30 June 2010

The meaning of migration

Honduras has a population of about 7.3 million people, and many of them have migrated to the United States. These migrants send a lot of money back to their families; they also return to the country, bringing both money and experience from El Norte.

Regardless of the politics and policies of each country, it's important to acknowledge the importance of remittances -- which can be quantified -- and information flows, which cannot.

According the the Economist Intelligence Unit:
Remittances from Hondurans living abroad more than trebled between 2002 and 2007, reaching US$2.5bn, equivalent to more than 20% of GDP, making remittances Honduras's largest single source of foreign exchange.
How much is $2.5 billion? It's most of the difference between Honduras's 2008 exports ($5.6 billion) and imports ($8.6 billion) in 2008. In other words, Honduras sends coffee, bananas and people abroad, in exchange for cars, oil, cellular phones, and other things they want at home. Without migration, they would be much worse off, and that's not even considering the value of knowledge and wisdom that passes from extranjeros back to their friends and family.

Bottom Line: Migration is very important to the development and quality of life in less-developed countries.

29 June 2010

Imperialistic insecurity

We ran into a few military guys in Comayagua, Honduras -- just a few clicks down the road from the last remaining US military base in Central America. The base, now nominally under the flag of the Honduran Army, was once the staging post for the Contra freedom fighters,* a US-backed group of soldiers who wanted to overthrow the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Yes, these were the guys who Reagan armed with money that Oliver North received for selling weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.**

Anyway, these guys were having a few beers. I stopped by to ask what their working hours were. (I was curious to know if they worked nine-to-five jobs, or 10 days on/10 days off.) An older guy said "that's not something that we can tell you." "Oh, and I guess that you can't tell me anything at all then?" "Nope"

So, I turned to wikipedia, and found this. Thanks guys, for keeping those "secrets" from a fellow-citizen.

Bloody self-important idiots.

Oh, and that was BEFORE the hookers*** showed up to share some beers.

Why are these guys here? Do they really think that they know what's going on in-country? Do they really think that Central America (or anywhere?) is really more secure or more democratic or more friendly when a bunch of guys are living there, with guns, hamburgers and hookers?**** I don't think so.

Bottom Line: US imperialism has done nothing for national defense. Bring them home, cut the military budget, and convert the Department of Defense from an oxymoron into something useful.

* George Carlin: "Firefighters fight fire, so what do freedom fighters fight?"
** North was no patriot. He was a mercenary who circumvented the US Congress in a black operation that went against US interests -- TWICE. (First by selling weapons to a country that we formally opposed; second, by continuing an insurgency that we had denounced. He took the blame for Reagan, but both should have been charged with treason -- especially since their short-term realpolitikal actions only undermined long term US interests.) I am all for national security, but I have YET to see a single blackops that has increased it.
*** I have no issues with girls making the best of what they've got. I have issues with our "national defenders" using MY tax money on hookers instead of defense. (And that's not even getting into the problem of military rapes and abandoned single mothers.)
**** In 1997, I visited Madagascar, where the local girls were fond of sleeping with foreign guys, for nothing. (No, I didn't.) I asked a local guy what he thought of that: "No, we don't like it." I don't think locals are happy to see their girls taken by gringos.

28 June 2010

Monday Funnies

Wrong prices are expensive

We were recently on Utila, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Utila does not have a huge supply of freshwater. The local water authority rations water by turning on the pumps four days a week for customers who pay $30/month for all they can use.

Customers have to store water in tanks for the other three days. If they run out, they have to pay for trucks of water that cost $40/each. (The trucks are filled from private wells.)

The owner at our hotel says that his monthly water bill sometimes goes to $1,000, since he needs to get three trucks per day when people use a lot of water. (There are signs in the rooms saying "use less," but guests face no penalty for 30-45 minute showers.* Lots of people on Utila are there for the diving.)

Oh, and the water is not only unsafe to drink. It has so many minerals that it corrodes pipes and clogs the showerheads, which are replaced monthly.

This is a good example of where low prices lead to expensive shortages. Businesses on Utila could benefit from water meters and volumetric pricing. The meters would cost about $200-300 to install, and higher prices would make it easier to reduce demand for water. With less demand, supply could be stretched over 7 days, reducing the need for tanks and tankers. Businesses would pay more than $30/month, but a LOT less than $1000.

Bottom Line: The end of abundance means that water utilities have to change their business model. The cost of inertia is high -- in money and shortages.
* This problem can be solved by "3 minute" shower buttons that either have to be pressed or re-activated with a token or coin.

27 June 2010

2010 Water Bond

In 1960, voters approved $1.75 billion in bonds to build the State Water Project, a figure unsurpassed (despite inflation) until 2000. In 2000, voters approved Proposition 13 (Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, and Flood Protection Bond Act) for $1.97 billion. Critics said the following:
Let's not forget Proposition 204. Voters approved $995 million in bonds in November 1996 for the "Safe, Clean, Reliable Water Supply Act." Where did this money go? We were warned about a water crisis then. If they haven't been able to fix the problem with almost a billion dollars, why give them almost $2 billion more?
Proponents were scared to ask for a billion dollars back in '96. How things have changed...
Then, in 2002, voters passed Proposition 40 (The California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002) for $2.6 billion. Critics said the following:
California is facing huge budget deficits which will result in cuts in services, tax hikes, or both. Now is not the time to go another $2,600,000,000 into debt. The voters already approved $4,000,000,000 in bonds for water and parks in 2000. We must prioritize our spending in these uncertain times.
In 2002 voters also passed Proposition 50 (Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Projects. Coastal Wetlands Purchase and Protection) for $3.44 billion. In 2006, Proposition 84 (The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006) passed for $5.4 billion.
5 bond measures in recent memory, not including Prop 1E a couple years ago which paid for flood projects. I started writing this post assuming I'd talk about the previous water bond, and each time I looked there was another right behind it. Now, this fall, Californians can vote on an $11.1 billion water bond.
Why so many water bonds? Are we really in dire need of more projects, or is something else happening? I am worried that these measures are funding a large number of projects which otherwise would be built with local money. Therefore, without passage of the bond, the most important projects will get local funding, and the rest will be relegated to the scrap heap. Which is exactly what should happen.
David understands this too and talked about the problems associated with passing statewide bonds. I also want to point out a specific example of previous bond spending.
In 2000, Kern County Water Agency received $23 million in Prop 13 funds, spending $10 million to buy Jim Nickel's Hacienda Kern RIver water right and his associated 20% storage space in Lake Isabella. Nickel is the heir to lower Kern River riparian rights-holder Henry Miller of Miller and Lux. Nickel also receives annually 10,000 acre-feet of KCWA water (usually SWP water) which he freely markets. The goal was to keep Kern River water inside Kern county, according to KCWA, but considering that transferring pre-1914 water rights out of basin is very difficult, and that if the water does indeed leave the county, it goes to some other needy Californian, why should all Californians pay for this transaction? I think the Agency also used additional funds to build a nice parkway along the river for Bakersfield walkers/bikers.
Bottom Line: If this bond passes, the only guarantee is that some local agencies will be happier. The state as a whole will be less wealthy, however, using up valuable resources to buy less valuable water projects.

