30 Apr 2010

Speed Blogging

  • Pacific Gas and Electric is spending millions (of ratepayer money!) to protect its market share and prevent competition. No on Prop 16.

  • Incentives matter. The Spanish government guarantees a higher price for solar power so some companies installed "midnight solar" (diesel) generators.

  • This 1977 paper [pdf] on the history of efforts to change water flows in the Delta is recommended for anyone who wants to understand the depth of this debate.

  • Whoops! The scandal over "recycled" carbon permits in Europe's [carbon] emissions trading system.

  • The Federal Government spends $70 billion/year on research, in a budget of $3.5 trillion. I'd say that we should spend more than 2 percent on research and less than 20 percent on defense (or four percent at the USDA -- we know that money's wasted!)

  • Liability Warrior has a good post on governance at Marin MWD (bad) vs. Novato Sanatary District (good). The difference? MMWD cares about itself; NSD cares about its customers.
hattips to MH and DW

Bleg: Turkey's GAP

I was under the impression that Turkey's Greater Southeastern Anatolia Project was more of a boondoggle than success. Its aim was to "raise up" the poor (often Kurdish) people in Turkey's southeast, in the same way that America's TVA was supposed to make hillbillies rich.

Does anyone have good analysis on the GAP? I am suspicious of official Turkish reports, because they may be manipulated for political purposes.

Blind bureaucracy

I was going through security at Nadi International Airport in Fiji. Unfortunately, I forgot to get a clear, sealed ziplock bag to hold my 15ml bottle of tea tree oil.

"You have to get a clear bag for this bottle."

"But, if I do, you will only see the same bottle that you hold in your hand, inside of a bag."

"Those are the regulations. They can be bought for F$1 in the shop outside.*"

After much heavy breathing, I went to the shop (for some reason,** the only shop selling bags).

"How much does this box of 40 bags cost?"


"So you are making $40 on a box that costs $4? How about I buy the bag for fifty cents?"

"Yes, everyone complains. But, no, we can't do that -- the price is listed in the computer."

After five days in Fiji, meeting many lovely people, I was left with this last encounter -- this 900% mark-up, security bullshit regulation that does nothing to make my flight safer. (I am buying yummy cake from the lady in the photo, for F$1.)

America and Britain gave the pretext; all these other countries are blindly implementing it. We waste money and get no security.*

Bottom Line: Good job, Department of Homeland Security [SIC]

* I can hardly describe how incompetent and rude the TSA people in LAX were (but I just did). At least the Fijians were nice about their stupid regulations! (Australians allow you to carry water through security. Ahhh, the sweet smell of rationality!)
** NOT! Someone has a sweet deal with the security folks. Many airports give you baggies at security.

29 Apr 2010

Futuristic plastic is present-day pollution

Japanese chemists found BPA at every one of the 200 ocean sites.
BPA is a synthetic compound used in the manufacture of plastic bottles and epoxy resins and is linked to disorders of the endocrine system, heart disease, and altered childhood development... both hard and soft plastics discarded in the sea break down rapidly, releasing toxins. About 3 million tons of plastics containing BPA are produced each year.
Here's some of the plastic I found in Fiji:

And JWT sent me this piece on plastic islands in the Atlantic. Damn.

Bottom Line: Don't consume plastic unless you know where it goes -- for the next thousand years.

Photoshop is fun!

via my dad....

But reality bites (my photo of an axed almond orchard in Westlands):

Food Inc -- The Review

This movie combines material from Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

In other words, the corporate domination of our food supply is bad for consumers, workers, the environment and animals. It's also bad for the farmers.

That's now new, but I was surprised and disturbed to see how:
  1. Monsanto is using legal pressure to destroy its competition in seed sales, regardless of the merit of its cases. (Isn't there a penalty for frivolous lawsuits?). This article (via DG) details Monsanto's massive -- and monopolistic-- price increases for seeds.
  2. How regulatory capture is HUGE within the FDA, USDA and other branches of government. Our food is not safe because the people who are supposed to keep it safe work for the companies that make it unsafe.
  3. Meatpackers employ a lot of illegal migrants. They have a deal with the INS (Homeland Security [sic]): They give INS 15 illegals a day so INS will not conduct large-scale raids that would disrupt business.
As usual, I was disgusted by the "food system" and glad that I have the money to buy good food.

Oh, and Wal-Mart looks good (again) for its pursuit of what customers want: Organics, or non rBST milk, or...

Bottom Line: The government will not take care of you if companies are paying it to take care of them.

The Price of Water

Brett at Circle of Blue has another post in an outstanding series. Read it.

I left this comment:
Great post Bret! I am not sure if you put enough emphasis on connection between price and cost of service NOT scarcity. "Though water supplies are precious in these places, the price of water for residential customers is relatively cheap." is because infrastructure is cheap, NOT water. Vegas prices are low -- even while Lake Mead drains -- because Vegas residents do not face a scarcity price for their water. Increasing block rates encourage conservation, but they often have little to do with scarcity. Vegas IBRs, btw, are steep but they kick in WAYY late to encourage conservation for most folks.

28 Apr 2010

Travelblog: Indonesia photos II

In the next few days, I'm going to post a few photos for those of you interested my observations from my travel in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji (Indonesia, Part I).

Part III: Crops

These guys are harvesting seaweed...

Rice paddy. I love rice paddy (and rice!)

More! (see below for the water temples...)

Hail Aquadoc!

I read his blog all the time, but this post dissecting Maude Barlow's self-destructive anti-capitalism (and really anti-poor) ranting is one for the ages. (He has helpfully filed it under "Bullshit") Read it!

Bleg: Sunset water rights in NZ?

MH tells me that he once heard of a place in New Zealand where they were going to phase out ("sunset") water rights.

It was about 15-20 years ago that the deal was made; and the sunset was supposed to take place after 25 years.

Does anyone know anything about this?


Tolerance means that you do not change your behavior towards someone whose thoughts or lifestyle are "strange" to you.

There are two types of tolerance. In the first, you either fail to notice the other person's strangeness or fail to take it into account when interacting with them. In the second, you do notice -- and are perhaps are bothered by that strangeness -- but do not make any explicit action or comment because it's in your best interest to work with that person.

This means that someone who accepts others will have non-business interactions with them (since they really don't care about that person's "strangeness"), but someone who merely "puts up with" a strange person will interact only when it's beneficial.

Now you can ask the litmus test question: "Ah yes, you have [black, gay, asian, non-economist] acquaintances. Do you have them over for dinner?"

I'll note that my background (growing up in San Francisco, traveling in 80 countries) has given me an accepting tolerance of many types of people. The only type of person for whom I have very little tolerance is a hypocrite. (I tend to avoid people who do not accept others; they can be passively or actively dangerous to society and our common future.)

Bottom Line: We can "just get along" when we are tolerant, but we can thrive* when we accept otherness -- and allow it to enrich our lives.
* In economic terms, we know that social cooperation for the provision of public goods and management of common pool goods depends on EITHER shared norms OR social preferences, i.e., the ability to see others as our equals.

