31 December 2010

Anything but water

Thanks everyone for making it quite an interesting 2010. I hope that you will continue to enjoy aguanomics -- the best blog that money can't buy -- in 2011. Cheers!
  • Irrelevant academics: "The ubiquity of networks in our social lives has long been recognized, and their importance in our economic lives is increasingly recognized as well. Yet the literature synthesized in Matthew O. Jackson's Social and Economic Networks, which covers the theory of how networks form, decay, and shape behavior at a general level, has had little influence on either applied theory or empirical work in this area."

  • The shadow scholar. Interesting "confession" by the guy who ghost writes papers for lazy students. (One solution is ten minute individual oral exams, which might not take that long when you consider grading time.) A response notes that this problem extends to other countries.

  • BP's oil spill did not harmlessly disperse. It's coating the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

  • The Economist on... Age and happiness (older people are as happy as younger people, because they can accept the good parts of life and take the bad parts in stride), Migrant farm workers (few Americans REALLY want their jobs, and illegal status makes them miserable. A fair price for cheap food?), Ascension Island (humans added biodiversity to it; not much compensation for all the places that humans destroyed), remote monitoring of forests, and how technology will displace English as the common tongue.

  • "The US military is the worst polluter on the planet." Can Tea Partiers and environmentalists agree that reducing DoD's activities is a win-win?

30 December 2010

Speed blogging

How often do you hear this from a regulator (?): "The present system of regulating the UK water industry has become too bureaucratic to work effectively, while companies will need to raise further equity in future, Ofwat told investors and analysts at its City briefing on 8th December." Win!

Nice wikipedia entry on Spragg Bags (for transporting water on the ocean).

101 ways to save water in college: typical suggestions, including shower with a friend.

Rob Harmon talks about ecosystem services (via water purchases) at TEDx.

Santa Cruz goes fascist on heavy water users (" violators face everything from disconnected service to $600 fines to 30 days in jail"). Reminds me of San Diego's waste-of-money command and controllers.

H/T to MD

29 December 2010

Your money for their propaganda

A few weeks ago, aquadoc mentioned that the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) was co-publishing a magazine with the National Geographic called "Water for Tomorrow." The Doc asks if this is more puff piece than reporting.*

ACWA, btw, is the industry lobbying association based in Sacramento and headed by Tim Quinn, former chief economist (etc.) at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Yes, indeed, it is an advertorial:
  • Jennifer Persike, ACWA's Director of Strategic Coordination & Public Affairs, is in charge of the effort. (ACWA has more people working for communications than any other function.)
  • ACWA members pay the costs of production ($0.59/each for 1,000 copies delivered [pdf]), so they can give it away, free, to people who need to know they are doing a good job.
  • According to ACWA: "the 20-page, four-color magazine provides Californians with fresh and practical information on the state’s water system, ongoing water supply challenges and the need to use water as efficiently as possible... Produced under a cost-effective agreement with National Geographic Custom Publishing, Water for Tomorrow is available for ACWA member agencies to subscribe to and distribute to their customers at an extremely affordable cost."
  • How much is "affordable"? $5,900 per 1,000 copies,which they then send to people for free. Customers pay for the junkmail that water managers send them.
  • According to NG: "Even a prosperous place like California shouldn’t take its water supply for granted. National Geographic’s continuing mission is to inspire people to care about the planet, and we’re extremely proud to partner with ACWA in creating this timely publication.” "National Geographic Custom Publishing" has also rented its name and logo for others' corporate PR.
Bottom Line: ACWA members should stop wasting customers' money telling them about how wonderful they are. They should do their jobs (fixing leaks, ensuring quality, preventing shortages) instead. Teapartiers should attack this waste of money: ACWA's deadline for new subscriptions was 17 Dec. It's not too late to get your money back and keep these magazines out of landfills.

* His post links back to Lloyd Carter as source for a Ron Kaye post and Jeff Michael's early comment on this "magazine," which is "published exclusively for ACWA by: Onward Publishing, Inc. in partnership with National Geographic."

