best. Spreck did not inform the readers of his article that this data at best is a rough estimate, example 1 transfer water at 172, we will be lucky if we can get the south of the delta transfers done this year which is 80 not 172. Ground water pumping is used in his scenario to prove his point that WWD is at 86%, first no one knows what is going to be pumped, my standing water levels on all of my properties east or west are going down, secondly I find it quite interesting that this “Estimate” does not account for any ground water pumping for Friant, more water is pumped in Friant than has ever been annually pumped in WWD simply based on aquifer constraints and quality. Just this omission of fact should shed some light on the validity of this draft.

Do the words Working Draft mean any thing?

I am biased for sure with regard to this situation; the future of my operation is at stake. But I will not cherry pick number from a “Working Draft” even if it would benefit water users south of the delta. I have something we farmers refer to as “common sense” , using bad numbers to make yourself feel better just gets you one step closer to bankruptcy.

Get ready for July 1st.
* A Westlands farmer who appeared in this recent post.

Waterflows I (Claudia for Shawn)

Claudia Goss (Communications Director at the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District) writes:
I noted the addition of the "Great Delta Toilet Bowl" graphic and information about the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta on Aguanomics recently. The creators of this graphic and its associated criticisms of wastewater discharges continue their campaign to divert attention from the proven impacts to the Delta. It’s ironic that this attack campaign is being promoted by the very interests responsible for the greatest damage to the Delta ecosystem through their water pumping operations.

Equally disturbing is how the attacks are then picked up by others - such as Aguanomics – which normally does an excellent job at studying and reviewing the "economics of water." However, when you state on your blog: "I have to agree on their (the Coalition’s) critique about wastewater discharges. These discharges will have an effect on Delta water quality -- even when they are treated to a tertiary level…" then I must ask what you base that opinion on? Since an impartial committee of expert scientists convened by CalFed reviewed the data available to date and determined that this data is inadequate to state whether or not the discharges are affecting the Delta [PDF], you seem to have information that was not available to them. We welcome your participation in solving the issue and urge you to make any such additional facts/data known so they can be considered.

Propaganda from others aside, here is the reality: wastewater treatment agencies have a strong environmental ethic and work around the clock to meet their mission to protect public health and the environment. People enter this profession to be environmental stewards and provide a vital public service. We are highly regulated and (speaking for SRCSD) we do an exceptional job of complying with those regulations and are constantly monitoring and ensuring the health and quality of our receiving waters and the aquatic life therein.

Finally, regarding the ad hoc "Coalition for a Sustainable Delta," on May 23, 2009, the Contra Costa Times published an article about the companies that have profited from an "environmental water account" meant to help the Delta that provides a bit of insight into this coalition:
The coalition has filed three lawsuits and threatened to file several more to shift blame away from water pumping's role in the Delta's collapse. The group contends other environmental threats are also to blame for the Delta's demise, including housing development in Delta floodplains, pesticide use, dredging, power plants, sportfishing and pollution from mothballed ships near Benicia.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta's phone number is the same as Paramount Farms, and of the four coalition officers listed on tax documents, three are [Paramount owner Stewart] Resnick employees: William Phillimore, chief financial officer and executive vice president for Westside Mutual and Paramount Farming; Scott Hamilton, resource planning manager for Paramount Farming; and Craig B. Cooper, chief legal officer for Roll International, Resnick's holding company.
DZ: That's what she says. I'll let others comment on it, but my reply to her direct question ("I must ask what you base that opinion on?") is simple: ANY interference with water flows or quality is detrimental to the 100% pristine environment. Treated wastewater is better than untreated wastewater and smaller diversions are better than bigger diversions, but no wastewater and no diversions are best. Isn't that obvious?

Now the experts say that "cannot be conclusively determined at this time." As usual, the lack of certainty does not mean certainty about lack! (Read OJ's book for another take on that!) I hope that Claudia likes the panel as much if they should conclude that ammonia is damaging. (Oh, and ammonia is only ONE chemical of how many? hundreds?)

18 June 2009

Cash for Clunkers

This bill caught my eye, and I finally read the version the Senate is considering. (It's H.R. 2751, search for it here, I cannot seem to link directly to the bill text.)