27 Apr 2010

Speed Blogging

  • He speaks truth! Chuck Howe tears apart a proposal to ship water to Colorado's Front Range that's based on unreal costs and imaginary customers.

  • A distraction: TapIt’s website and iPhone application users can locate the nearest participating business that acts as a water refill location. Whatever happened to using the tap in the bathroom?

  • Why "remunicipalization" (buying back water systems from investor-owned companies) may not really save money for citizens:
    ...the public sector is very bad at pricing risk. Cost over-runs are a way of life in most central and local government departments. Either they get mopped up by the tax-payer or through cuts in services. The response is not to find a way of pricing risk, but to find a way of avoiding risk, which typically means taking a very conservative attitude towards innovation. It means that whatever money the public sector might save through cutting profit margins, it loses subsequently through lack of innovation.
  • I just met Harvey Molotch, intellectual founder of the idea that real estate developers drive urban growth/sprawl. I should have cited him in my article on SoCal sprawl.

  • Good news, twice: Desalination is going forward in Monterey, where supplies are tight and demand is VERY low. In Marin, it's slowing down, because people have reduced demand.
Hattips to DG and DW

Water Policy in Spain -- The (mini) Review

Garrido and Llamas edited this book on Spanish water policy. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to read it; even if I did, I would not have the expertise to evaluate it. On the other hand, I recommend it to anyone interested in that country, comparative institutions for managing water, and how those institutions evolved.

It's interesting that Spain's policy for moving water around is similar to the policies in the western US and Australia. And they have failed in the same ways: too much money was spent in moving water around, harming exporting areas and failing to enrich importing areas.

The authors say, for example, that "the most productive agricultural water uses were those initiated by private individuals tapping groundwater resources and not those served by irrigation projects..."

From this realization has come a devolution of authority in managing water projects from the center to the states, the end of big transfer projects, an emerging shortage of potable water on the SE coast (an area with few controls on growth and little preparation for desalination), a growth in water markets, and a realization that the failure to give appropriate value to environmental water has left the environment in bad shape.

The most remarkable aspect of this book is its supposed irrelevance in the face of the looming impact of the EU's water framework directive. The WFD imposes a slew of rules on member states, with the goal of restoring the environment and water quality. Some people (like me) worry that the WFD's "one size fits all" set of rules will not fit member states as well as rules that evolve out of local institutions but that still deliver to standards (like the "can fish live here?" standard). I don't know enough about the WFD or Spain's policies to even give a good opinion here.

What I do know is that anyone working on water in Spain will have to know this book, inside and out, if they are going to create a bridge from what was to what will be.

Que sera sera.

Irrigating for National Security

JM and JWT sent this surreal article:
Lemoore Naval Air Station's 18-thousand acres lie entirely within the Westland's water district, the district most affected by the severe reductions in water imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect "endangered species" in the delta.

But without that water, Capt Knapp says, his "partner" farmers who cultivate the 12-thousand acres of farmland around his air station cannot do their job. A job he depends upon to accomplish his mission.

"What does farming do for NAS Lemoore and air operations? We pick crops that do not attract birds," Knapp says.
Besides the reporter's interesting use of "endangered," we also have here an interesting example of brain failure, some notion that failure to deliver water will lead to dead airmen. (This is no accident. The reporter - Torres - has more "articles" like this. Is he a Westlands employee?)

If the air force wants non-bird crops, then the air force can get non-bird crops, no matter who is in charge or how much water they get. That's because the air force can kill anyone who disagrees... duh.

Bottom Line: There is no national security interest behind water deliveries. Stick with contracts and the rule of law, not fear and propaganda.

26 Apr 2010

Travelblog: Indonesia photos I

In the next few days, I'm going to post a few photos for those of you interested my thoughts from my recent travels in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Part I: You're in a less-developed country

Indonesia is welcoming, but not to drug traffickers. Also see this post on Islam.

This pollution indicator sign was broken -- probably by Jakarta's pollution!

This sign advertises shark-fin soup, one of the worst foods in terms of negative environmental impacts. The price is about $11/person.

I'm in the right club

(via DL) Yesterday, Asit Biswas (winner of the Stockholm Prize for his work on water issues) said this about the Millenium Development Goals for water:
"If somebody has a well in a town or village in the developing world and we put concrete around the well – nothing else – it becomes an 'improved source of water'; the quality is the same but you have 'improved' the physical structure, which has no impact," said Biswas. "They are not only underestimating the problem, they are giving the impression the problem is being solved. What I'm trying to say is that's a bunch of baloney."


Biswas will also tell the Global Water Intelligence conference in Paris that water problems are caused not by physical scarcity of supplies but by poor management, including corruption, interference by politicians and inexperience. Such comments will be controversial in an industry dominated by companies providing technological solutions to "water stress" or "scarcity" – a lack of reliable supplies for average daily needs – which experts estimate affect more than 1 billion people around the world.


He is calling for politicians to be removed from water management, well-paid experts to be appointed to run water authorities and more public outcry when supplies are too bad to drink.
In 2008, I said this at Freakonomics:
The goal being measured and pursued (improved drinking water sources) is not the originally proclaimed goal (sustainable access to safe drinking water). This discrepancy is no accident. Rather, it reflects the difference between the ambitions of development activists (safe and sustainable) and the realities of development bureaucrats.

Since “safe” is hard to measure, bureaucrats use the presence of “improved drinking water supplies” as a proxy for water quality — and they quantify that by counting pipes, pumps, and faucets.


We know that thousands of well-meaning people will be spending billions of dollars to install pipes, pumps, etc. Will those pipes deliver safe and sustainable water? We can’t be sure about that result — since it’s not being measured — but we can be sure that projects that deliver pipes will get funded, bureaucrats who deliver 100 percent pipe coverage will be lauded for helping the poor, and outsiders are likely to confuse 100 percent pipe coverage with 100 percent access to “safe and sustainable” drinking water.

Bureaucrats will declare victory, outsiders will applaud, projects will wrap up, money will disappear, and those unlucky enough to have pipes with unsafe and unsustainable water will be left to their own devices.

So has the international development community tried to avoid such an ineffective and wasteful outcome? No. Instead, it has pressed for enough money to install pipes everywhere...

Is it possible, however, that money spent on pipes will help? Perhaps yes but probably not. Effective water management requires good institutions — i.e., a framework for the formation and enforcement of local rules and norms that will deliver safe and sustainable local supplies. After all, how useful is a well without a means of allocating its water or maintaining its flow? How safe are pipes when they carry water of unknown quality? How sustainable is supply from an overdrafted aquifer?
I am glad to be in such good company (even though I've never met him :)

Now, will they listen to us? Or are they going to continue ignoring what works and keep doing what suits them, not the poor.

Bottom Line: Aid that does no good is not just wasted, it's inhumane.

Monday Funnies

In related news funnies, we have this insight:

Don't take our water (or buy it?)

DW sent this:
A North State water agency has filed suit in federal court in Sacramento based on a 77-year-old state law that says water shall not be shipped from its area of origin unless and until the local water contractors’ thirsts have been quenched.
In other words, they do not want "foreigners" to buy the water and take it elsewhere.