28 December 2010

Wikileaks, Gawker leaks and netiquitte

I've been following closely the scale and impact of wikileaks ever since I "met" Julian Assange in late 2006 because I was trying to start a whistleblowing website.*

(Here's a good interview with Assange and here's a post-prison video interview)

WL as an institution is very interesting. What I find more interesting is the reaction to different leaks. Release bank data? Get shut down by a judge (and return with more fame). Release collateral murder video from Iraq? Business as usual. Release State Department cables? Now we're talking...

Funny, but WL was founded to expose the misdeeds of corrupt and dangerous governments. It turns out that such exposure doesn't do much; those governments (Russia, China, et al.) just shoot protesters.

So WL has more impact in countries with decent institutions for the press and civil society:
So WL has done quite a bit in terms of improving citizen's access to information.***

Then we get reverberations. First, there was the Swedish arrest warrant for rape that was not really about rape and totally blown out of proportion (but in proportion to Assange's high profile prosecution). Doesn't exactly look like a US-led dirty trick, but I still worry that the CIA will try to kill him or torture him to get WL pass codes.

Then there was the backlash against Gawker for saying bad things about WL. Some hackers stole 1.5 million sets of usernames and passwords. My information was in that bucket.**** I got this from Gawker:
This weekend we discovered that Gawker Media's servers were compromised, resulting in a security breach at Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Gawker, Jezebel, io9, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Deadspin, and Fleshbot. As a result, the user name and password associated with your comment account were released on the internet. If you're a commenter on any of our sites, you probably have several questions.
Although this was annoying, the REALLY annoying problem was that this theft involved my "low security" password, which means that anyone with it can comment on various websites under my name. (XKCD shows why you need BOTH a weak and strong password.) In other words:
All of gawker's user accounts were published... we compared to see if any [website X] emails were identical. Alas, your email address turned up in this mess.

This does not mean your password is compromised - for all we know you were a Really Good Internet User and used a different password for gawker than for [website X]... All password data from the gawker leak is expected to be cracked in a week or so (if not already).
I'm not too worried about that sort of identity theft (and, to be sure, there's no way I can track down every site where I am registered), but I WAS worried about the sites (like eBay) where I had a weak password, so I spent 3-4 hours tracking down these sites, logging in and changing my password.

In the process:
  • I learned more about the dilemma of different passwords everywhere (can't use one, can't remember many), during which time I became a big fan of LastPass
  • I was reminded that the internet never forgets: I made ONE comment on Gawker, in 2007. Arg!
  • I thought up a good idea: websites should auto delete accounts if there is no activity for one year -- except when they owe you someting ($, freq flyer miles, etc.). They can send an email reminder that allows someone to prevent this sunsetting action, but the default is to delete if no response is received within two weeks.
Bottom Line: Our online identities are very useful but also very easy to compromise. Be careful with your private information (in case you get gawkered) and don't break the law (in case you get wikileaked).

* I am looking to revive this site, renamed "microleaks.org," as resource for anyone who wants to leak anything of any size anywhere. If you're interested in this project, contact me.

** Totally unrelated, but nice post: Ten amazing bee facts.

*** Jaron Lanier has a good perspective on nerds and excessive transparency. He also notes that WL's "attacked" the US -- not Russia and China -- because it was more open. He questions if the cable leaks have a positive impact for the US (no) or the world (maybe), but asks an important question: De we really want to live in a world without secrets, in a Zuckermanesque facebook fantasy? More on that problem here.

**** You can find out if you were "gawkered" here or here.

27 December 2010

That was post 3,000 by the way

Monday funnies. Go figure.

So -- happy 3,001st post!

Thanks for reading Aguanomics. Hope that you read more than a few of the 3,000 posts on this blog. (You can catch up, sure! Check the tags or archive on the sidebar. That's what holidays are for, right? Reading blogs?)