26 June 2010

Flashback: 20 -- 26 June 2010

These were relevant a year ago and -- alas! -- they still are:

Shocking News! Prices Change! Why are changes news? For the same reason that Water Footprints Are Stupid, and we get so many Lousy Water Editorials

BEST: How Drought Promotes Entrepreneurship -- remember that higher prices would lead to innovation without the threat of drying out.

Humans, Incentives and Righteousness -- morality is still relevant, right?

25 June 2010

Speed Blogging

  • An interesting article on leverage points [pdf], which cites the classic case of getting the cause and effect backward, e.g., as when critics of the Limits to Growth folks pointed out that the solution to worsening environmental problems proposed MORE growth. I like the article and the way that it discusses the many ways to approach and overcome (!) a problem.

  • The Economist has a good article on how police are using civil forfeiture laws to take people's money - and then use it to fund their budgets. One way that police "get" probable cause is with quasi-scientific detectors that are often just expensive dowsing sticks re-purposed for the government. Bob Park has been debunking these as unscientific for years; now they also appear to be a huge rip-off:
    Quadro soon began marketing them to law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense for $995 each to search for drugs and weapons. After it failed a simple test, Sandia National Labs dissected one and found it contained no internal parts. The FBI shut Quadro down and arrested its officers (WN 26 Jan 96). However, the device soon reappeared in the UK as the ADE 651, sold by ATSC for prices as high as $48,000. As WN reported (WN 29 Jan 2010), at least 1,500 were sold to the government of Iraq as bomb detectors at a cost of millions of dollars. Reliance on the fake bomb detectors reportedly contributed to hundreds of bomb deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including British and American troops.
  • Peter Gleick agrees with me: The first factor he cites for Singapore's low water consumption? "Price water properly," he says. Glad to see some economics filtering in...

  • Wish I could watch this: "Imagine if one minute from now, every single person on Earth disappeared. All 6.6 billion of us. What would happen to the world without humans?"
Hattips to TS and RM

24 June 2010

The Moral Sense -- The Review

This 1993 book by James Q. Wilson (author of Bureaucracy) is another tour de force distilling big ideas into a form that easIER to understand. While reading the book, I was reminded of related work by Gregory Clark, Leda Cosmedes & John Tooby, Avner Greif, Douglass North and many others -- most of them probably (in)directly indebted to Wilson for his far-reaching survey of how we think of morality, how that thinking may have arose, and what implications may follow from it. (Wilson makes heavy use of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), so the debt continues to circulate.)

Wilson's main point (as I understand) is that our moral sense is inherited -- something that we are born with, a result of hundreds of generations of natural selection. Wilson points out that the moral sense is not a set of universal rules, but instincts that push us in a direction that we sometimes ignore. And that's Wilson's other point, that we combine these impulses with social rules when deciding when to act and what action to take.

(Wilson heaps a few more shovels of scorn on the notion that Freud and Marx were more than just ideologues. The Nihilists and Existentialists are also put in their place for constructing a castle in the sand. Wilson rightly points out that their assumption that human emotion is a terra nullis for implementing new ideas is rubbish. He would have loved to see that Simone Beauvoir was terribly jealous of the other women Sartre slept with, in contrast with her public "c'est cool avec moi" attitude.)

Wilson begins with an idea that would warm the conservative heart: We have put too much emphasis into moral relativism and discarded too much tradition in the name of self-indulgence, tolerance or -- lest the liberals whinge -- beating a child as a form of discipline. (And this is where I love Wilson's style: he doesn't stick with a well-trod path. He questions everything from first principles, comparing theories and ideas to common sense and observed reality.)

The book is divided into three parts. In Sentiments, Wilson talks about moral feelings that we have. In Sources, he describes how these feelings may have evolved, biologically and socially. In Character, he sums up how we may use moral senses in our contemporary lives.

The four Sentiments are sympathy, fairness, self control and duty. I was interested to see that each of these have been extensively tested by psychologists and economists. Respective examples are Milgrom's 1961 shocker experiment (where people were willing to injure others who failed the test when instructed by an authority figure); the Ultimatum game (where one person proposes how to split $20, and the other person can accept the split or reject it -- leaving both with nothing); the lack of self-control in drug addiction (and social norms that allow one's manners to decay to the point where self-indulgence displaces social obligations); and public goods games (where people interact when deciding how much to contribute to a public account that benefits everyone instead of keeping that contribution, each for themselves; total contribution to the public account makes everyone better off; total abstention leaves them where they started.)

During these chapters, I liked these useful remarks:
  • Children in rural societies are more altruistic and cooperative than their peers in urban places because they live in smaller communities and carry more adult responsibilities.

  • The "invisible handshake" means that prices should not rise until costs do (the topic of many anti-gouging laws). Wilson points out that prices need not fall with costs, since people also equate the resulting higher profits as a reward for possible good management. (Wilson says nothing about the problem of running out of a good, if demand exceeds supply.)

  • People prefer fairness in equity, reciprocation and judgment, but equity is not the same as equality. Equity means that you get paid in proportion to your effort or contribution; equality means that you get paid the same as everyone else. (I have been sloppy with "equity" on the blog and will be more careful.) He also suggests that Rawls' "Veil of Ignorance" is an unrealistic tool for designing social outcomes (i.e., if we were designing a system for wealth distribution and did not know who would get more wealth when the Veil was pulled away, then we'd probably vote that everyone gets the same wealth). I agree with that statement about outcomes, but I still like a Rawlsian view on inputs, i.e., the idea that everyone would face the same incentives and rules BEFORE they went out to earn what they could. In this sense, I agree with equity, not equality. All men are created equal doesn't mean they all end up that way...

  • Manners display to strangers that you have self-control. That's useful if you don't want them to misinterpret your actions as hostile. Wilson also gives a great example, of how women did not cover themselves in small tribes (because everyone knew who was available or not), but them covered themselves in larger groups (to avoid rape). Women are less covered NOW because our social norms have changed, to give women greater control over who gets to mate with them, regardless of how they are dressed.

  • Activists need to distinguish a "sense of duty (which leads people to act on principles) from the love of power (which leads them to manipulate principles)" [p 109].
In Sources, Wilson discusses The Social Animal, Families, Gender, and The Universal Aspiration.
  • The Social Animal begins with the observation that anthropologists and economists are BOTH right. Culture varies from place to place, yet people do pursue their self interests -- within the constraints of culture. Wilson then gets into the nature versus nurture debate, coming out in favor of both.
  • Families goes into child-rearing. Kids do best when their parents are loving, yet firm with rules and discipline. Cold, random-justice parents leave their kids alienated and confused between right and wrong. There's much more about the rise of the nuclear family.
  • Gender points out how weak men are, and how women temper that weakness by choosing who to mate with. From this, men came up with a useful response "the code of the gentleman was the most successful extralegal mechanism ever invented for adopting male behavior to the requirements of modern life" [p 173]. He then contrasted the Hobbesian world of gold rush California (many single men, many murders) with gold rush Appalachia (many Cornish families, much stability).
  • The Universal Aspiration concerns the status of people as equals, entitled to fair treatment. Wilson surveys enlightenment thought, the role of the Catholic Church and debates over slavery here.
In his final chapter, Wilson says that there are certain universal moral truths (one is do not murder without cause; another is that mothers love their children. I enjoyed this second example, as it echoed my own observation -- after five years of travel in 62 countries -- that "people love their kids"). He goes on to say that there is no single universal moral truth. We merely mix and match biological instincts and social norms into a mish-mash of behavior that is, more or less, directed at "doing the right thing." (Wilson reflects on psychopaths early on. Besides saying that they probably do deserve punishment, he also observes how amazing it is that we -- humans -- all DO manage to get along so well. I remind myself of this, each time I get on a strange bus in a strange place with strangers.) He completes his thought with the (un)helpful observation that morality is too intuitive. We can't teach morality through words and rules in the same way as we can't teach poetry with lessons on meter and rhymes.  