I got this context from an insider:
...this suit was filed by the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority members who have a similar contract as Westlands and others and are subject to shortages....they are using the State's Area of Origin laws to try and keep more water local to meet existing needs.

...the courts are keeping everything in flux. Also, we have some real problems with the market working when infrastructure is lacking or it is not available due to regulatory restrictions; and the environmental review processes take too much time or are legally challenged...
Here's an update with more background.

Bottom Line: Barriers to trade have visible winners and invisible losers, but they always harm society overall (aka, highest and best use, assuming no externalities).

23 Apr 2010

Speed Blogging

Hattips to KA, DW and JW

No, it's not a free lunch

I took this in Suva, capital of Fiji:

Co-equal fiction -- and realistic solutions

David Hayes (Interior deputy secretary) says that the Delta is a "zero-sum game," which I interpret to mean that co-equal goals -- save the environment AND export water -- are not possible. (Maybe I'm wrong, but hang with me here...)

That's what I was thinking when I wrote "A Broken Hub Will Not Wheel," my (now published) paper on fixing the Delta [pdf]. In it, I look at three ideas (save the Delta, build the Peripheral Canal, end exports), how much those will cost and who will have to pay to get their preferred solution -- and only their solution -- using a "put your money where your mouth is model."*

Bottom Line: You can't "save" the Delta and still export water from it.** Choose one.

* Preview: It looks bad for the radical environmentalists.
** In this post, I discuss why the PC, which is supposed to take pressure off the Delta and allow restoration, will not lead to sustainable water use.

22 Apr 2010

National Geographic in Berkeley

Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Magazine will be speaking on conservation on April 27th at 7pm. The event is free.

The US can improve

After a few months in Australia and New Zealand, I think we need these changes:
  • The metric system! Would 2 yrs matter?
  • Sales taxes included in prices, but footnoted on the receipt
  • No tipping*
  • Mailboxes that we can modify -- especially with the right to refuse junk mail.**
  • gas prices that do NOT include tenths of pennies, e.g, $2.349/gallon.***
What are your ideas for improvement?

* Tipping is complicated. On the one hand, they give people an incentive to give good service, even if their "glad to see you smile" is rather fake. OTOH, tipping allows employers to pay VERY low wages, with the rationalization that employees who are "worth it" will earn their wages from customers. I'm starting to think that the tip system is more about paying less than better service. (We got excellent service from untipped employees who were proud to be doing a good job.)

** I was complaining to a USPS rep one time about "junk mail." She corrected me with "No, it's not junk mail; it's business bulk mail, and our customers pay us to deliver it." WTF? Who are your customers?! damn.

*** Sadly, gas prices did include tenths of pennies, a wasteful habit -- all those extra nines -- that appears to be a marketing gimmick.

Earth Day

George Carlin speaks truth:

The pendulum has swung too far

"A woman has been sentenced to jail for a hoax in which she claimed her daughter was injured by a glass shard in a bottle of water...The former Better Business Bureau* employee was sentenced to 30 days in jail"
"* BBBs gather and report information on business reliability, alert the public to frauds against consumers and businesses, provide information on ethical business practices, and act as mutually trusted intermediaries between consumers and businesses to resolve disputes."

Water managers don't look for bargains

BF, who works for an irrigation efficiency firm, says:
What drive me nuts is this: cities (eg. San Diego) have HUGE funds (~$10 Million) for rebates for low flow personal appliances (shower heads, toilets, etc) that save maybe 50 gallons of water a week and yet we get feedback from cities that they don’t have $100K to install efficiency gear that will reduce irrigation losses by 800,000 gallons of water a year (!).

What's up with that?
My thoughts:
  1. Water managers don't really like new ideas and they like selling volume
  2. City staff don't pay the water bill and they don't like work
  3. Residents want to "do something"
That's why you get nothing done when it matters (2) and something done where it doesn't (3). (1) are happy, since they still sell volume.

Bottom Line: Water managers will not care about wasting money (or water) unless their pay depends on it.

21 Apr 2010

China's so-called friends

China's dams on the Mekong worry neighbors. The Chinese -- as people everywhere -- will use up all that "extra" supply, the environment will suffer, and the situration will return to the that of "emergency" status quo ante -- something that also worries Peter Gleick. It would be better if the Chinese recognized that everyone "shares" the river (as is the case with the Colorado River Compact, flawed though it may be), but don't count on China respecting the rights of its downstream neighbors.

Bottom Line: Those who have power should not abuse it: They rarely get what they want, and they may get a lot worse.

Floral externalities

"Kenya is the main exporter of flowers to Europe, and the Kenyan floral industry is centered around Lake Naivasha in Rift Valley Province. Unfortunately, although the livelihood of half a million inhabitants depends upon floriculture, an unsustainable demand for irrigation water is draining the lake" [Italian original].

Unsustainable can be translated as "they are not paying the cost of water extraction," and this is a good example of a negative externality where flower buyers cause environmental harm elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Those flowers may be more expensive than they look, but buyers and sellers don't pay that price -- Nature and related communities do.

LADWP's new head

The Daily News is annoyed that the mayor has appointed his friend as the temporary head of LADWP. I agree. LA doesn't need more cronyism.

They are surprised that the new head is a Wall Street financier, not an engineer. That does NOT surprise me.

They worry that he will not be qualified to carry forward LADWP's green programs. Oh, no, that's no accident.

I left this comment:
LADWP is ALL ABOUT money, and it's more important to maintain a good bond rating than good service. And green energy? That's the biggest growth area for financial engineers these days.
Let's see what happens...

The sorrow of West Virginia

Some of you may have heard of the 25-plus coal miners who died in an "accident" at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine. What you may not have heard is this:
In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the UBB mine 515 times, often for problems with its ventilation and escape-route plans. Some 48 of the citations were for violations deemed likely to lead to serious injury or illness.

The Massey Energy Company, which owns the UBB mine, is contesting many of those violations. But this is not the first time that Massey—the fourth-largest coal company in America—has come under fire for its safety practices. In 2006 two people died in a fire at the Aracoma mine, which Massey owns and which was found to have inadequate water supplies and poor ventilation. Massey paid $4.2m in criminal and civil fines. In 2008 Massey paid $20m in fines levied by the Environmental Protection Agency for clean-water violations.

Don Blankenship, Massey’s boss... called safety violations “a normal part of the mining process”.
I've a few things to say about this:
  1. Fuck you, Blankenship. (Yeah, sorry, but I gotta say it.)
  2. Massey and Blankenship should be tried for corporate manslaughter.
  3. West Virginia politicians are not serving their citizens; they are owned by resource extraction companies. After a change in administration, the EPA is finally slowing down mountaintop removal coal mining; see this post for more background. 
  4. Marilyn Hunt read my piece on human rights and wrote, asking about their right to be free on pollution from "fracking":*
    My site is from rural Wetzel Co West Virginia. My husband Robert N Hunt is a research scientist so his friends at Bayer Pittsburgh have been doing free water tests finding Toluene, benzene, and other chemicals in wells and springs and now we are learning biocides are in the water too.