If your trade-in vehicle meets conditions (must be drivable, insured at least a year prior, get 18 mpg or less, and be post-1984), you can receive a $3,500 voucher for buying
  • a vehicle with 4 more mpg compared to the trade-in ($4,500 if 10 mpg better)
  • a small truck with 2 more mpg ($4,500 if 5 mpg better)
  • a medium sized >15 mpg truck that gets at least 1 more mpg ($4,500 if 2 mpg better)
  • a medium sized truck that gets at least 15 mpg and your trade in is a larger truck
  • a larger truck that is smaller than your 2001 or earlier trade-in
The dealer is responsible for delivering this car to the government where it "will be crushed or shredded." The dealer can, however, sell parts other than the body and drivetrain/engine.

The net result is that the government will overpay for these trade-ins but still receive something of value. However, they will then take this valuable car and destroy it.

How is this possible stimulative?

If people buy more cars, then perhaps it is stimulative for the auto industry. But we as a society are spending $3,500 to buy a car worth maybe $2,000, and then destroying what we bought. It stimulates one side while ignoring the hidden costs of where the money is coming from to finance the program (see Bastiat's broken window fallacy). The government, I am guessing, is hoping that a large positive externality exists from doing this, but this ignores that
  • more efficient cars are driven more than less efficient cars (Prius drivers drive more)
  • the savings will be minimal (as little as 1 mpg savings)
  • many buyers likely would be buying these cars anyway
Bottom Line: We prosper when we allocate resources well. This policy instead destroys resources and makes us poorer.

Congestion Politics

A truck crashed into a convoy of farmers. Why?
Ryan Ferguson says the convoy was organized by farmers to protest the lack of water being allotted to the west side of the valley.

[snip]

"Farmers out there are being denied by the state water to their farms, because of a little minnow," Sean Hannity said.

[snip]

Hannity's guest was actor and comedian Paul Rodriguez, who has been active in water issues.

Rodriguez told Hannity he's confused by recent legal decisions keeping pumps off to protect delta smelt, while farmland and jobs, dry up.

"This is ridiculous, I don't know who's running this. I used to be a big supporter of President Obama but now I don't know what to think," he said.
This story has multiple, silly dimensions.
  1. Farmers are using political protests to try to get their way. Forget science or economics, they want the gommint to delivery THEIR water.
  2. Sean Hannity (a guy who never misses an opportunity to attack democrats) blames "the little fish" instead of the policies that brought these farmers subsidized water.
  3. Rodriguez thinks that his vote will make Obama "change his mind" about Delta exports when Obama has NOTHING to do with the policy. If he wants to blame someone, he should blame all of the special interests putting the Delta under strain.
Bottom Line: Protests may seem like a short-cut to a solution, but they neither fix the problem (overstressed Delta) nor resolve the issue for farmers (unsustainable farming).

Addendum: Rodriguez got in a fight with a guy. More importantly, the guy was saying "you have betrayed the people." Which people? I don't know, but Rodriguez owns farm land. That implies non-farm land owners (workers?) to me...

17 June 2009

California's Budget and University Education

Although not about water, I must comment on California's current budget mess and its effect on education. I received this email recently from the University of California. Although they lament the 9.3% tuition increase, undergraduate tuition is still cheap at Cal--just under $10,000 per year, compared to $40,000 per year at Carleton (my undergrad) and other private schools. However, Carleton gives generous financial aid. (For example, I contributed about $5,000 per year, borrowed about $3,500, and received the rest in grants). On the other hand, many families can afford this, and do pay Carleton and other private schools significant sums of money.

Yet at Berkeley and other state universities, tuition is heavily subsidized, encouraging many to choose Berkeley based on price rather than as a top provider of undergraduate education. This is inefficient. It shields Berkeley from competition, and swells the undergraduate population.

Many are concerned that this budget mess will price some out of college. I don't believe it will have much of an effect on college attendance. Folks in the middle, perhaps those who have parents which refuse to contribute to their tuition, may be priced out of UC Berkeley. This is a problem, but is more a criticism of the financial aid formulas rather than a reason to subsidize everyone's tuition.

Bottom Line: An educated society has positive externalities, but subsidizing everyone is wasteful.