Bottom Line: This is an excellent book on a complex and important topic. This book is MUCH better than any textbook on philosophy, culture or religion, but it's still a deep read that requires a lot of concentration. I give it FOUR stars, if only because Wilson's firehose of ideas and information can be overwhelming. Plan accordingly.

23 June 2010

That's NOT service!

Via JWT:
I become confused when I keep hearing the word: "Service"

For example: the so called, Internal Revenue 'Service' or the U.S. Postal 'Service' or the Telephone 'Service', or the Cable 'Service', or the Civil 'Service', the too many State, City, County & Public 'Services' plus maybe the most notorious one, the so called Customer 'Service'! This is not what I thought 'Service' meant.

But today, I overheard two farmers talking, and one of them said he had hired a bull to 'Service' a few cows. BAM!!! It all came into focus. Now I understand what all those agencies are doing to us!

Poll results -- the blame game

Hey! There's a new poll (policy drive) to the right --->>
Who's to blame for the Deepwater Horizon spill?
BP 81%61
Feds 19%14
75 votes total
In this case, I don't agree with the majority (Damian seems to be on the fence). I blame the government for the spill, and here's why: The government has a monopoly on the allowance and regulation of offshore drilling. It was the government's decision to allow BP to drill offshore, and it was the government regulators who could (and did not) dictate how BP and its subcontractors could drill offshore. To be sure, BP may have broken rules, but the government allowed that to happen, either through waivers or fines (or the threat of fines) too insignificant to affect BP's commercial calculations.

BP was not telling the government what to do; even worse, BP wasn't even bribing the government (as far as I can tell) to ignore its transgressions. It seemed that BP was merely working within the constraints that the government had imposed (or had relaxed) and then the predictable happened -- there was a spill. That spill is obviously BP's to clean up -- they have the money and technology -- but that spill was the result, predominantly, of incentives that the government established.

Note this last observation: the government is to blame NOT for the immediate blowout, but for establishing the rules of the game that allowed it to happen. As Thomas Sowell is fond of saying, the important question in politics and policy is "and then what?" and the "then" here was the spill that WOULD result from government's failure to properly regulate drilling. (Ironically, that's the title of a recent interview with Paul Erlich, a man who made a bad bet with Julian Simon.)

Now, let's assume a different scenario -- where the government gave the drilling lease and then made BP responsible, 100 percent liable, for any spill that occurred. In that case of strict liability, BP would bear all of the responsibility and all of the blame for the spill. But that was not the case. The government was telling BP what to do (or not), and BP followed those rules (again, I am assuming that BP did not break laws).

Bottom Line: There is the game, and the rules of the game. BP lost the match (caused the spill), but only because the government's rules made it so (made loss more likely).

22 June 2010

Co-equal my ass

RM sent this from the Restore the Delta crowd:
The EPA points out that the SWP and CVP have never exported more than about 6.3 MAF annually. (And as we know, that’s bad enough.) But the full contract amounts are “at least 1 million acre feet more than has ever been exported historically.”

The EPA notes that you can’t analyze the scope of alternatives when it isn’t clear whether the purpose of the project is to change the method of conveying the historical amount or to deliver the full contract amount. They also point out that increasing exports out of the Delta is inconsistent with recent state legislation.

And the EPA says that “significantly increasing exports out of a stressed Delta is the wrong policy.”

EPA suggests that either the federal action agencies return to the project purpose in the 4/15/08 Notice of Intent or start with the “coequal goals” language in the 2009 Legislation.

Chinese order and chaos

A guest post from Sabine Johnson:

I lived in Beijing China from August 2005 to December 2007. Now I am back for a summer internship. Every morning and every evening, I take the, still incredibly crowded, subway to commute to my office.

Since 2007 much has changed. The subway system has been expanded from three to nine lines, with more lines being under construction. Paper tickets and clerks have been replaced by integrated circuit cards and automatic fare collection machines. Many trains are new, air-conditioned, and equipped with flat-screen TVs, broadcasting advertisements and entertainment news. Yet, most interesting to me are the changes in passengers’ behavior. Where loads of passengers used to crowd the car entrance points, they now line up in two neat rows on both sides of the doors. Where impatient riders used to push their way onto the cars before exiting passengers had a chance to get off, they now wait until everyone has exited before they get on.

However, one Wednesday morning, changing trains at a transfer station, I found out that impatient and disorderly behavior still lies just beneath the surface of the apparently structured and disciplined conduct, ready to erupt under the right conditions.

When I arrived that morning at the Jianguomen transfer station, an unusually large number of people were waiting on the platform for the next train, which apparently had already been delayed for a few minutes, most likely due to technical difficulties. By the time the train arrived fifteen minutes later, an even larger number of transfer passengers had accumulated, filling the platform to capacity. Gone were the orderly lines, gone courtesy and patience. As soon as the train arrived and the doors opened, people started to rush forward towards the train, preventing anybody from exiting the cars. While everyone tried to fight their way toward the train, people got kicked, squeezed, shoved and elbowed. Passengers who were caught in the middle were pushed along, whether they wanted to or not. In the process clothes were torn, glasses broken, and several people suffered minor injuries. Had somebody fallen down, he or she would without a doubt have been trampled. As arriving passengers weren’t able to exit the train, even less room was available for people to get on, and the train got delayed even more as the doors were prevented from closing by people who desperately tried to squeeze themselves aboard the overloaded cars.

Rational and orderly behavior were absent in precisely the situation in which this behavior would have led to the biggest benefit for everyone, i.e. allowing the largest number of people to enter by first allowing people to exit and thereby facilitating a more efficient transfer. Some may argue that this is an example of the” tragedy of the commons,” as everyone (rationally) seeks for his or her biggest benefit, i.e. getting on a train as soon as possible, thereby leading to the worst possible outcome for all passengers. However, given the high risk of injury, the cost of damaged clothes, and personal discomfort suffered by everyone who made it on the train, it is questionable whether individual really made a rational choice to maximize their own benefit. It seems that as soon as sufficient numbers of people are involved in the pursuit of a resource (e.g. space on a train), individuals’ behavior is guided by instinct and emotions rather than reason, and those individuals who want to act differently than the rest are prevented making the most reasonable choice (i.e. waiting for the next train).