    The air is also contaminated, workers have died here most not knowing what the chemicals were they handled or how to handle the pipes. Total SA is accused of crimes against humanity and is Chesapeake Energy's new partner.

    No one knew what these people were going to do and they said they used only salt water to "frac". I kept them off my farm by hiring a good lawyer but many people signed leases and now they have no top soil and contaminated water.

    Today I got an email that animal deaths are increasing in Pennsylvania and that ducks with multiple beaks are hatching out. We now have water testing from here up to Pittsburgh with our volunteer effort. Corruption of officials and state regulators has led us to the Region 3 EPA for enforcement but things are moving so slowly, we also are getting help from Sierra Club and Joe Lovett environmental activist who took on the coal cos. Halliburton got the frac drilling exempted from the Clean Water Act in 2005, opening the way for the concealment of chemicals and methods.

    People are getting sick and many do not know what they are going to do.
What, indeed, can we do when companies pay to get the laws changed in their favor, pollute without fear of prosecution and lie to people who cannot discover the truth on their own. West Virginia has more in common with Angola or Nigeria than their neighbors in Virginia. Why do those neighbors have nice clean water, air and soil? Because they commute to Washington DC, where they enforce laws to ensure that their neighborhoods are safe and clean.

Bottom Line: Can we get a little justice here, please?

* Using water to hydrologically fracture hardrock, to extract natural gas. I've ignored fracking until now, but I -- like others -- wonder if the process of pressure injecting water and "proprietary" chemicals underground, and then draining the waste into local watersheds is really such a good idea. Fracking is certainly not harmless, those chemicals are probably not harmless, and those who extract are not taking responsibility for the environmental harm they are causing. This is just terrible.
Addendum: Manslaughter charges are justified (via JWT): "A comparison between Massey’s safety practices and those of other operators in the coal industry shows sharp differences"

20 Apr 2010

Speed Blogging

  • Renowned physicist Bob Parks does the math: "What must be done [to combat climate change] is to reduce the fertility rate to below two, and keep it below two until world population drops to about a third of what it is now. It requires no draconian measures. We have only to educate women."

  • Mike Taugher continues to explain how California water managers are failing, with this article on an ineffective State Water Resources Control Board. Interested readers should also read this history [pdf] of SWRCB failure.

  • Arizona real estate developers are in trouble. They got a "show the water" law changed to allow for offsets elsewhere, but then forgot that the new supply that they had created wasn't in the same place as their new demand. FAIL.

  • Afghanistan faces water shortages from "inadequate" infrastructure. Get ready for massive aid failure when money is thrown at a country without adequate institutions (and MASSIVE corruption).

  • In Peru, farmers are going to get favorable access to water [Spanish]. Ready for waste?
Those last three came from SAHRA, an excellent resource.

My talk to the environmental engineers

About 50 people (mostly graduate students) showed up to this talk on California infrastructure.

Here are my slides [pdf]

Here is the one hour talk [21 mb mp3]

Dam bureaucrats

This correspondence (via HZ) is real, and I recommend that you read the dam funny reply (under the fold):

December 17, 1997

Mr. Ryan DeVries
2088 Dagget
Pierson, MI 49339

Dear Mr. DeVries:

SUBJECT: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023-1 T11N, R10W, Sec. 20, Montcalm Count-,),

It has come to the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality that there has been recent
unauthorized activity on the above referenced parcel of property. You have been certified as the legal landowner and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity: Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond.

A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity. 

A Modest Proposal for Carbon

  1. China is growing without restraint, through exports and exploitation of natural resources.
  2. The US has a voracious appetite for imports, but little credit to buy them, and little local production to export.
  3. The Chinese are eating more and more meat, and Americans suffer an obesity problem.**
(1) and (2) can be reconciled by taking (3) into account, i.e., exporting fat people from the US to China, for (stir-fried) consumption. We export resources, and reduce our carbon footprints; they get new sources of meat and energy, from a trade-partner that needs new markets.

Bottom Line: Win-win sometimes takes outa-the-takeaway thinking :)

* I took that photo -- yes, it's a dog -- in southern China.

** DH sent this excellent piece in which John Stossel makes fun of government programs to make meat cheaper AND try to get people to eat less meat. Here's the kicker:

19 Apr 2010

America is NOT turning socialist

We already are. Click on the image (or here) to see the full size.

Monday Funnies

(via NP) Where the Hell is Matt? is a classic that makes me smile.

Check his site for more cool videos.

MWD says pricy water is cheap

A little birdie sent me this MWD presentation [52 MB pptx; my ppt].

On pages 33 and 34 [PDF], we see that a canal or tunnel in the Delta will deliver an additional 400taf to MWD (Metropolitan Water District of SoCal), and that additional water will cost $82 -- $120 per acre foot. ($120/af for MWD's preferred alternative, the tunnel.)

The trouble is that this "marginal cost" is calculated as total cost for the new project that will deliver 400taf more than MWD would get without it (1.6 maf, up from 1.2 maf) divided by the total water that MWD gets from the Delta, NOT the additional water from that project.

The REAL marginal cost for new water from the Delta is $610/af.* -- 400 percent more than the number MWD is presenting to the public.

Is this an accident? No, MWD has -- for years -- used average cost numbers to underplay the cost of their NEW water projects. They did it with the Colorado River Aqueduct and the State Water Project. On page 61 of my dissertation, I say:
In the 1940s, MET averaged the cost of local and CRA water to make CRA water look cheaper. In the 1960s, it blended the cost of (now cheap) CRA water with SWP water to make SWP water look cheaper. More recently, the bundled price of different conveyance facilities (e.g., SWP versus CRA) has dampened -- if not halted -- demand for water trades that would have low marginal conveyance costs. SDCWA's Wheeling Charge of $258/AF pays for all of MET's facilities; it would be $116/AF if it was only based on the fixed and variable costs of the CRA...
Here's the money question: Can MWD get "new" water for less than $610/af? If so, then MWD should NOT be paying for a delta conveyance.

Bottom Line: Some people will say anything lie to get what they want.

* Rough calculation (using MWD's numbers, which are still only estimates): $119/af cost across 1.6 maf future yield is $190 million in new costs. Divide new cost by 400 taf of new water (from 1.2 maf to 1.6 maf) to get marginal cost of $476/af south of the Delta. Add $135/af to deliver water, via SWP, to MWD and you've got $610 af. Bada bing.

Addendum: I've had a lot of emails on this one (I sent it around), and I want to make three things clear:
  1. I am not accusing MWD of lying (the BL says "some people")
  2. I am merely highlighting that MWD is distorting their case by saying that the supply will rise from 1.2 to 1.6 maf at a cost of $120/af. If MWD just said, "hey we have to pay $120/af more to keep ALL our water," then I wouldn't say anything. 
  3. MWD does this all the time, to make projects look cheap.

18 Apr 2010

Read this blog in 50 different languages!