Cheers!

David

Monday funnies

Daily Show: America's Tweetheart: "Like a teenage boy with a crush on the stuck-up girl who hates him, the media is fascinated by everything Sarah Palin tweets."
Speaking of Palin, did you see my new "crowd sourced" blog, Palin for President? Yes or No? Anyone can add a new post, anyone can comment. Go for it.

Anything but water

25 December 2010

Flashback: 19 -- 25 Dec

These posts are still relevant. Have a read. Have a cuppa tea.

BEST: It's what you say, not who you are -- for people who dislike ANY criticism. Maria Montessori knew how to counter that problem.

Rebirth on the Solstice is for all faiths. Conditional giving is for the scrooges.

BEST: Are you smarter than the average person answering this poll?

DWR has always been into the environment -- NOT. Las Vegas didn't have a shortage in the past-- NOT.

24 December 2010

Anything but water -- holiday edition


* Speaking of planes: The TSA's new regulations (via BB) on international airmail are so strict that many foreign carriers are diverting packages over one pound to sea freight. I'm now inconvenienced AND not safer. FAIL.

23 December 2010

Babelfish on your phone

I met the inventor of this technology (Otavio Good) in 2009.



Hint: Buy the paid version (I haven't yet).

The river runs dry

At the business and water conference, Julie van der Bliek of the International Water Management Institute gave a fascinating talk on the Jordan River's death by a thousand diversions. Her slides [pdf] show how flows in an out of the Jordan started like this:
...and then ended up being like this:

Her talk was drawn from Van Aken, M.; Molle, Francois; Venot, Jean-Philippe. 2009. "Squeezed dry: the historical trajectory of the Lower Jordan River Basin" in Molle, Francois.; Wester, P. (Eds.). River basin trajectories: societies, environments and development [pdf]. Wallingford, UK: CABI; Colombo, Sri Lanka: IWMI. pp.20-46, but the images came from this paper [PDF]

Bottom Line: At some point, water flows are more about accounting than nature.

22 December 2010

Challenges: Water Governance in India

Here's Part 2 from Praveena... [Part 1]

The developments in water sector have empowered the citizens like never before and ensured that the people’s demands are accorded the first priority. But most of these developments have only happened at the consumer level making the entire system more participative but without having significantly impacted the decision making process. Some areas which remain to be addressed are:
  1. The water bureaucracy remains in control of the decision making process as well as the resources. This is the level at which introducing changes has been difficult.

  2. Water service departments remain unaccountable to the people and are legendary for their lack of transparency. An obvious offshoot of such institutions is corruption. As soon as corruption sets in, there comes a horde of other ills starting with inequitable distribution of water, irregular water supply, poor service quality and a general apathy in providing a basic civic service.

  3. Even more challenging has been moving the planners away from the old trick of addressing social problems through engineering solutions.

  4. An overarching issue is that of a complete absence of city planning. This is illustrated well in this comment on Mumbai’s state of planning:
    We cannot jump from our present situation to some ideal condition. The city here is not about grand design but about grand adjustment. --- Rahul Mehrotra, Principal, Rahul Mehrotra Associates, Mumbai
  5. Finally, the administration has become so enormously complex in India with multiple organizations having overlapping powers that the government finds it difficult to decide where to start reforming the entire system from! The situation is more pronounced at the state level where the capacities and talent remain even more limited.
So what's the point?

Pricing is not the only option: The prevailing approach puts a greater emphasis on pricing water in a manner that the utilities should generate revenue and should be able to pay for its operation. While this may be relevant for some countries it doesn’t necessarily has to be appropriate for the Indian context. Theoretically it is easier to suggest that some quantity of water is given free and users pay for the extra. Examples abound which show that this is not how it works in effect.

Entitlement and people’s rights: The more crucial entitlements issue is forgotten by economists and an undue importance is given to pricing alone. In my country, I find entitlements to be a greater issue and very often it is a fight for precisely this, in rural as well as urban areas.