Bottom Line: While rational considerations guide people’s behavior and choices most of the time, under certain circumstances people’s conduct may be influenced by factors other than reason, and at times people get caught in the middle and have no choice regarding their behavior.

21 June 2010

Monday Funnies

From here:

Dead Pool -- The Review


I consider James Lawrence Powell's book to be a worthy successor to Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. (See several posts on the book over at Waterwired.)

A "dead pool" of water behind a dam is too low for water to flow into the intakes that drive the turbines that generate electricity. A dead pool is an engineering nightmare; it means that the dam is not holding back enough water to generate power, let alone buffer highs (floods that threaten communities) or lows (droughts that limit irrigation).

JL Powell* follows in Reisner's tradition, also documenting the abuses of rivers and dams by bureaucrats and engineers who enjoy job security as they block one river after another. Powell's book differs in its examination of how deep the delusion runs (Reisner wrote when climate change was still emergent as a concern) as well as his fatalistic -- and well justified -- contemplation of a world where dams built for bad reasons are not just a waste of money, but a barrier to natural flows that would be dangerous even if the dams cost nothing.

The book has five parts:
  1. River of Surprise -- the floods and droughts of the Colorado River
  2. River of Empire -- the rise of big infrastructure, how the Bureau of Reclamation was a total failure before the Hail Mary play for the Hoover Dam that brought them back.**
  3. River of Controversy -- Hoover succeeded, so that means we need more dams, right?
  4. River of Limits -- The end of abundance means that many of these dams are failing to meet their performance targets, faster than ever.
  5. River of Tomorrow -- we're in trouble since these dams are expensive to remove and dangerous to leave in place.
I picked up some interesting ideas and facts: The "Concrete Pyramid" (CP) composed of people from BurRec, USACE, politicians, construction companies and agribusiness cooperated to build dams that benefited the few at a cost to the many. (A dam version of the iron triangle for property development that I described here.)

Ironically -- but not surprisingly -- the CP thinks that climate change calls for MORE dams. (Sounds like the folks in favor of the $11 billion California bond.) Glen Canyon -- the largest dams in the US -- was part of a boondoggle. BurRec built it as a means of paying for more dams, elsewhere.

Here's how the Bureau's engineers got their extra dams: They calculated the benefit/cost ratio for ALL projects in a basin, not one-by-one. That allowed them to build many small dams that failed a benefit/cost calculation because they were grouped with "cash-register" dams with good ratios. Glen Canyon was one such dam, and its construction allowed BurRec to build more dams that made no economic sense. Within this general principle, there were several nuances:
  • Besides dams that delivered more cost than benefits, BurRec also underestimated total cost, knowing that they could ask for more money later, since there was no penalty for cost overruns, and no project was killed when its costs escalated.
  • Dams were built in the Colorado's Upper Basin to suit politicians (like Congressman Aspinall, one of many pork kings)
I started thinking "Bureau of Wreckage" when I was reading these chapters.

And it's not just in terms of the environmental devastation from big dams. Powell examines the notoriously controversial accounting for Colorado River flows. He discusses the long term average annual volume (14.6 maf past Lee's Ferry) and compares that supply -- plus 1.2 maf from other sources -- to the current demand: 4.5 maf from upper basin states, 7.5 maf from lower basin states, 1.5 maf to Mexico, and 2.4 maf of evaporation and other losses. As you can see 15.9 maf of demand exceeds 15.8 maf of supply, and that's why the reservoirs -- Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam -- are draining NOW.

Powell goes on to point out that Colorado River flows are averaging 60 percent of historic flows in the early 21st century, and that climate change will only make things worse -- a hotter earth will decease supply through higher evaporation and increase demand for water as soils dry out. Things are not looking good. (At this point, Powell makes his one big mistake -- he fails to mention the possibility of controlling, reducing or reconciling demand through some sort of market mechanism. That's not necessarily a mistake, if he thinks that bureaucrats will be in charge to the end, but they needn't be.)

In contrast to this dire future (based on scientific evidence and models), we have the lookin' good! future of the Bureau, a future that takes the 20th century's high flows as "normal" and assumes that the 21st century will look the same. In other words, BurRec sees a drop in supply as highly unlikely and reductions in demand as unnecessary. Powell says -- and I totally agree -- that BurRec is sleepwalking off a cliff of denial, inertia and ignorance.***

But who will suffer when supplies run short and never-before-tested rights on the Colorado River are invoked? What will happen when Lake Powell drops to a dead pool? Who will pay when a huge chunk of the water and electricity supplies to the southwest disappear? It won't be the Bureau of Wreckage. It will be us, and we will be screwed by the guys who built dams that failed benefit cost at that design stage, the guys who felt it was more important to deliver power to subsidized users than to conserve water in a drought, the guys who are telling us that everything's ok when it really isn't.

Just fucking great, I tell you.

And Powell doesn't shy away from how bad it can get. His final chapter is a terrifying vision of unsustainable policies coming home to roost, a collision of delusions brought to ground by a reality as remorseless as gravity. The concrete pyramid is indeed built on sand.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS as a fast read on an important topic, that takes from historic roots to future potentials. This book is a worthy companion to Cadillac Desert.

* JL Powell will either confirm nor deny that he's related to JW Powell. I say that he isn't, since any bona fide relative would have said he was related long ago...
** Subject of another new book (via DW).
*** Unfortunately, BurRec and many others ignored the best advice ever given on water in the West, John Wesley Powell's 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.

20 June 2010

Oil Spill in Context?

Many criticize BP and the government for the oil spill. In this case, I am not convinced the government deserves criticism. I have read that environmentalists (and government) are partly to blame in pushing drilling to deeper and deeper areas in the Gulf, therefore making drilling more risky and dangerous. But in looking at this map, it seems like there are plenty of rigs both close and far from shore. See here for the current spill's location.

I also read a friend's paper recently criticizing BP's ethics, claiming that they failed in their duty to shareholders. Why can't this just be an accident? Yes, perhaps if BP installed a blowout device, this may not have happened. But trying to find something to blame, and then trying to fix it may not be productive. There may not be much we can do to prevent another spill, and if that is true, then we ought to debate how much ocean-transported oil we are comfortable buying.

I am OK with the current oil spill risks. I don't like them, but I don't think I am willing to give up ocean-transported oil to eliminate this risk, especially when the overall spill trend has been improving. I also don't live on the Gulf coast...

Bottom Line: It's useful to know why this spill happened, but knowing who's at fault may not prevent another one.

19 June 2010

Flashback: 13 -- 19 June 2010

These were relevant a year ago and -- alas! -- they still are:

BEST: Cash for Clunkers -- a good example of how to hide a subsidy in green clothes, or greenwashing. Total environmental and economic disaster.

Masaru Emoto and Talking to Water -- and hearing "voices"? Further evidence of peoples' science illiteracy.

BEST: Corrupt Politicians and Their Paymasters, aka, how sausage is made, DC-style.