Check out the translate box on the right sidebar!

16 Apr 2010

Questions for a Polish reporter

Q: I have the impression that problems with water have been underestimated for a long time – by politicians, business and public opinion. What are the reasons for this situation?

A: There was a lot of water (quantity and quality) since the beginning of time. Now there are more people using more water (demand) and less water (pollution and climate change), so there are shortages. (I am writing a book on this, The End of Abundance...)

Q: Some people often say that water will be the next oil. Is it the right comparison, in what sense? Who will probably benefit the most from the water trading in the future?

A: No, it's not true in the sense that oil is MUCH more valuable, shipped worldwide, of fixed (NOT renewable) supply, and with substitutes. OTOH, water IS like oil b/c it's controlled by governments, so there are similar political issues. Fortunately, those issues are often LOCAL (not global), so solutions are easier.

The beneficiaries of water trading will be sellers (farmers) and buyers (poor people). The losers will be politicians who lose control over this valuable asset.

Do you readers have more to say on this?

Gubmint, part two

(via JWT) Charlie Reese has been fulminating againg irresponsible politicians ("our" "leaders") since the 1980s. In this piece (can't find original publication location, but here's a lot of his stuff), Reese clarifies who's to blame for economic and military failure:

Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them..

Have you ever wondered, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have deficits?

Have you ever wondered, if all the politicians are against inflation and high taxes, WHY do we have inflation and high taxes?

You and I don't propose a federal budget. The president does.

You and I don't have the Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations. The House of Representatives does.

Dear Pope -- It's a Catholic problem

This is not water-related, but it's relevant when we consider the role of institutions (rules, norms) at organizations.

The Catholic Church made a pact with the Devil long ago: Priests would promise to be "celibate," but those who sexually abused children (and other parishioners) would be protected.

Well that worked for many centuries, but it doesn't work now. Times have changed.

The Pope has to take responsibility and take action.

Given the problems with monitoring priests, I'd say that the big change will be allowing marriage. The Church also has to stop protecting rapists in robes.

Anything less, and I doubt that people will see the Church as the foundation of their community.

Bottom Line: To err is human, to forgive divine, but don't expect me to forgive a system that promotes and protects errors.
Speaking of troubled institutions and hypocrisy, read this open letter to conservatives (and the Republican party), who seem to have lost their way.

Travelblog: Unsustainable agriculture in NZ

I was perusing the local paper in New Zealand that had a story on its front page about a rugby player's worries about agricultural overuse of groundwater.

I sent this [unpublished] letter to the editor:
Sir --

I was interested to see your front page piece on March 10, in which Anton Oliver worries about the environmental sustainability of New Zealand's dairy industry. (I am currently visiting NZ on holiday.)

Although I am neither a local nor a resident of New Zealand (ahh, the nosy outsider!), I want to express my support for Mr. Oliver's fears. We in California -- home of the happy cow -- are now wrestling with water shortage and water pollution problems that can be directly traced to the dairy industry. Cows (and sheep!) require irrigated pasture and produce massive amounts of manure. The former uses and the latter pollutes ground and surface water, and farmers rarely pay the costs of shortage and clean-up that ensue.

I encourage politicians, environmentalists, and -- above all -- people in the dairy industry to be proactive in building a SUSTAINABLE dairy industry in new Zealand.

The alternative is less-tasty cheese from less-tasty places.
I also cc'd a few Kiwi colleagues, who sent these useful comments:
I am not sure that the water issues here are the same as they are in California, mostly because intensive dairying here is still about 1 cow per acre and is still ALL grass fed... There are however a number of people at UC Davis who would disagree with your claim that "water shortage and water pollution problems that can be directly traced to the dairy industry". While that was a popular opinion about 10 years ago, a few scientists in the Animal Science Department have shown that it is now an incorrect conclusion. I, like you, am not sure I believe all of it, but do believe that dairying is not as responsible for water pollution as we have previously given credence to.
I replied with:
I agree that grass is better than grain for feed, but the issue -- for either -- is the water used to irrigate the grass (see photo of the world's largest lawn sprinkler, being used to grow irrigated pasture for cow-food.). In *many* places we've passed (We're in Fjordlands now, after a tour that took us from Christchurch to Mt Cook to Dunedin to Invercargill), I saw irrigate pasture/alfalfa being grown. That's on the food side.

The manure side is probably better than in CA, with CAFOs, but there are still MANY animals shitting all over the place.
Another colleague replied with:
The dairy industry has expanded very quickly in New Zealand, and I expect there will be some environmental fallout. In the south, much of the conversion from sheep to dairy occurred concurrently with installation of serious irrigation technology. It was possible to farm sheep with little or no irrigation, but dairying is much more intensive.
That's the rub -- the intensity, or using a water supply up to, and beyond, its limits.

Bottom Line: It's possible to overuse water, even in New Zealand!

15 Apr 2010

Speed Blogging

  • Overpromise and underperform: "An audit... commissioned by the state government of Victoria, Australia, found numerous errors in calculating the water savings that will result from expensive upgrades to irrigation channels."

  • Speaking of Australia, read this excellent post on "water trading on the River Murray"

  • I met Guim, who is riding an electric bike around the world. He tells me that there are now 100 million electric bikes in China. Wow.

  • "Greek farmers consume 86% of water resources, a staggering 60-70% of that water never reaches its final destination."

  • "Alien trees, planted along coastlines for tsunami protection, may actually be doing harm."

  • Brown and Caldwells' water jobs -- $200 to post, free to look at postings.

  • "Westlands Water District... is working to develop a $3.2 million project to desalinate up to 240,000 gallons of farm drainage water per day." That's, uh, less than one acre-foot. I hope that they can scale the project, and I hope that -- assuming WWD has one-half af of tailwater per acre of its 500,000-plus acres of irrigated land -- a scaled version costs less than $800 billion, especially is Westlands expects (as usual) for others to pay!
Hattip to JWT

Polling the Tea Baggers

The New York Times has a poll out this week discussing feelings about the economy, etc. I read through most of it, and Question 22 jumped out at me:
If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?
50% of people responded smaller, pretty close to the average for the past 20 years. But the pollster then asked a follow up question to those requesting a smaller government:
Suppose a smaller government required cuts in spending on domestic programs such as Social Security, Medicare, education, or defense — then would you favor a smaller government, or not?
58% favor it then, implying only about 30% of people really want a smaller government when faced with the realistic tradeoff of reduced government service. Without probing the respondent and asking questions from different angles, as the Contingent Valuation folks try to do, the responses are close to worthless.

Bottom Line: Polling data are typically garbage.

Tax Day

I did my taxes, on paper, by myself this year. (I used online H&R Block last year; can't stomach spending $80 for their calculator this year...)

The tax code and forms are a horrible mess, as usual.

The Economist says it well:
The federal tax code, which was 400 pages long in 1913, has swollen to about 70,000. Americans now spend 7.6 billion hours a year grappling with an incomprehensible tangle of deductions, loopholes and arcane reporting requirements. That is the equivalent of 3.8m skilled workers toiling full-time, year-round, just to handle the paperwork. By this measure, the tax-compliance industry is six times larger than car-making.