Enough with organizational arrangements, let’s talk behaviour: This receives a lot of attention and little thought is spared for the “instruments” which determine behaviour. Consumer behaviour needs to be understood so that a match between organizations and consumer needs is achieved.

Finally, this only scratches the surface of the numerous issues that need to be discussed and accounted for in achieving good water governance in India. I find that the Asia Water Governance Index [pdf] developed at the Lee Kuan Yew School’s Institute of Water Policy is a great effort towards assessing water governance in Asia.

Bottom Line: Water bureaucracy in the India needs a major reform. Alongside, the planners must move on from pricing (alone) to entitlements, property rights and consumer behaviour for good water governance.

Climate change means more variability

In case you forgot... heavy rains in the western US, floods in SW Australia and record cold in Europe all fit the pattern of climate change. Global warming is a misnomer. Read more in the Guardian, at Emily Green's blog and at Aquadoc's blog.

Poll results -- your view on your life

Hey! There's a new poll (changing your mind) on the sidebar ---->
In the past year, my quality of life -- compared to others in my family, community and country...
...has been better than average 56%58
...has been about average 16%16
...has been worse than average 28%29
103 votes total

It's hard to pose an objective version of this question, since self-evaluations are fundamentally subjective and irreconcilable among people, but it's interesting to know why people rate themselves better/same/worse than the average of people around them. I, for example, feel that my quality of life has been better than average because I've been able to work and travel -- without money or health problems -- at the same time as I enjoy a lovely relationship with Anne.

Does anyone care to share why they answered this poll (or would answer it) the way they did? And does your answer have any impact on how you will live your life in 2011?

Bottom Line: Happiness is a state of mind.

21 December 2010

Successes: Water Governance in India

This guest post (Part 1 of 2) comes from Praveena Sridhar, an environmental engineer and a graduate of Stanford University and Nanyang Technical University. She works in Tamil Nadu and writes regularly for detailtalk.

A few weeks back, on this blog I took objection to a post which ascribed “failure as usual” to India’s state of affairs in water sector. I understood it as that, because the post had very little to suggest otherwise. While acknowledging the intellectual liberty of a person to interpret the affairs in any way that may seem reasonable to him, I found that there was more to the story that was being missed. The missing element is the “context” which largely comes from one’s experience living in a country as a citizen and at the same time using its infrastructure services that form the essential part of civic life and country specific information.

On whether India has one of the worst water governance or not needs to be analyzed in relation to other factors like the country’s laws, regulations, institutions, politics and socio-economic patterns. Therefore, success or failure gets relative! It is relative to whether the assessment is with respect to its own course of development over the past or it is being done in relation to some internationally (or arbitrary?) set of standards. While it is true that a generally accepted method must be followed in the interest of understanding how each nation fares with respect to the others globally, it is equally true that no assessment can be absolute. Caution must be exercised here as these assessments tend to shape common views.

Now, there are numerous reasons why water governance in India today is better than ever.
  1. This week while I write this, the Planning Commission of India conducts a nationwide consultation with various regional organizations, civil society groups and members of general public on the key challenges across 34 sectors of the economy that the commission has identified. Water is one among them. The regional consultations are an innovative approach to make the 12th five year plan (2012-17) align with the citizens’ requirements and achieve a greater inclusion of all the sections of the society.

  2. Until the National Water Policy of 2002, drinking water as the first priority was normative and priority order was urban domestic, power generation, industry, irrigation and drinking water in that order. Drinking water is now the first priority and must be adhered to by the water supply boards.

  3. Among the most successful is the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority’s mandatory rainwater harvesting program in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The state made rainwater harvesting mandatory in all the buildings, by an ordinance introduced in July 2003. By the end of October 2003, a total of 4,811,325 non-government buildings in urban areas had rooftop rainwater harvesting installations.