The New Imperialism -- buying farmland in poor countries. This trend is expanding, as far as I can tell, and it's troubling -- when the sellers are dictators, not citizens.

BEST: Life in a Tinderbox -- people who live in the forest should NOT expect to be protected from wildfires.

18 June 2010

Shortage and rising water prices

A little bird sent this interesting article [pdf] on water shortages, price increases and water markets in Australia and the US.

I liked these figures in particular:



Speed Blogging

17 June 2010

Some UN reports

A bunch of UN reports (they are GOOD at paper piles!)
  • The MDG target on Water and Sanitation: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/05_2010_reader_mdg_target_water_and_sanitation_eng.pdf

  • Transboundary Water Cooperation: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/05_2010_reader_transboundary_waters_eng.pdf

  • Water Quality: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/03_2010_reader_water_quality_eng.pdf

  • Water and Climate Change: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/09_2009_reader_water_and_climate_change_eng.pdf

  • Financing Water and Sanitation: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/05_2010_reader_financing_eng.pdf

  • Integrated Water Resources Management: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/05_2010_reader_iwrm_eng.pdf

More war at MWD

TS sent me this article that describes a lawsuit of the San Diego County Water Authority against the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. (Here's SDCWA's press release.)

SDCWA is suing because MWD charges it more than the cost of delivering its water ($60 million over 2 years). MWD uses those excess charges to subsidize delivery of water to other MWD members.

This lawsuit is a replay of a suit that SDCWA brought before, the suit that lead me to write my dissertation, Conflict and Cooperation within an Organization: A Case Study of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

On pages 4--6, you can read about these cross-subsides. The rest of the dissertation discusses why some members pay more than others, how fights emerge, and how MWD is inefficient in so many ways.

I have offered to serve as an expert witness to SDCWA, but they haven't replied. (They lost last time, maybe they will look for some more help this time :)

Bottom Line: MWD's cross-subsidies lead to conflict within the organization and inefficient water use in Southern California.

16 June 2010

On the road...

I am now being a little more picky about posts and I don't have very much time, so I will drop down to one (maybe two) posts/day. Now you have more time to enjoy each one :)

Oh, and here's a snap from Honduras...

Speed Blogging

15 June 2010

Anti-spam comment tools are back

Too many spam comments by anonymous porno people. Sorry :(

Travelblog: Fiji environment

Yes, it's expensive there too...


A freshwater seep on the beach


Tourist get this...

Crude World -- The Review

This book is a must read for anyone interested in the connections between oil, economic development and political realities. Peter Maass (brother of my father's friend) has reported on oil issues from over 15 countries, and this book is a brilliant summary (in 230 pages!) of his nearly 30 years of experience reporting on war, oil and corruption.

The book begins with a vivid image from the early days in the occupation of Baghdad, when American soldiers protected Iraq's Ministry of Oil and let looters invade the National Museum. Maass then makes his key observation: It's not as simple as that.

In the next chapters, Maass explores ten different themes:
  1. Scarcity: Saudi Arabia, peak oil, and the need for the Saudis to maintain the image of limitless supply, even as it's falling.
  2. Plunder: Equitorial Guinea, where the president/dictator steals his people blind, with the help and encouragement of US banks and oil companies. (Theft occurs in three ways: bribes to give access to oil, skimming oil royalties, and profits from businesses that serve oil companies.)
  3. Rot: Nigeria, where the local people grow poorer as oil is pumped from under their land. Shell Oil leaves a few token "developments," but these are often cruel jokes -- hospitals without staff or medicines or generators without gasoline. There's also a strange dance between rebels and the government/Shell. Rebels steal oil to sell, and the government lets them ship it out. Why? It's a cheap pay off, to let the rest of the oil go by free.
  4. Contamination: Ecuador and Texaco's terrible environmental damage. As with Equatorial Guinea, this country was naive with oil firms, so they got the worst cut of royalties and the cheapest extraction technology, which meant gas flares and oil spills. The government was no better when they took over, but they probably did not make a conscious choice to use that technology.
  5. Fear: Azerbaijan and the culture of abuse among oil executives. Maass cites Milgorm's 1960s experiment, where students were happy to torture others, as long as an authority figure told them it was ok. This same "passing the buck" psychology allows oilmen to abuse oil sources to get a few pennies more profit. See previous post here.
  6. Greed: Texas isn't even protected from its own oil companies when they can make a quick buck. More on oil companies desire to cut corners and a prescient (or perhaps trend-spotting) take on a series of stupid moves by BP, each of them resulting from an emphasis on short term profits, and each of them resulting in long term damage and death. The Deepwater Horizon Spill was no accident.
  7. Desire: Iraq and America's desire for their oil. Except that the US was incompetent at taking it over. And the American goal of democracy flies in the face of conventional wisdom -- friendly dictators are much easier partners in the oil business. Maass concludes that Iraq's oil was important, but other goals also mattered.
  8. Alienation: How Saudi oil money has poisoned its people, and how its youth prefer jihad to a life of unemployment or senseless paper pushing.
  9. Empire: Putin is using Russia's oil to rebuild Soviet power, but low prices now will reveal the Emperor's new clothes, as they did to Gorbachev in the 80s. See previous post here.
  10. Mirage: Chavez wants Venezuela's oil to help its people, but subsidies cannot be endless, and they will end when his national oil company flounders under the strain of delivering so many social services.
Maass concludes with a note of hope, hoping that we can use the tools we already possess -- transparency of royalty payments, anti-corruption laws and good old-fashioned social values -- to lighten up the dark side of oil. Oil may have peaked, but its damage will continue until we choose otherwise. (I have just started The Moral Sense. Stay tuned.)

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE stars for its well-written, wide-reaching and deep discussion of the social, economic and political dimensions of oil.

14 June 2010

NBA losing money?

David Stern, Commissioner of the Nat'l Basketball Association, claims that NBA owners are losing money.

Although I don't typically agree with unions, this time I am pretty sure they are correct in their claim that Stern and the owners are inflating losses and hiding gains. Owners, while perhaps making operating losses during the season, do not discuss or include their franchise's appreciation in their calculations. I can buy an NBA team and operate it at a loss for a couple years, milk the city for a new stadium, and then resell the franchise for twice what I paid. That has and will continue to happen. Until Stern addresses this and releases accurate figures (he never will) don't believe his idiotic loss claims.

This reminds me of Bud Selig's congressional remarks a couple years ago saying essentially the same thing.

Bottom Line: Enjoy the NBA playoffs when the energy is high.

Monday Funnies

I've slandered sailors too (via JWT)

The Limits to Growth -- The Review

This 1972 book is subtitled "A report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind."

The collective authors -- much like the IPCC group -- wrote this book after meeting from 1968 to 1970. Their purpose was to work with the complexity of many trends -- poverty, environmental degredation, weakening institutions, urban sprawl, insecure employment, rejection of traditional values, inflation and so on. Their remit was to examine the factors that would limit growth: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution. They used the most advanced computer models to map out the future dynamics of these five factors, as they influenced each other, with positive and negative feedback, over decades. (As you know, I am skeptical of models -- and especially of computer models -- but they can be useful as a means of visualizing interactions that are too complicated to describe.)