Every wrinkle in the tax code represents a favour to some group. It could be a small group, such as loggers, or a huge one, such as homeowners. Politicians use the tax code to encourage things they like, such as driving hybrid cars, and to discourage things they don’t like, such as work. A typical loophole has passionate defenders but no opponents. Those who benefit from it, benefit a lot. Those who would gain from its repeal (ie, taxpayers in general), have never heard of it. So the mess gets ever messier. Happy April 15th.

Poll Results -- Water Solutions

Hey! There's a new poll (everyone's a critic) to the right --->
When it comes to solving water problems...
...we can learn from other people in other places. 51%50
...we can learn from others, but only after careful translation. 42%41
...we have to find our own solutions. 7%7
98 votes total

These results make sense to me. What I want to know is how often we actually do look to outsiders for solutions. In my travels in 80 countries, I have seen many ways to do things right and many ways to do them wrong. It seems like the people who are doing things wrong could be learning a few things from the people who are doing them right. Or would that be a terrible admission of incompetence and cultural decay?

Bottom Line: The people who really want solutions will take them from anyone, anywhere. Those who resist are more interested in ego than progress.

California desalination costs over $2,000/af*

(via DW) This report [pdf] by James Fryer makes for interesting reading.

Although Fryer is sponsored by anti-desalination forces and has links to Food and Water Watch, he brings up several good points about desalination -- keeping Poseidon's Carlsbad project in mind.

In particular, he addresses cost figures from the Affordable Desalination Collaboration (ADC, a pro-industry group) that are based on estimates, not operating costs. That means that their numbers are biased:
  • They underestimate energy costs by 32 percent.
  • They underestimate energy consumption by 30-70 percent.
  • They underestimate salinity in the water. (Holy cow!)
  • They underestimate capital costs.*
  • They underestimate maintenance and downtime rates.
  • They underestimate operation and maintenance costs.
Fryer reports that the marginal cost (i.e., ignoring capital costs) of Marin desal should be $2,400-3,600/af and that Tampa desal costs $1,200-1,961/af.

He estimates that Carlsbad would cost from $1,900 to $3,500/af (best to worst case).*

Fryer concludes -- no surprise -- that water conservation and/or recycling are cheaper ways to "solve" the water problem.

Unfortunately, he fails to mention the cheapest way of all. Higher prices would "solve" the shortage problem at no cost at all; in fact, they would increase revenue, which allows for additional spending on reliability, infrastructure repair and/or subsidies to poor people unable to afford higher costs.**

So here's my question. Taking these observations as true, I wonder what Poseidon is going to do if the cost of providing desalinated water rises above the price they receive. Are they going to eat the difference or ask for higher prices? Under their contract -- as I understand it -- they will have to eat the difference. If they ask for higher prices, they should be "declared in breach" and cut off from selling water. Given that they have zero other options for selling their water (because their Carlsbad plant can't be moved elsewhere), they will have to accept contracted prices.***

Bottom Line: Desalination will cost more than pretty much anything else; let's make sure that those who have agreed to pay for desal water know the price they will pay.

* His big assumption in this "study of the marginal cost of desalinated water" is that capital expenses are included in acre-foot calculations. As Fryer observes, "Marginal Cost is the cost of producing one more unit of a good, or in this report the cost of producing or saving and acre-foot of water," and he uses this definition correctly when he looks at the cost of producing water at a facility that is not yet built. If it's built, OTOH, then marginal cost is only the cost of producing water; it does not include principal or interest payments on capital expenses, which economists call sunk costs (since they cannot be recovered). If we use marginal cost in its traditional sense (operating costs only), then Fryer's estimates for Carlsbad would be $1,280 -- 1,670/af. (He's not wrong to include capital costs in marginal cost, just unconventional. Capital costs matter too!)****

** No, I do not favor subsidies to water users -- "some water for free, pay for more" does not take income into account. I say this because others like that idea...

*** Note that CalAm water, which took over operation of the Tampa Bay desal project, just asked for rate increases (after meeting performance targets). I hope that Poseidon's customers have read ALL the fine print in their contract!

**** In response to this comment, Fryer told me:
It is standard practice to include capital costs and O&M in the marginal cost of new water projects. It is also the standard practice for assessing water conservation program marginal costs. As noted below, the capital cost of a desalination facility is a cost that ratepayers will bear that is unique and specific to desalination. Even for facilities already built, the capital cost and its associated debt service must be recovered through rates charged to ratepayers. These costs do not magically disappear. If the capital costs are paid off early, before the end of the 30 year life of the desalination plant, it is only a reallocation of the cost to earlier years of the project life and it is still recovered in water rates or taxes to customers. Also, the 'opportunity cost' of not using that money for other purposes should then be considered. A good economist would also argue that if a facility was built on 'free' land, for example, the 'opportunity cost' of using that land for other purposes should be considered.

However, there are 'sunk costs' of existing distribution system pumps and piping, meter maintenance, billing costs, etc., beyond just the immediate facilities needed to connect a desalination plant to a distribution system that were not included as new costs in the analysis. Of course, by adding additional capacity to the supply, some upsizing of the distribution system may ultimately be needed to support distribution of desalinated water. These uncaptured costs would increase the actual marginal costs compared to water conservation measures that would not require widespread distribution system upgrades for increased capacity, but were beyond the scope of the analysis.
To which I replied:
I agree completely...I only mention the distinction b/c of the traditional use in economics (fixed costs are not included in marginal costs) and the convention of discussing MC_desal as a function of throughput. I agree that ALL costs must be considered as ALL are relevant :)

14 Apr 2010

Forbes and the market for ideas

So I was pleased to see my piece on human rights in the Forbes magazine, on the newsstand:

....but then I noticed how many other magazines were also vying for attention. Then there are newspapers, TV, blogs and LoLcats to contend with. How do we get an audience to listen to the message (the most important one, of course) when there are so many other "distractions"?

The interesting thing for me, is how little buzz this article (Water Rights and Human Rights) has attracted compared to my earlier Forbes article (The Water Shortage Myth). That one wasn't in the magazine (just the web), but it got a lot more attention.

I think it's because shortages are more interesting to readers than human rights, because most readers are worried about the former; Forbes probably doesn't have a big readership in developing countries.

Further, I think that this topic -- human rights and water -- is so emotional for some people,* that they will not listen to different views. The pro-right crowd is willing to fight for what they believe, even if they are not sure how to get it delivered. They do know that they are right, so don't bother offering an alternative view. That's sad for the people they want to help, who care more about results than ideology.

Bottom Line: The market for ideas has savage competition on the supply side and a demand side that is not often in the shop.

* A woman at the oil+water conference didn't like the piece because she was "a Maude Barlow person." "Oh, I disagree with her," I said. "Why don't you like her?" she asked. "It's not about her, it's her ideas that I don't like. I am looking for results, not ideas."