  4. Water management through community participation in rural areas has had a tremendous impact in terms of making water sharing transparent and equitable. These referred to as Pani Panchayats or Water User Associations are supported by state governments and today exist in almost every state.

  5. On an advanced level involving concerted efforts of various departments of the government, the western state of Gujarat has quite innovatively regulated its groundwater resources by regulating power supply. The state has separated electricity supply lines meant for domestic use from that of high power lines used for running water pumps which irrigate the fields. With this the state has developed a proxy switch to regulate pumping of groundwater while at the same time enhancing farm management by helping farmers irrigate their fields to an optimal level.
Bottom Line: Assessing water governance (in any part of the world) is relative to its political, social and economic context. India’s successes in water governance leaves a lot to be hopeful about!

Water -- The Review

Steve Solomon's 500 page book is subtitled "The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization," and it's quite an impressive achievement.

[I sent a draft of this review to Steve, and he gave me quite a bit of informal feedback. I will be adding a summary of his responses in brackets below.]

Solomon tours the world, describing the role of water in civilizations past and present, and how their water management fits into his thesis, i.e., "societies that find the most innovative responses to the [modern water scarcity] crisis are most likely to come out as winners, while the others will fall behind" [p. 5].

This book is very helpful in helping us understand the similar and disparate ways that water has been used and managed across many cultures. I learned quite a bit about canals in England, the eastern US and China, for example.

The book is divided into four parts: Ancient History (from Ur to the Greeks to the Chinese to the Islamic conquest), the Ascendancy of the West (from early water wheels to voyages of discovery to the rise of steam power), the Modern Industrial Society (sanitation, canals and big infrastructure), and the Age of Scarcity (the new oil to the Middle East to Asian shortages to water politics in the West).

Here are a few notes that I took, more or less in order:
  • Hammurabi's 53rd law said that the owner of badly-maintained dam (or levee) will pay the costs from flood damage, should the dam break.
  • Solomon highlights a 2,500 year old water tunnel on Samos and 2,200 year old aqueduct/siphon to Pergamum (now near Bergama in Turkey) as marvels of engineering. I have visited these :)
  • The Chinese character for politics is derived from characters that mean flood control.
  • "Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem... Confucians... believed that rivers had to be forced, through dikes, dams and other obstructive constructions, to do man's bidding as defined by rulers and technocrats" [p. 101]. The Confucians ended up dominating both engineering and politics, as we see with Three Gorges and the Communist Party, respectively.
  • "Shari'aa" means "the way" or "the path to the watering place."
  • "societies that passively live too long off old water engineering accomplishments are routinely overtaken by states and civilizations that find innovative ways to exploit water's ever-evolving balance of changes and opportunities [p. 151]. Solomon uses the example of the Portuguese cutting Muslim middlemen out of trade with India.
  • Northern Europe's population doubled between 700 and 1200 (to 70 million) because improved plow technology increased food yields (more food leads to more people). Civilization, technology and trade also expanded rapidly. [Steve was pleased that I noticed a point that many readers and scholars have missed, on how institutions for good governance arise and evolve.]
  • Political and economic development in Northern Europe was decentralized because small rivers flowed in many places, leading to stronger rights for individuals and property than those found in centralized hydraulic empires.
  • In the twentieth century water use increased by 9x and energy use increased by 13x. Our good life may be costly in terms of sustainability. Mining water, like mining energy, cannot continue indefinitely.
  • Politicians dithered and delayed spending money to rebuild London's water and sewer system, until The Great Stink of 1858 caused them to face facts (the horrible smells into Parliament from the Thames).
Although I enjoyed the historical narrative in Water, I was less-compelled by Solomon's thesis, that success and failure is determined by good water management. Yes, of course, good water management is necessary for continued success, but it is not sufficient.* Success and failure can come from many directions (poor leadership, for example). It would perhaps be more correct to claim that civilizations with good governance also manage water well.**

[Steve clarifies that causality runs both ways: good institutions also lead to good water management. I am happy to concede this point and also concede the he was trying to make it, except that the text was not as clear as we all might like. Although he holds that "good water management is a necessary condition for success" in managing a civil society, that is not true in places where water is to abundant to worry about waste yet not abundant enough to worry about floods. That said, good management can hardly hurt.]