The Club concludes that:
  1. Current (1970!) behavior will limit growth within 100 years. "The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity" [p 29]
  2. It's possible to avoid this result, to establish ecological and economic stability.
  3. If we want the second outcome, we'd better get to work.
This struck me as both prescient and sad. Since 1970, we have surely made some progress on natural resources and industrial & agricultural production, but we have not done very well on population control or pollution. Certainly not on the scale that the Club's authors suggested.

The main point of the book is that exponential growth (in pollution or population) will exhaust finite resources. This is a mathematical fact that the authors pound into the reader. (That doesn't mean that the reader will believe it!) And these folks do not just naively draw a exponential curve for the demand for minerals against a finite supply and then conclude that a shortage will result. They discuss the interaction of supply and demand and how those forces affect price and quantity in the market. So their reasoning is sound; they take limits and dynamic changes in behavior into account and THEN reach a dark conclusion.

Carbon wonks will be interested to know that the Club explicitly discusses CO2 as a pollutant that is being absorbed into the air and oceans, and how that CO2 will raise global temperatures. They predict (rather, hope) that nuclear power will displace fossil fuels before "the increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions... has any ecological or climatological effect." [p 87] They also say that they do not know how much CO2 can be absorbed without causing a response. We know now that the "no effect" threshold was passed a few years ago, perhaps at the same time as the report was issued.

As I flipped through the simulations, I was impressed by the analysis of binding constraints. (Like MIT guys need to impress me!) The basic idea is that you need keep all five factors (population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution) within a sustainable range. Get too much, and you crash; get too little and you crash. They conclude, e.g., that unlimited resources will not "fix" our problem because pollution will get out of control. (Something I said 25 years later :)

They also pour cold water on the silver bullet: "technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings from the world model. Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem -- the problem of growth in a finite system -- and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it." [p 159] Their solution? Limit our activities to a sustainable level.

Bottom Line: This book got a lot of attention nearly 40 years ago. Too bad that we haven't implemented its recommendations. We are still running towards that cliff of "rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity." Can we stop the committees and inquiries and take some actions? I give this book FIVE STARS for being clear and relevant; I give its readers ONE STAR for failing to follow through.

12 June 2010

Flashback: 6 -- 12 June 2010

These were relevant a year ago and -- alas! -- they still are:

Poor Analysis Does NOT Change Minds -- analytical junk from the Pacific Institute does NOT help their cause.

BEST: From Deep Pockets to Deep Hatred -- Central Valley farmers are mad that they can't get their subsidized water. Unfortunately, they cannot Blame the Smelt! -- because it's the drought. (OTOH, merging DWR and SWRCB would help.) That doesn't stop Schwarzenegger's Big Lie, but the Delta Vision Foundation may spout some truth How are they doing now?

Resource abuse: Accounting for Sprawl (a big problem, in lots of places) and Mountaintop Removal in Arizona, a state dominated by mining special interests. Of course, we now have new things to worry about, like Carbon offset fraud.

11 June 2010

Supply or demand?

Should more books be read or be written?

10 June 2010

Travelblog: Fiji culture

Buying cake in the market


Fish!


Rebranding a Chinese ship

Bleg: US resources?

CL asks:
I am looking for information on the renewable supply at the state level for the US from 1950-2000. I come to you to ask if you happen to know of a source where I could find this information. I am searching in the USGS databases. Any advice and guide is the most appreciated.
Any help out there?

Anyone want to review a draft of my book?

I've finished the first draft of The End of Abundance: An Introduction to the Economics of Water.

I am writing it for non-economists.

The book has 14 chapters and 90,000 words. Here's the table of contents

If you would like to read and comment/correct a chapter or two -- or the whole book -- then please [THANKS -- got enough people!]

I have many people reading all/part of it now, so I may not be able to accommodate all requests :)

Oh, and the deadline for your comments is July 2 :)

09 June 2010

Speed Blogging

  • If you work on water in LDCs, then read these seven myths on rural water [pdf]. Institutions matter more than money. Do outside experts?

  • River Basins: Trajectories, Societies, Environments for MANY countries. Go look.

  • "NWRI... evaluated the presence and fate of constituents of emerging concern (CECs), such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and components of personal care products, in three major drinking water sources for over 25-million people in Southern California. The three water sources include the State Water Project, Colorado River, and Santa Ana River"...and found CECs at extremely low levels. The water may taste bad, but it's not going to kill or sterilize you :)

  • "Imagine H2O announces a $100,000 prize for startup businesses that reduce the energy needed to move and treat water and wastewater."

  • "SEWAGE SLUDGE OR BIOSOLIDS? Is It A Toxic Hazardous Solid Waste or Safe Fertilizer? Ignorance, Confusion, and Lies" Doesn't seem hard for me to be anti-sludge. Such a name! Maybe they should call it "toilet kittens?" [source of photo at right...]
Hattip to MS

Poll Results -- Traveling!

Hey! There's a new poll (guilty!) to the right ---->
On June 3rd, I leave for 45 days to these countries. Where should I spend MORE time?
Selection
Votes
Panama 20%13
Costa Rica 41%27
Nicaragua 21%14
Honduras 18%12
66 votes total

Now don't anyone get upset, but I am actually planning to spend time in OPPOSITE proportions to what you all have suggested. Since I am more interested in places with different cultures from the US, I am spending less time in Costa Rica. Since I don't want to spend too much money while traveling (Anne and I budget about $20/person/day), I am also likely to spend more time in cheaper countries.

We are now on the island of Utila off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. It's very nice here -- sunny clean waters -- and our room on the water costs $20/night. I'll go diving tomorrow. On Thursday, we go back to the mainland, to see some more of the jungles.

Bottom Line: People travel for different reasons.

08 June 2010

Travelblog: New Zealand resources

How's this for a bottled water advert? (I found it on the beach here, Milford Sound)


Fishing regulations can be complicated!


Clearcut forests? You bet!

Speed Blogging

  • My post on water in Canada and I'm quoted saying that Green Jobs are BS.

  • Electricity from cheese!

  • The Economist has a lot of great articles on water.

  • Scarborough has written a useful overview on using markets to restore in-stream flows. He begins by recounting the history of "water that flows to the sea is wasted" (with a sad photo of the Colorado River Delta), before moving to a state-by-state comparison of in-stream activities and constraints. He ends with a useful description of how to do more trades.

  • People interested in that article should read Gould's 1988 article [pdf] for a useful discussion of the complicated ways that water transfers can produce third-party impacts on other rights holders. (The traditional use of third party refers to member of the community who indirectly benefit from the use to which water is put.) My take away message is that transfers within a watershed are less troubling (and more sustainable) than inter-basin transfers. Even so, it makes sense to be conservative with transfer quantities -- leaving plenty of buffers to reduce the potential for harm.