Poll Results: Water Bill Information

Hey! There's a new post (vacations!) to the right --->
My water bill tells me...(choose 1+)
How much water I use 24 votes
If my use is "good" or "bad" 3 votes
How the $ amount is calculated 14 votes
Nothing -- just "pay us $x" 8 votes
Whatever (I don't pay attention) 2 votes
Less than nothing (Can't even find "pay $x"!) 1 vote

People who do not know if they are using too much (or too little) water are hardly likely to change their consumption. Besides the idea that people will use less if water is expensive, there's the second notion that people will use less if they are over the "benchmark" for use in their neighborhood.

We are all in it together, after all.

Bottom Line: Water bills need to be informative if they are going to be useful.

Interruption of service

Hey folks

I've been overwhelmed recently. (I've got excuses. Really!) I'll get some posts up later today.

Sorry about the delay :)

16 June 2009

Masaru Emoto and Talking to Water

Several times over the past few years, people have asked me what I think about the work of Masaru Emoto,
a Japanese author known for his controversial claim that if human speech or thoughts are directed at water droplets before they are frozen, images of the resulting water crystals will be beautiful or ugly depending upon whether the words or thoughts were positive or negative. Emoto claims this can be achieved through prayer, music or by attaching written words to a container of water. These claims have been strongly criticized as pseudoscience.
The image here, for example, was "exposed" to the words "love and gratitude."

I think that people like Emoto's work because they want to feel a connection between their emotions and the physical world, so they can feel a bit of place in the universe.

I also think that this is pseudoscience. In other words, Emoto could NOT reproduce the same images from the same emotional "exposures" at more than a random rate.

But, that will not keep people from liking him. After all, some people think that the Virgin Mary appeared on a grilled cheese sandwich -- and that sandwich sold for $28,000 to a casino!

Bottom Line: Water is an emotional topic, and emotions are not often constrained by logic or scientific method -- by definition.

A Few Thoughts on the Crisis

...as in the crisis in California. No, not the budget crisis -- the water crisis.

I asked for these while I was writing this piece on the same theme. Although I was not able to use them in the piece (word count!), I do want to share them with you.

Don Wood (Sr. Policy Advisor Pacific Energy Policy Center, La Mesa, CA):
California is facing growing water problems because governments in Southern California have encouraged sprawl development into hotter regions, and increased population, even when they knew they didn't have guaranteed water supplies to service this population growth. Regional and local water agencies have promised more "paper water" than they knew they could provide to serve sprawl growth, and are now facing a situation where growing water demand will soon outstrip supply. But those agencies are loathe to design conservation programs that would really work, since their own revenues depend on water sales. The state does not have the leadership it needs to overcome these converging negative trends.
Philip Bowles (Farmer in the San Luis Canal Company "watershed"):
Through a cruel accident of geography, the people are in one place and the water is in another; while there is an abundance of both, only lately have Californians used their creativity to devise rational solutions to the problem.
Bill Hasencamp (Colorado River program manager at MWDSC):
Warming associated with climate change yields a triple threat in the water business; it reduces runoff, increases agricultural demand, and hastens the decline of endangered species further reducing water supplies.
And, finally, we have Lloyd Carter (former reporter who covered water and ag issues in California for 20 years for United Press International and the Fresno Bee), who went slightly over his one-sentence limit :)
There are half a million acres of selenium-tainted salty land in the western San Joaquin Valley which require drainage in order to stay in production. Those lands have been without an economical, safe disposal method for vast volumes of drainage water for half a century. Some toxic drainage water, tainted with toxic levels of selenium, continues to be funneled untreated into the Lower San Joaquin River and the Bay/Delta estuary.

Those half million acres of alkali, saltly marginal farmlands use an average of 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year, which would meet the domestic needs of 15 million more Californians. Continued irrigation of those poisoned lands by massive amounts of water pumped from the Delta is also contributing to the ecological decline of the Delta. Until the drainage problem is resolved, or those poisoned lands taken out of production, the major problems of water in California will remain unresolved.

Meanwhile, the fundamental problem of San Joaquin Valley is not lack of water but overproduction of many commodities causing downward pressures on prices such that small farmers continue to go out of business.
Bottom Line: "Never waste a good crisis" means a lot of things to a lot of people. Without coordination, their voices will merely cancel each other out, and those who set the agenda will get their way.

Speed Blogging

  • In Brazil's Amazon region, "relative development, in terms of life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living, increases as deforestation begins but then declines again as the frontier passes through. As a result, pre- and postfrontier levels of development are similarly low, indicating a pattern of boom and bust."