My talk on oil and water in SoCal

I spoke at Oil + Water: The Case of Santa Barbara and Southern California, a humanities-oriented event at UCSB last week. My talk, entitled "Joseph Jensen, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and Urban Sprawl," was based on this paper.

I found myself in a room with experts on critical film theory, whale singing and techno music and the art of dying lakes. (I hardly understood what they were saying and jumped at the chance to hear the sociologists and political scientists :)

Anyway, here's the mp3 [15 mb] of my 15 min talk and my slides [pdf].

The key point was the open-ended promise that Met made in the 1952 Laguna Declaration:
The District is prepared, with its existing governmental powers and its present and projected distribution facilities, to provide its service area with adequate supplies of water to meet expanding and increasing needs in the years ahead. When and as additional water resources are required to meet increasing needs for domestic, industrial and municipal water, the District will be
prepared to deliver such supplies...
They forgot that the supply side may not be able to keep up with demand.

Met has never renounced it.

Bolinas Water Meters

The New York Times reported on Bolinas' water meter scarcity, where since 1971, the number of water hookups has been limited to 580. The story is interesting as it shows the results and the costs imposed by anti-growth forces. Last summer, they faced stiff rationing as their tiny reservoir was nearly empty. Households using more than 150 gallons per day got a written warning, and three violations could get the water shut off. As far as I know, the people of the town lived within their supply. Still, despite their tiny supply, the 1971 restriction is mainly about growth and property values. Current home-owners have a large stake in continuing this moratorium, just as the city of Portland residents have a stake in their urban growth boundary. Both increase property values to those lucky enough to live there before the changes.

Also of note - Bolinas used the funds from the last water meter sale to fund affordable housing. They have two units downtown that are rented based on income requirements (and probably other requirements). Why bother? The town cannot both have affordable housing and growth limits...

Bottom Line: I like Bolinas for what it is and what it tries to be.

I support tea baggers*

Not because they lack logic ("get your government hands off my medicare"), but because they are worried about wasteful government spending and the brutal taxes and borrowing that come with them. Bush II is more responsible than Obama for the current military and economic mess, but the Congress should also be blamed. Few members of the Democratic or Republican establishments deserve our support, but Ron Paul (R-TX) gets my vote, for his unflinching opposition to fat cats in DC.

(I favor public funding of health care and education, with private provision -- competition -- for each. Current -- and recently passed -- legislation does nothing to address quality and cost problems. A pity.)

For more on these topics, listen to this podcast on Public Choice.

Addendum: BC sent the image on right. Not sure about source (it seems to leave out ss/medicare transfers), but I agree with the general point.

Bottom Line: The only way to reduce government waste is to reduce government.

* I know that they are really called tea partiers, but I kinda like the new name. They should take it over and wear it with pride -- like gays (their natural allies :) -- did.

13 Apr 2010

My talk at Berkeley this Friday

I'll be talking at the Environmental Engineering Seminar at 2pm on Friday, April 16th in Room 534 of Davis Hall. There's a reception at 3pm where I'll be signing autographs drinking some wine.

Title: The politics and economics of big infrastructure: How to dig ourselves out of the hole

Abstract: For many years, our water problems had engineering solutions -- just bring more supply. The end of abundant water (in quality and quantity) means that we now face scarcity, a condition that our institutions are not designed to handle. In this talk, I will explain how cost-benefit analysis is being abused by proponents of traditional supply-side solutions, explain how the Peripheral Canal may be our biggest mistake, and give some pointers on how to spot -- and avoid -- water policies that serve special interests instead of the People.

I'll be posting an mp3 of my talk and my slides next week, but I'd love to see you there this week!

Speed Blogging

  • The IPCC's big screw up on glaciers; they are not melting by 2035.

  • The psychology of power: Those who think they deserve it, abuse it. (Note that winning an election is a quick way of confirming "deserving!) On a related note, read this piece [pdf], which finds that "people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products."

  • Fighting corruption (in India) by making it clear that you know you are being solicited for a bribe:

  • Chronicle of a death foretold: Australia's water problems are not new, they result from exceeding long-known limits. Read this short history.

  • Venezuelans are running short on (hydro-generated) electricity because of subsidies that encourage overuse. The poor suffer.
Hattips to JF and MD

Yes to markets

On the public record has an interesting rant on markets, and why we might want them (or what's the point?)

S/he misses the big point -- that they let us get more things done, better -- but does make a good point, that markets, per se, are not always a "solution."

Ironically, s/he brings up markets for water in the Delta. In this paper [pdf], I describe markets for the Delta, itself.

Read both :)

Bleg -- Mangrove experts?

SRMJ, from India, sends this request:
I would like to apply for the Fullbright fellowship to undertake short-term study in marine environmental economics. I am working on valuation of mangroves. The application process needs reference letters from three persons in USA. Could you suggest people or
institutes who work in this area?
If you have information, please leave comments or email SRMJ.

Gubmint and How Gubmint Works

JWT sent me this rant from 2009, author unknown, points out how the Department of Energy suffers mission creep and failure.
Once upon a time the government had a vast scrap yard in the middle of a desert. Congress said, "Someone may steal from it at night."

So they created a night watchman position and hired a person for the job.

Then Congress said, "How does the watchman do his job without instruction?"

So they created a planning department and hired two people, one person to write the instructions, and one person to do time studies.

Then Congress said, "How will we know the night watchman is doing the tasks correctly?"

Corrupt regulators

Katherine Hart, who chairs the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board... failed to disclose her husband's ties to wastewater dischargers, and failed to recuse herself properly from board actions affecting his clients.
They married after she was appointed, but he was already in the business. Oh, and this is hysterical:
The couple also have a legal agreement to keep their finances separate, which, she said, ensures her board work is not influenced by his lobbying income.

Bottom Line: Fire her, nullify all actions that affected his clients, and fine her her salary from 2006 onwards. [Oh, and I'd say the same if they were dating; anyone track THAT bit of information?]

12 Apr 2010

Hail Rob Davis!

He's got another excellent article on water prices, supply and subsidies in San Diego (via DW).

Many businesses buy reclaimed water, which is a good because it reduces demand for fresh water. The trouble is that they pay 78% less for that water, when the industry standard is 10% less. How about they pay more, and residential water customers pay less?

Speed Blogging

Hattips to JC, DL and JWT.

Monday Funnies

Wear Sunscreen (via GVT) is lovely. Here's another version and more background.

Cheap water for the rich means less water for the poor

(via LG) Professor Little asks an important question for those interested in human rights and water [pdf]:
If the private sector is better positioned to do this in a particular country or region, why should the poor be held hostage to what is essentially an ideological question of public vs. private provision?
He then answers it with sound logic: Use private OR public provision (whichever is cheaper) and increase access by direct subsidies to poor people.