07 June 2010

Speed Blogging

Hattip to RC and DW

Monday Funnies

Potable water used to fill LA's lakes

Anonymous sent in this interesting tidbit:
I reviewed the proposed LA Area Lakes TMDL and was a bit shocked to see the numbers on "input flows" to some of the artificial lakes:
  • Lincoln Park Lake - 30.8 AF/Y potable water
  • Lake Calabasas - 57.9 AF/Y potable water
  • El Dorado Park Lakes / northern lake system - 110 AF/Y groundwater
  • El Dorado Park Lakes / southern lake system - 105 AF/Y potable water
  • Legg Lakes - 1,073 AF/Y groundwater
  • Santa Fe Dam Park Lake - 1,319 AF/Y groundwater & 544 AF/Y potable
The LA Area Lakes TMDL doesn't include all LA area lakes - only those getting new TMDLs this year. It seems to me that using potable water and groundwater to fill gigantic decorative water features in arid climates isn't the best use of the resource. I'd be interested to see the full balance sheet by lake or by region.

Maybe you or one of your readers knows more on this.
Los Angeles has used water for amenities (palm trees, parks and ponds) for many decades, but this amazes me. Who is paying for this water? The City? Out of general funds?

This does not make me sympathetic to Angelenos claiming that they need more water.

Bottom Line: Shortages are man-made, and they start with poor demand management.

05 June 2010

Flashback: 30 May -- 5 June 2010

These were relevant a year ago and -- alas! -- they still are:

Do Not Steal to Balance the Budget! -- Politicians who prefer to rob than spend less. More on that in Governor Blackmail

BEST: A Few Thoughts on Health Care -- this is still right and the health care bill missed it. Bummer for us (patients, workers and citizens)

Stockton Update -- dissecting a failed privatization.

BEST: Powell on Arid Lands -- wow. This book should really be read by everyone west of the Mississippi. Snow of DWR and Quinn of ACWA didn't appear to, since they forgot to mention the Demand Side of shortage. Instead, they want a Peripheral Canal, which was just as popular as toxic waste in the 1982 referendum.

Happy Birthday to My Dad! -- He's one year older (77!) and politicians are STILL telling people what to do. Bummer. Speaking of that, Tienanmen -- 20 Years Later reminds me to say "Fuck the fascists" -- still.

BEST: Money Grabs -- do deposits on bottled water help?

04 June 2010

Go veggie -- save yourself, save the planet

Stehfest et al. published "Climate benefits of changing diet" [pdf] in Climatic Change (2009)

Abstract: The livestock sector... accounts for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions and for 80% of total anthropogenic land use... we found a global food transition to less meat, or even a complete switch to plant-based protein food to have a dramatic effect on land use. Up to 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland could be abandoned, resulting in a large carbon uptake from regrowing vegetation. Additionally, methane and nitrous oxide emission would be reduced substantially. A global transition to a lowmeat-diet as recommended for health reasons would reduce the mitigation costs to achieve a 450 ppm CO2-eq. stabilisation target by about 50% in 2050 compared to the reference case.

Sounds like we've got to put a price on those cow farts.

Travelblog: New Zealand hydropower

The view below is of a sophisticated project that keeps the river flowing and allows diversions to the huge Manapouri Power project


Here's more information (click to see larger size)


Then there was the Pupu hydropower project, a privately-built scheme that was in operation for years

The environmental impact of countries

Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries. Bradshaw et al. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (5):
Environmental protection is critical to maintain ecosystem services essential for human well-being. It is important to be able to rank countries by their environmental impact so that poor performers as well as policy ‘models’ can be identified. We provide novel metrics of country-specific environmental impact ranks – one proportional to total resource availability per country and an absolute (total) measure of impact – that explicitly avoid incorporating confounding human health or economic indicators. Our rankings are based on natural forest loss, habitat conversion, marine captures, fertilizer use, water pollution, carbon emissions and species threat, although many other variables were excluded due to a lack of country-specific data...

The proportional index ranked Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, Philippines and Netherlands as having the highest proportional environmental impact, whereas Brazil, USA, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru had the highest absolute impact (i.e., total resource use, emissions and species threatened)...

We found no evidence to support the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis of a non-linear relationship between impact and per capita wealth... we found that increasing wealth was the most important driver of environmental impact. Our results show that the global community not only has to encourage better environmental performance in less-developed countries, especially those in Asia, there is also a requirement to focus on the development of environmentally friendly practices in wealthier countries.
Note the "Kuznets" comment -- countries have a greater impact as they develop, and that impact doesn't fall by much as they get rich. So, yeah, we cannot "develop" our way to sustainability; we have to live with less.

You can download the paper here and read an article about it here

03 June 2010

Speed Blogging

  • The British Geological Service is releasing water data archives onto the web. Cool.
  • Development is not just about increasing total wealth; distribution matters too (as I said here).
  • An energy monopoly tries to limit competition. No, not PG&E in 2010. It's Edison in 1909.
  • Speaking of PG&E, DW says "You may have heard that PG&E told their shareholders they were going to spend $35 million to amend the California Constitution in order to make sure PG&E didn’t have to continually fight off communities that have had enough of high rates and lousy service. But now PG&E is saying that $35 million couldn’t buy the election so they are spending $44 million. "
  • TallyFox "is creating a collective knowledge base [for water-related questions], a central point that is helping global citizens and experts to mesh, exchange ideas, share information...that anyone can benefit from... we are pre-revenue, building a solution to enable professional communities... To be sustainable we have a for profit revenue model with special pricing for non profits. Our first client is a non profit, Water Innovations Alliance." Sounds like google or yahoo answers to me, but go over there and check it out.
  • "NEGOTIATE: a vital new resource for those interested in designing, leading, or participating in negotiation and consensus building on sustainable water resources management." They also have a number of other kits. Looks cool, but too structured for my taste. Maybe engineers and staffers will like these...

Insuring against nature

We already know about insurance against floods, fire and other problems, but it looks like we may be getting a new product -- travel insurance against volcanic ash.

Yes, I know that you can buy travel insurance now, but most of those "policies" are a rip-off, designed to collect an extra few bucks and avoid payments.

This is serious. Can we do better to prepare for another week, or month, of interrupted travel? Yes.
  1. Everyone pays $2 per ticket for insurance.
  2. If there's an interruption, then the airlines can collect lots of money for passengers from the insurance companies.
  3. Once service resumes, this money is distributed to passengers who choose between more money and a longer wait to fly or less money and a shorter wait. Airlines can create a "trade" market with their existing software systems.
  4. It's important to note that airlines can buy additional business interruption insurance. But this insurance makes it easier for customers to cope with the delay.
Note that this system can also make sense for other climate-related events. Maybe not for climate change, per se, but for the entire range of surprise interruptions that CC will bring us.

Bottom Line: We will not be able to stop some problems, but we can lower the damage they do.

02 June 2010

Water chat with Jay Wetmore

I spoke with Jay in Sacramento on May 2rd. He is a structural engineer who was in Sacramento for a bridge engineering convention. Our 76 minute chat [27 MB mp3] was about his personal opinions on this industry, which has a lot of parallels to the water business.

We talked about big projects, regulations, other people's money, environmental issues, high speed rail (FAIL!), public transit vs cars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, toll roads, privatization of roads, bureaucratic incentives, etc.