  • Good news [pdf]: Japanese scientists have figured out how to raise AND reproduce blue fin tuna in captivity. Bad news: Captive babies are a TINY portion of the babies caught in the wild for captive farming. Even worse, "the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna’s management of bluefin tuna fisheries for sustainable fishing is widely regarded as an international disgrace."

  • More from TED: "Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education -- one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day." She explains exactly why I will NOT be looking for jobs at research universities.

  • "Pete Alcorn shares a vision of the world of two centuries from now -- when declining populations and growing opportunity prove Malthus was wrong." Interesting thoughts of a world where negative growth [sic] is good.

  • "The authors use a sample of 133 countries to investigate the link between the abundance of natural resources and micro-economic reforms. Previous studies suggest that natural resource abundance gives rise to governments that are less accountable to the public and states that are oligarchic, and that it leads to the erosion of social capital. These factors are likely to hamper economic reforms. The authors test this hypothesis using data on micro-economic reforms from the World Bank's Doing Business database. The results provide a robust support for the "resource curse" view: a move from the 75th percentile to the 25th percentile on resource abundance equals 10.9 percentage points more reform." In other words, governments have better policies when they have fewer resources (contrast Venezuela to Singapore).
hattip to JA

15 June 2009

Guest Blogging at Aguanomics?

Dear Aguanauts,

I will be in Europe -- with intermittent internet -- from 20 June to 20 July. (I am going to a conference and visiting family and friends in the UK, Spain and Ireland.)

I am hoping to get some posts from guest bloggers like YOU.

Why? Because you are an expert at some things (many things!) and I'd love to have you tell us (teach us!) about them.

(For you reporters, politicians and bureaucrats, this is the chance to say stuff off the record and anonymously that NEEDS TO BE SAID!)

As you know, my blog is about water and economics. If you want to write about that combination,* then read on....
If you are interested, these are the logistics:
  1. Email me with the number of posts you want to write -- confirm your topic with me if you like -- and when each will be ready. This is a commitment to me and a deadline to you.
  2. Tell me how you want to be identified (anything from "anonymous" to "Robert Kennedy, the economist at Yale")
  3. When you email me the posts, I will post them sometime between 15 minutes and 10 days later.
  4. Note: I will NOT proofread, edit or comment on your writing content or style.
Formatting notes:
  • Keep posts short (especially excerpts!)
  • Add links for source articles and/or facts.
  • Always reach a bottom line.
  • Opinions are WELCOME. The readers here are smart and debate is good.
  • Poor taste (in language, topics, etc.) is NOT welcome.
  • You can disagree with me -- of course!

* or something similar, i.e., economics of forests, fisheries, environment or the politics or sociology of water...you can see subjects I cover in the "tag cloud" on the sidebar...

Monday Morning Smile

Some good engineering here:

Corrupt Politicians and Their Paymasters

A farmer told me that "there are 61,000 environmental lobbyists in Washington DC." While I know that there are many lobbyists in many places, I had no idea of HOW many.

So I asked someone who knew, and this is what Marianne Lavelle at The Center for Public Integrity told me:
It is very hard to measure the pro and anti [environmental lobbyists], as you likely have found out, because folks are not required to disclose their positions--just the bills and subject matters on which they lobbied. We have been trying to measure and analyze the lobbying on just one environmental issue--climate change. What we found is that the number of lobbyists for all interests weighing in on climate change grew about 300 percent from 2003 to 2008 to about 2,350.

The lobbyists for health and environmental groups and alternative energy business -- all of whom you could presume were pushing for climate action -- were outnumbered by lobbyists for all other interest groups about 8 to 1.

Our original story says the number of environmental and health lobbyists on the bill totaled about 185. (We just published this update based on the first quarter of 2009 numbers.)

Hope this helps you a little bit at least! The 61,000 figure is way out there. No basis in fact that I can even imagine.
For a longer discussion of these issues, read Marianne's piece at Yale 360.

What effect have these lobbyists produced? How about a cap and trade bill that's over 900 pages long, full of exemptions and mandates, and (this is near criminal) giving away 85% of carbon permits to industry. I guess that's what you get when you spend $100 million on lobbying -- benefits worth $60+ billion (in the first year!). You can't beat that cost-benefit, eh? Spend $1 to make $600!