This is not nit-picking as much as clarifying the difference between the causes and effects that drive development (per Adam Smith, Schumpeter, Schumacher, Sen and others) and failure/collapse (per Carson, the Limits to Growth, Diamond and the Mafia). The causes -- as laid out by Nobel Laureate Douglas North -- are good institutions. Hammurabi was an innovator in the rule of law, just as the English had the Magna Carta and America has the Bill of Rights. From these foundations came sound policies that included sound water management. (These policies were not always implemented as quickly as we'd like, but they were implemented more quickly when governance was better.)

I am pretty sure that Steve would agree with me on this (we chatted over a bottle of wine while I was in DC), but that agreement would not be obvious in the text, where the emphasis is more on "success here" and "failure there" than on the underlying causes. Such an explanation is WAY beyond the scope of a 500 page book, but a little humility on that account (i.e., this is a book on the history of water management) would reduce the numerous "yes but" moments when it seemed that the thesis was driving the narrative instead of letting events declare themselves.

In addition to this big point, I had a number of disagreements with the text. The claim of "a distinctive American system regarded government as an active agent to assist the private development of the nation's resources" on page 321 would be contradicted twice: other governments clearly play that role, and plenty of natural resource development -- with oil, mines, ranching and so on -- has occurred without the assistance of the US government. The discussions of water in the western US and bottled water, for example, are not deeper that those I've seen in newspaper articles that lack depth, get niggling facts wrong,*** and miss some crucial analysis.***

[Steve suggests that "distinctive" does not mean unique, and that the US was not alone in using state power to advance business interests (ironically to a lessor degree than Europe sometimes). I agree, but I am more skeptical of claims that US government support for railroads was either necessary or useful.]

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS. It's well-worth reading for its wonderful overview of water management around the world and throughout history. Water, indeed, has played a crucial role in our social, political and economic development. That said, our success and failures in water management result from our social, economic and political institutions (not the other way around). Good institutions will keep water in our taps.

* On page 269, for example, Solomon writes: "By the 1940s, America was exploiting its ample natural water resources in a more intensified and enlarged manner than any society on Earth -- a reliable leading indicator and catalyst, in every age in history, of robust prosperity and civilization." This generalized claim is clearly untrue, if we consider how the Soviets over-exploitation of their water resources did NOT lead to robust prosperity. The same goes for the Libyans, Saudis, Egyptians and Chinese, as they mismanage water for no durable benefit. [Steve and I disagree here. He claims that the Soviet society was prosperous for a time, even if such prosperity was not built on sustainable foundations. I claim that it was not prosperous, ever, given the contemporaneous and future costs of the Soviet model, as opposed to what would have happened should Russia had continued on its pre-Revolutionary path.]

** "It is not a coincidence that history's poorest societies often have had the most difficult hydrological environments" [p. 374] is precisely backwards. Ask the Australians, Israelis or Singaporeans. [Yes, this is overstated. Steve is right that societies with poor water conditions face additional barriers to development and prosperity.]

*** Fact check: JW Powell was not head of the "new" USGS; he was the second director; global bottled water sales are not over $100 billion; the Colorado River Aqueduct didn't start deliveries until 1941; etc. I got a laugh out of this sentence on page 341: "As the aquifer emptied and drought conditions prevailed on the surface [in the 1930s], the big farmers of the Central Valley turned reluctantly to the government for relief." Reluctantly. Right. [Steve is right that I am perhaps nitpicking about the first and second points (the difference between what he said and fact -- as best we can guess -- is trivial), but the CRA point is annoying (and representative of a trend of misstatements in an area I have studied deeply). The fourth point about farmers and subsidies seems more propaganda than fact. Steve acknowledges that the farmers are not too consistent in complaining about government at the same time as they take money from the government, but he needed to -- in my opinion -- call them on that hypocrisy.]