We also discussed a heavy debate in transportation -- the relative cost and benefit of outside consultants vs in-house engineering staff. Two things stand out. First, consultants can be cheaper when the total workload requires less than full time staff. Second, a mix of in-house/consultant engineers can result in lower costs compared to an all-consultant or all-in-house formulation where competition between in/out is non-existent. Read these pdfs for more: in defense of contractors, the case for outsourcing, and it's not obvious that one way is better...

Bottom Line: Jay is a thoughtful and interesting guy. Listen!

Travelblog: New Zealand nature

Ahhh.. yummy glacier water!


1080 Poison is there to kill possums, another amazingly destructive invasive species. Locals don't like 1080 (big government), but scientists say that the possums are a real pest and the poison is "safe."


We LOVE nature, right? :)

Guelph is Canada's water steward leader

A guest post by Tim Shah & Chris Ferguson-Martin,* our neighbors in the (wet?) north...

With 20% of the world’s freshwater resources, many can assume that Canada is quite fortunate with its abundance of water. As Canadians though, we undoubtedly take advantage of our water as we consume on average 343 litres of water per capita per day (lcd). That is absurd considering that the Israelis consume 135 lcd and the Swedish 200 lcd. At least we’re better than the Americans' 382 lcd. The focus of this post is to draw your attention to Ontario; Canada’s most populous and urbanized province in close proximity to the Great Lakes

In Ontario, we are just starting to have a dialogue over water conservation where water metering, incentives for water efficient technology and education around water resources is becoming a more important matter. While Toronto is beefing up its efforts -- most recently through its low-flush toilet incentive program -- it is neither Ontario’s nor Canada’s water conservation leader.

In Ontario, being surrounded by surface water reassures the population that water is plentiful and ubiquitous. This makes it difficult to justify the need for conservation. However, one municipality, Guelph (slightly west of Toronto) is being progressive and holistic with its water conservation efforts.

01 June 2010

Water chat with Tom Lauria

About ten days ago, I had a water chat with Tom Lauria, the head of outreach at International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). US bottled water sales are worth $11 billion. IBWA has 300 members, many of them small. Coke and Nestle belong, but not Pepsi. 40% of the water is purified from municipal tap water; 60% comes from spring water. (Jennifer Aniston's water comes from unicorn tears...)

Here's our fifty minute talk [24 MB mp3]. We did it on skype -- Tom is in Virginia -- so it's a bit clunky at the start.

In it, we discussed Peter Gleick's story of how a stadium denied tap water to its captive audience to make money (something I said awhile ago about airports), and we agreed that bottled water was not the problem.

We talked about the difference between deposits on bottles and curbside recycling. Plastic water bottles take less energy to ship than glass, and they are more-recycled than other plastic products, but there is still a problem with pollution. (I favor semi-refunded deposits, with some money kept back for reprocessing the plastic into something useful.)

We also talked about the water quality issue -- bottled water is regulated by the USDA; tap water by the EPA. I've said before that they should be regulated by one agency and compared with one measuring stick, but they are not. The regulatory turf battle means that a lot of activists (on both sides) claim that they are under stricter control. The GAO compared the two and found that "FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water" [pdf]

Bottom Line: Companies sell bottled water to customers who want to buy it. It's important to keep track of where the bottles go afterwards, but not much else.

Regarding oil

This brilliant comment is from a thread on digg:
This is complete and utter bullshit.

If you ever voiced any concerns about the environment or wildlife in America, you're always labeled a hippy or a bleeding heart or a nature nazi.

Sorry, folks, but this is what happens when you interrupt a natural habitat. There is absolutely no way to drill underneath the ocean floor for oil and expect there not to be huge impacts on everything around it.

There simply isn't. For those of you who thought offshore drilling was a victimless situation, this is your wake up call.

The problem is that a lot of Americans want everything: They want the oil, they want to 'drill, baby, drill,' they want to maintain a life and culture where we're dependent on this stuff but they want it to go smoothly with no disasters or mistakes.

And it's simply impossible.

It's fucking horrible that sea life is dying and birds are dying and the marshlands of the Gulf won't be the same for a long, long time.

I volunteered for a non-profit organization for one and a half years who tried to spread (accurate) information about offshore drilling and the consequences and had doors slammed in my face just to get a signature for a petition and people wouldn't even take the flyers I was handing out. And my first words were always, 'I'm not asking for money, just a minute of your time.'

America has just created this absurd culture where nobody gives a shit about anything until it goes bad. And lots of things go bad because of risks and mistakes and things that cannot be avoided due to human error and/or mechanical failure.

So here I am, again, a fucking hippy, suggesting that America find alternative fuel sources. Not just for now, for the future as the current resources are depleted.

Someone suggested I was an idiot because I don't support massive nuclear energy in the U.S. but this dolphin is the direct result of human error and mechanical failure.

Can you imagine the photos if there was human error and mechanical failure (which is always lurking) at a fucking nuclear plant in Louisiana?

Sorry. Just not worth it.

Every American has the opportunity every day to individually help curb energy use. You can't always avoid driving a car but you can buy cars that use less gas. Five years ago, we were a nation of giant SUVs and nobody really saw anything wrong with that UNTIL gas prices shot up. And then it wasn't, 'we're depleting our resources like mad,' it was, 'I can't afford to drive to work!'

Think about your kids, their grandkids, our wildlife, our environment in a logical way: No matter what the consequences are, there's nothing wrong with being mindful about the future and what kind of earth/country we'll leave to the next generation. That's not being a hippy, it's being rational and realistic.

As it is with this situation, waiting for something bad to happen and then trying to fix it isn't an option.

Help slow down our dependency on oil and coal.

Not preaching, just saying.

It just blows my mind that so few people seem to care until there's a picture of a dead dolphin covered in oil.

By the time this is all over likely, this photo is going to seem fairly tame, I'm afraid.

A guest post for the Canuks

...on Canada's water at a price of $0 and other stuff...

Read it (and comment!) here.

Speed Blogging

  • A Swiss banker blows the whistle on tax evasion so the feds throw him in prison. His boss goes free. Haven't these idiots ever heard of incentives? FAIL.

  • Good story on the SHADY financing and BIG subsidies to Poseidon's desalination plant in Southern California. Given that locals already use 300 gallons per person per day (1,200 lcd!) and local managers (Poseidon's overseers) are incompetent, this is looking like a disaster waiting to happen.

  • Klamath farmers say they "need" more water, so they want to mine groundwater. Sounds like Klamath needs fewer farmers. I suggest that they cap extractions at sustainable levels, hand out permits to existing farmers and let them trade until 50 percent of farmers are retired. Speaking of overallocation, this story on California's salmon fisherman notes that there are only "90 fish per boat." Time to retire some boats? ITQs please!

  • Some pretty amazing pole dancing. (It's more vertical ballet than striptease!)

  • Bill Heasley says that the US sells $10 billion more food to China than we buy from them. He points out that such a surplus requires that we do a good job at managing our water; if we use it unsustainably, then we are destroying ourselves so they can get cheaper food. I totally agree.
Hattip to BB, RM, SO and DW