Lynne Kiesling also posts on the command and control in Wacky-Marx-Man. Here's my prediction: >50% of the “cost” of climate change will be due to regulatory burden and distortions from actions to "prevent" climate change.

Bottom Line: Now you see why I advocate a carbon tax. With the current situation, we are likely to get higher prices WITHOUT cleaning up the environment.

The New Imperialism

The Economist discusses a BIG trend: Rich countries buying land in poor countries for food production:
Water shortages have provided the hidden impulse behind many land deals. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, claims: “The purchases weren’t about land, but water. For with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.” He calls it “the great water grab”.

For the countries seeking land (or water), the attractions are clear. But what of those selling or leasing their resources? They are keen enough, even sending road shows to the Gulf. Sudan is letting investors export 70% of the crop, even though it is the recipient of the largest food-aid operation in the world. Pakistan is offering half a million hectares of land and promising Gulf investors that if they sign up, it will hire a security force of 100,000 to protect the assets. For poor countries land deals offer a chance to reverse decades of underinvestment in agriculture.

[snip]

Objections to the projects are not simply Luddite. The deals produce losers as well as winners. Host governments usually claim that the land they are offering for sale or lease is vacant or owned by the state. That is not always true. “Empty” land often supports herders who graze animals on it. Land may be formally owned by the state but contain people who have farmed it for generations. Their customary rights are recognised locally, but often not accepted in law, or in the terms of a foreign-investment deal.
So, instead of robbing locals of their production through tax confiscations, these corrupt governments are selling off the land (for more money than they were stealing!) to richer foreigners. Not a pretty picture!

OTOH, these deals (the bad ones; I am guessing that there are SOME good ones, perhaps 25%) can quickly be reversed by a change in leadership. After all, it's not like the Saudis can take Sudan's land and water back home!

Bottom Line: Poor people are often badly served by corrupt governments, and this is just the latest trend in corruption. I hope that only a few extra people die, but I'd not be surprised if we see (in some parts of the world) militarized farms growing and exporting food past starving locals while government ministers pop more champagne corks in celebration of the "good harvest."

14 June 2009

Weekend Discussion -- Community

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss a topic among yourselves -- exchanging views, learning and teaching. (I only read the comments.)

If you are interested, take a moment to check out (and add to!) last week's discussion on Capitalism vs. People. After that, please give us your thoughts on...

Community. Give an example of how you are part of it.

Bleg: Encyclopedia Entry on CRA

The folks from the Encyclopedia of Water Politics and the Environment in the United States have ALSO asked me to write an entry on the Colorado River Aqueduct. Here's an excerpt:
For current residents of southern California, the CRA is a valuable source of water to their increasingly drought-prone region. Unfortunately, they may not understand the paradox of the CRA, i.e., how it probably did more to increase demand than increase supply. Put differently, the CRA was developed in a way that made today's shortages more likely.
I have posted a draft here [pdf].

If you have the time (and inclination) to make any comments, I would be grateful.

I am already over my word limit (750), so I am looking for:
  1. errors and mischaracterizations
  2. missing information
  3. extra information
Obviously + on (2) implies - on (3)

Please comment on this post (anonymously if you like) to save others the effort of pointing out the same mistakes. Shy people can email me.

Please also use the line numbers included in the pdf to make it easier for us to communicate.

Also note that the piece is due on June 16, so faster feedback is helpful.

Life in a Tinderbox

SC sent me this email from R:
We live in a small city named Hidden Hills, it is a zoned equestrian community, and each home sits on a parcel of land that is a minimum of one acre, which by Los Angeles standards is rare. We also are adjacent to thousands of acres of parkland, known as Ahmanson Ranch, which has been subject to wildfires over the last few years. Ahmanson just a couple years ago was ablaze and the fire came right up to our property. We are told each year not only that we must clear our brush, but we also must maintain our property to protect against wildfires.

About a month ago, our water supplier, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, sent out notices to all of its customers advising them of their allotment of water, which in most cases requires a cutback of 50% in usage. In our specific case we have been allotted 33% of what we used the prior year. A 67% cut back, which will be impossible for us to achieve, the result will be that we will be surcharged $3 per unit over our allotment. If we were to use the same amount of water that we used last year, our water bill would approach $5,000 per billing period. This is not only absurd, but unachievable, impossible, given the size of our property, and the need to maintain the property in a manner to prevent a fire hazard.

