18 Aug 2010

Running Out of Water -- The Review

I was sent a review copy of this book (which just went on sale), and here goes:

Peter Rogers is a Professor of Environmental Engineering and Urban Planning at Harvard. Susan Leal is the former GM of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. She was therefore managing SF's tap and wastewater.

Their subtitle is "the looming crisis and solutions to conserve our most precious resource," and they set out to make the case for crisis (lots of examples) and solutions (personal stories from their work).

The book has eight chapters (besides the Foreword and Conclusion):
  1. Turn on the tap and out comes water. An intro that says "things are going badly. Don't be scared because we have solutions..." Comes with figures of the hydrological cycle and water flow in a treatment plant, for the textbook crowd.

  2. Making it last: using technology to recycle water. Starts with supply-demand imbalances in California and how recycled water (Orange County, Singapore) can be used as a source. Covers desalination and the Vegas turf removal plan. Ends with a comment on the "wasteful... agricultural industry." Uh oh...

  3. Taming the big user; Improving agricultural water use. Long profile of an "efficient" Nebraska irrigator (Glock); long description of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID); description of Australia's water markets. This chapter was the first where I had WTF?! objections. IID is presented as "if IID farmers can conserve water, so can anyone," when most of that conservation is imposed on a dysfunctional district that's NOT controlled by its farmers. Rogers and Leal are too quick to assume that Glock's ideas can just be picked up (why aren't they?) or that "inefficient" irrigation "wastes" water that probably goes into groundwater. This chapter reminds me of the "do what we say, not what's profitable" attitude of the Pacific Institute reports (first, second) on ag water.

  4. Wanted: public involvement. A boring recap of Leal's PR campaign to get higher rates for infrastructure repair in San Francisco. Getting people to drink NEWater (recycled water) in Singapore.

  5. Valuing an extremely complicated resource leads to wise use. This chapter was the worst, by far. What's the title mean? No idea, but the Rogers and Leal's attempt to describe the economics of water is painful. It seems that they wrote down a bunch of concepts from index cards, without understanding how they fit together OR how the subtle points matters. (Any economist could have read the chapter and made corrections.) They get demand wrong ("there is a need to be able to measure the value of water to each different user," but that's impossible); private and public goods ("private goods are owned by individuals or groups; public goods are held in common," when we distinguish between the good's characteristic -- is it excludable or exhaustible -- not ownership); the use of geeky terms, which they mix up ("long term marginal costs" ARE "fixed costs"); statements of opinion as fact ("water in the mountains of Northern California is much less valuable to the local populations than the same amount used for irrigation and urban uses in Southern California" may be right from some aggregate measure, but maybe not; there's NO MARKET where these values compete, and SoCal's use is facilitated by the bureaucratic engineered works that were build 50-80 years ago); "marginal cost pricing would make water unaffordable for the poor" ARG! Damn. Stop this nonsense. I hated this chapter. Oh, and "price doesn't reduce demand, concrete specific actions by consumer do." Right. So "gas doesn't run cars, engines do"? No, wait. My foot does. No wait. Combustion does. Stop being sophistic! Damn, I've got to stop on this one.

  6. Waste not, want not. Three case studies of cleaning water in Northern California (grease in SF, treatment at EBMUD, and wastewater into steam in Geysers). Nice.

  7. Rivers as shared resources: transboundary conflicts and compromises. This appeared to be a summary of Rogers' work that could have been summarized in a paragraph. We don't need "five conditions for successful outcomes" when they include no duh gems like "willingness to compromise on political issues... and obtaining necessary financing"

  8. Water that lasts a thousand years: Bottled water. An anti-bottled water rant from the former GM of SFPUC known for its good tap water. I'm NOT shocked, except at how silly it sounds. As in (paraphrased) "stop buying bottled water; give us that $11 billion for public water infrastructure." Oh, can I have some of that WASTED money too?
Their conclusion (So, Now What) has this howler
As we have seen, the farming community does not always make water efficiency its first priority. It has to be reminded that water resources are limited...legislative or regulatory enforcement provides the needed incentive [their word!] to operate more efficiently."
That sentiment (and condescension) is enough to lead me to NOT recommend this book. It's wrong and misleading and dangerous in the wrong hands (yes, they call for a federal water czar).

Bottom Line: I give this book THREE STARS, with deductions for pedantic, sometimes confusing exposition, a failure to explain economic ideas clearly, and a biased POV (or narrow disciplinary POV as an engineer and urban manager) that impedes discussion with righteousness. In one sentence? Rogers and Leal reached too far; they should not be appointed czar.


  1. If you were completing a book, you could rebut these arguments! ;-)

    Maybe in your book, you could put anti-references--books that get things wrong.

  2. @Eric -- haha -- I KNOW I am going to get flamed when my book comes out, and I am working diligently to minimize my exposure to my own barbs :)

  3. I read recently an interesting policy book, maybe you would like it: Dry Run: Preventing the Next Urban Water Crisis


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