Little also makes a critical observation:
Is the public interest well-served by a system where prices are kept artificially so low for everyone, including those who can well afford to pay, as to preclude the delivery of an adequate supply of safe, reliable water and where sufficient revenue cannot be generated to support routine maintenance, repair, and renovation?
No it isn't, of course. Although this appears to contradict my prescription -- "Some water for free, pay for more" -- comes from a different angle. Little wants to make sure that system costs are paid, as do I. He thinks that everyone should pay the full cost of service and that the poor should be supported through direct subsidies. Although I do not rule out income subsidies, I propose "some for free" without qualification in recognition of the human right that we all should receive, regardless of income. As I explain here, that block of cheap/free water is NOT incompatible with full cost recovery. So we can eat our cake and have it too, eh?

Bottom Line: The poor don't care who they get their water from, as long as it's clean and cheap.

9 Apr 2010

Some thoughts on sustainability

(via RW) An interesting interview on sustainability with MIT's John Sterman, who notes that English lacks the antonym for "shortage," i.e., the existence of excess demand. Economists would agree, and note that this is not a problem in a system that regulates demand (i.e., via prices). The trouble comes when we do not price -- as is often the case with the environment. A lack of pricing can lead to over-consumption and trouble.

Bottom Line: We will never run out of a resource when its price rises in shortage. Are we pricing the environment correctly?

Water is scarce because ideas are scarce

This Sustainability Survey Poll on Water is flawed. Although "Experts have a strong preference for policy measures that reduce water demand over those that increase water supply," their poll failed to include higher prices, a demand-reducing option that may be more effective than the current number one choice, "Invest in/provide subsidies for water conservation/efficiency improvements."

Prices and government policies rank 5th and 9th, respectively, as tools to solve problems. I would rank them higher. In first place is "education," my least favorite -- because least-effective -- "solution."

Bottom Line: It's easier to change a bad government policy (bad incentives) than hope that human nature changes.

Speed Blogging

  • An interesting article details the bureaucratic maneuverings among DWR, CALFED, SWRCB and others wrt the new Delta Steward Council, which has 7 seats and 58 (!) support staff. Looks like the games may take precedence over solving the problems :(

  • Five reasons why a human right to water is a bad idea -- beginning with the idea that "free water" = less revenue = less investment = less supply.

  • Snowpack is up, but water managers are worried that people will stop conserving water. They'd better. Since there's no price incentive to conserve, they resort to fear, uncertainty and doubt. (DW adds that they want people to vote for the Bond.)

  • Speaking of the unknown, Meg Whitman claims she could trim the pork from the water bond. My response? (1) I'm not voting for $11 billion and then hoping she does. (2) I doubt she'd survive the rebellion of porky legislators.

  • People use less water when they know how much they are using AND are paid to use less. In other news, gravity was confirmed as real... [damn. no duh man.]
Hattips to DW and JWT

8 Apr 2010

Speed blogging

Hattip to JF

We can learn from savages

This video is about Heart of Dryness [my review]. It points out how "savage" Bushmen in Namibia's deserts can teach us about water conservation -- if we listen.

Bureaucratic goals and others obligations

We are not reaching the water targets of the Millennium Development Goals.

Here are some updates from this report:
The world will miss the MDG target by 13 percentage points. Unless huge efforts are made, the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation will not be halved by 2015. Even if we meet the MDG target, there will still be 1.7 billion people without access to basic sanitation. If the trend remains as currently projected, an additional billion people who should have benefited from MDG progress will miss out, and by 2015 there will be 2.7 billion people without access to basic sanitation.
What does "huge effort" mean? Spending more money? Hiring more experts? Contracting with more firms? I hope not. Sanitation failure is directly linked to local governance (and lack thereof). The UN is NOT a local governmental organization, and it's approaching the problem on the wrong scale. Start local.
The world is expected to exceed the MDG target of halving the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking-water. Even so, 672 million people will still lack access to improved drinking-water sources in 2015. For monitoring purposes, the use of improved drinking-water sources has been equated to access to safe drinking-water, but not all improved sources in actual fact provide drinking water that is safe.
I noted this two years ago, and yet they continue to pursue a goal whose achievement may mean little.

Bottom Line: The MDGs are great for international aid organizations, but they mean little for local poor people. Those people need good government, more choices (competition and markets) and more power (money). Fire the bureaucrats and put locals in charge.

7 Apr 2010

Speed blogging

  • Two excellent podcast/interviews: Jones on twittering macroeconomics and Ritholtz on the Bailout Game (yes, the Feds are stopping markets from working)

  • Play the catchment pollution game!

  • Todd Jarvis sent me this short piece [pdf] on water conflict. It's interesting -- not just for quoting me (woo hoo!) -- but because Jarvis brings in the importance of groundwater and the MANY ways in which conflict can occur. I liked especially his observation that both sides to a conflict are apt to have their own experts ("world's best") , and that these experts rarely talk to each other. I think I see the root of the problem!

  • Public servants at work: "Corrupt politicians [in Karachi, Pakistan] allow businessmen to siphon off as much as 41% of the city's water supply and turn around and sell it at exorbitant rates to residents..."

  • The aguanomics of golf in California [pdf]: "Revenues were, on average, $14,431 per acre of land and $5,126 per acrefoot of water at golf courses, but only $2,264 per acre of land and $645 per acre-foot of water at conventional farms."

  • An Insider's View of the Real Estate Train Wreck [highly recommended]. The wrecking engine? The Feds are buying all the loans.
Hattips to BB, DL and RM

Hail James! A great way to price water

James over at Thomas the Think Engine has a great way to encourage water conservation: Let people buy water like they buy mobile phone plans.

Here's how it works:
CAP Urban Water Pricing

Consumers will select a ‘cap’ amount of water consumption, from several options of ascending quantity and price. All CAP options must be available to all customers. The prices of water used beyond the ‘cap’ amount will increase considerably, thus providing the same incentive for conservation to all users, once they transition from ‘essential’ to ‘discretionary’ water use as they have determined individually.

...CAP charges might be set at:

Plan Max Usage (averaged during the quarterly billing cycle) Price for water within the CAP Price for water above the CAP amount
1 < 200 lt/day $1.10 / kilolitre $3 / kilolitre
2 < 300 lt/day $1.20 / kilolitre $3.50 / kilolitre
3 < 500 lt/day $1.50 / kilolitre $4 / kilolitre
4 < 700 lt/day $1.80 / kilolitre $4.50 / kilolitre
5 < 900 lt/day $2.20 / kilolitre $5 / kilolitre
6 < 1000 lt/day $2.40 / kilolitre $6 / kilolitre
Read his whole post to get all the details.

I like this idea very much (perhaps only my ego prevents me from abandoning "some for free; pay for more" :) It's simpler than per capita pricing and more effective than current models where prices are set by politicians, consultants, and other know-it-alls.

This idea is simpler because it doesn't require an all-knowing price-czar AND it empowers customers. (Economists would say that this idea uses second degree price discrimination and a two-part tariff to force customers to reveal their preferences -- and pay for them.)

Bottom Line: Simple systems can be the most robust. This great idea deserves attention. Now let's see which politicians and bureaucrats are first to give up control over prices :)

Addendum: James gets credit for paying this out for residential customers, but I've suggested the same pricing policy for businesses. That makes sense because of all the different classes. I still prefer my per capita base :)