While I understand there are concerns about spawning salmon, and other species of fish, the cutback in water supplies is not only going to cost Californian’s billions of dollars, but hundreds of thousands of jobs given the impact to the farming communities we depend on for food. If there was ever a time not to burden people with cutbacks in water supplies, and the resulting effects it will have on citizens of the State and the economy, it is now. We hear of creating jobs, we hear of stimulating the economy, we are suffering economically as a result of the economic meltdown, unemployment is at all time highs, our state sales and income taxes are at or near the highest in the nation, and now we are going to be forced to let our home landscape die, which will further negatively impact the value of our homes?

I don’t know what efforts are being made to tell these stories to the Federal and State Governments, nor do I know how to object to the imposition of the water rationing being imposed upon us, but frankly it is unjust and unacceptable. I appreciate that the eco system is a concern for fish species, but I also question the timing of this action, the urgency of the problem, and why such action would be taken at a time of drought and economic devastation that has gripped our state and country.
I do not have a sympathetic response to these thoughts. Although I agree that "changing conditions" are having a dramatic, negative impact on the value of R's land AND lifestyle, I do not think that the government has any obligation to continue stupid policies (cheap water) now revealed as stupid.

Note that 70 percent of LVMWD's residential water goes for outdoor irrigation.

Also note that water "shortages" in LVMWD are NOT because of the fish. They are the result of demand being greater than supply (water is too cheap), and drought-driven reductions in supply from the Colorado River and SWP. (LVMWD buys water wholesale from MWDSC.)

I applaud LVMWD for their move to change heavy water users for use -- something that managers further to the south were unable to do, i.e., explicitly prioritizing water for indoor use. Further, they are using higher prices (rather than rationing!) to "nudge" people towards that goal. At least he can choose his fate!

I suggest that R clear vegetation within 200 yards of his house and let the rest go to (non-irrigated) seed. Maybe a fire will come, but at least the house will be safe (x the fingers) AND firefighters will not die trying to hold back a "fire tsunami" when (not if) it comes.

Bottom Line: Back in the day, R didn't have to pay much for a ranchette in the middle of a firezone. Now R can choose among paying a lot for his status quo, moving out, or changing his lifestyle. Unfortunately, those are R's only choices.

Speed Blogging

  • "Taipei has strived to achieve "zero landfill, total recycling" by 2010, 30 years ahead of the UN's trash targets. It will probably fall short, but its policies are still exemplary. The city has encouraged the private sector to build composting facilities and recycling plants, and requires residents to pay for trash collection by the bag... The volume of trash has been slashed by well over 60%."

  • via Aquadoc, the man who appointed Maude Barlow as senior advisor on water to the president of the UN General Assembly. And read this great post on the baseless anti-corporate sniping by "activists" at 5WWF.

  • Recycling in Chicago is an automated, profitable business. Finally.

  • The Economist says the same stuff that I said about incentives in heath insurance. (That's no surprise, since I learn a lot from that "newspaper.")

  • More from them: "The best way to curb global warming would be a carbon tax. The money raised could be divided up among citizens or used to repay the national debt. A tax on carbon dioxide (CO2) would give everyone an incentive to emit less of it. It would be simple, direct and transparent. For these reasons, it will never happen in America."

  • "Albert Appleton, former commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, talks to Bloomberg's Tom Keene [MP3] about the infrastructure of city water systems, conservation, global warming and the economics of clean water." Good talk. I disagree that NYC is 80% "there" with conservation, but their water management is top-notch.

  • "Super Ditch is needed as a way to keep cities from picking off farms one-by-one to harvest their water, supporters said. Some argued water should be tied to the land and no dry-ups, even temporary, should occur. Farmers countered that without programs like the Super Ditch, there will be more buy-and-dry transfers like the valley has seen in the past"

    hattip to TM, JWT
  • 13 June 2009

    Flashback: 7 - 13 June 2008

    These posts are STILL relevant, so please comment (I'll approve them ASAP.)

    BEST: My Politics: Libertarian politics are hard for some to understand.

    Can the Government Innovate? No.

    FeetPrints: Americans are not sustainable. None of them.

    Meter My Water?!? Fresno starts to install meters. Per capita use? 296 gallons/person/day. (San Francisco is 105 or so...)

    Law of the Sea Treaty, Arctic Edition: The Arctic's profile is rising as its ice is melting: oil exploration, shipping and nationalist spats.

    BEST: Low Value Crops: Why do California farmers use about one-third of the State's water to grow crops worth $2.5 billion (0.15% of State product)? Because it's the most profitable thing to do when you cannot sell your water! Speaking of that, some farmers' Ag Subsidies are in Trouble

    Counterpoint on Carbon Taxes has a lot of debate (31 comments!) on carbon taxes. I still support them (absolutely and relative to cap and trade).

    BEST: Underprovision of Public Goods has a good debate on when we need them -- and don't.

    12 June 2009

    Bleg: Encyclopedia Entry on Met

    The folks from the Encyclopedia of Water Politics and the Environment in the United States have asked me to write an entry on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

    I have posted a draft here [pdf].

    If you have the time (and inclination) to make any comments, I would be grateful.

    I am already over my word limit (1000), so I am looking for:
    1. errors and mischaracterizations
    2. missing information
    3. extra information
    Obviously + on (2) implies - on (3)

    Please comment on this post (anonymously if you like) to save others the effort of pointing out the same mistakes. Shy people can email me.

    Please also use the line numbers included in the pdf to make it easier for us to communicate.

    Also note that the piece is due on June 16, so faster feedback is helpful.

    Schwarzenegger's Big Lie

    Dan Bacher resorts to Godwin's law ("As the discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler* approaches 1"):
    Hitler defined the "Big Lie" as a lie so colossal that no one would believe that anybody "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."

    [snip]

    In California, the greatest practitioners of the "Big Lie" are Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lester Snow, the Director of the Department of Water Resources, the state water contractors and their accomplices who have spread outrageous claims about the "need" for a peripheral canal and more dams in order to increase water exports to unsustainable subsidized agribusiness. Their most recent use of the classic "Big Lie" propaganda technique is to blame "fish" and "drought" for farm "unemployment" to further their campaign to build a peripheral canal and more dams.
    Readers of this blog will note that I called "fib" on Schwarzenegger over a year ago -- and DiFi too!

    Why is Schwarzenegger calling for more infrastructure when it will not fix these problems? Because -- as David Crane (Special Advisor to the Governor for Jobs and Economic Growth) explained -- it's politically expedient to spend OPM to please (mostly republican) politicians in the Central Valley.

    Bottom Line: Schwarzenegger is telling a Big Lie. Stop it!
    * The interwebs are amazing. Check out this "alternative" profile of Hitler.

    Mountaintop Removal -- AZ Edition

    A cement company has applied for a permit to mine limestone in Arizona's Davidson Canyon, a "pristine water cachement." Here is an article on the planned mining, and here is a website opposing the mining. The comments to the article are especially revealing of the issues and arguments of the pro-growth (anti-backwards) vs. pro-environment (anti-death) camps.

    Whatever. These quotations are precious:
    Article: Company officials said their Davidson Canyon crossing will largely be an expansion of an existing crossing, and that disturbance will be temporary because the area will be restored to its original condition once the quarrying is finished.

    USACE email: They have not applied for any permits yet. I have sent them a warning that their work in uplands is predecisional and while we cannot prevent it, it is predecisional and they are working at their own risk if we deny their permit.
    The first one is sad because it's so obvious that the company will never be able to restore the environment to its natural state (assuming they even try!)

    The second one is scary because it implies that the company has started working in the area (without permission). I am not scared that they may get their permit denied. I am scared that they are "creating facts on the ground" that will render any decision moot.*

    Bottom Line: Mining companies have long dominated land (and water) use in Arizona. It appears that they are, yet again, doing what they want, damn the laws, regulations, environment or will of the people. Sad.
    * I use "creating facts on the ground" -- a popular way to describe Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank -- intentionally. That's because some people think that the deed, once done, is justified. Hitler thought so; Stalin thought so; Mao thought so; and so do Israelis, but note how their "democracy" delivers a blow that many thought only dictators were cruel enough to deliver. (Wait, hypocrisy check. Yes, the US did this to Iraq et al. Damn.) As a recent update to Israel's "facts on the ground" campaign, check out this report (via PW) of Israelis destroying Palestinian wells. That's inhumane.