20 December 2010

Monday funnies

From the always interesting PhD Comics:

Bleg on jargon typsetting style

I am revising (still!) The End of Abundance.

In the book, I have used jargon (e.g., aquifer or increasing block rates) that has a particular meaning.

At the moment, I define the words when they first appear; if they appear often, I also have them in the glossary.

I am not sure how to highlight them. (I want readers to know which words are in the glossary or not.)

So, it seems that I can put the words in bold (as in a textbook), small caps or leave them plain (letting readers figure out if they are in the glossary). Note that I only intend to do this on the first occurrence of the word.

Any thoughts on this?

Business and water

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on business and water in London. I was under the impression that the conference was aimed at water footprinting (my views in The Guardian and International Herald Tribune), but it was much more interesting than that (read the report by Dan Bena of Pepsico here.)

[In 2008, I blogged on the anti-capitalist backlash against this kind of conference]

In my talk (11 min, with slides), I pointed out that the water supply risk that businesses worry about comes from poor water governance, which is often the result of political and bureaucratic failure.

Others made a number of interesting points:
  • Jason Morrison from the CEO Water Mandate/Pacific Institute explained how businesses are trying to engage with civil society, while keeping the taps flowing (see this post). Unfortunately, the Mandate's goal of facilitating collective action for better policy is hampered by its bureaucratic (UN) roots and "comprehensive" embrace of stakeholders. They are talking the talk, but it's hard to walk the walk.

  • Most companies know way more about their water use than home owners, politicians, environmentalists. Farmers know plenty as well.

  • A huge enterprise looked at their operations worldwide and found little or no correlation between water scarcity and water prices. Another one found weak correlation with widely-accepted indicators of "water stress" and the actual situation at their production facilities. The first problem arises from prices that are based on the cost of delivery; the second from the lack of detail (and the absence of a dimension for governance) in water stress indices.

  • A water-energy nexus person pointed out that low carbon regulations can increase water consumption (e.g., corn ethanol needs FAR MORE water to produce fuel than refining oil). I'd call this the regulatory version of wack-a-mole.

  • Rule of thumb: Diversions that exceed 40% of a watershed's (cachement's) flows stresses the environment.

  • Several presenters dropped the triple bottom line BS; they preferred to pursue "green [behavior] is green [money]" policies.

  • Water footprinting is nice for clarifying operational consumption but cannot do much to increase profits. Investors do not know how to use footprinting data, just as they do not know how to use water disclosure data, because they cannot turn these data into financial indicators now (or maybe ever) due to the numerous ways of calculating and interpreting water consumption statistics that vary by sectors. Consultants, OTOH, can make good money on footprinting (see this post).

  • Footprinting provides trivial data but does little to reduce political risk, overuse by neighbors, or ideological pressure to "do something."

  • Companies are sometimes forced to do the government's job: providing water meters or water supplies to outsiders, but they are cautious about lobbying for change or good management, since they can then be attacked.

  • Lots of resources! (Some old but most new to me!)
One elephant in the room was the basic question of consumption. Many presenters pointed out that 95% of the water impact from their products occurs when they were used. Does that mean that maybe people should not use it? Dan from Pepsico said [paraphrasing] that Pepsi is a "fun product that should be consumed as a treat, but that Pepsico has no intention of ending its production -- only changing their portfolio to more healthier products." This answer is true, in the sense that someone else will sell a sugary drink and Pepsico can use $ from one brand to do good works or develop other brands, but it doesn't end the bigger discussion.

That's the discussion few people are willing to face, the one on how real change means less consumption (I've said this here, here, here and here.). A recent New Yorker, for example, discusses [$] the Jevons Paradox -- that increases in energy efficiency do not reduce total energy use. People just find more ways to use energy (e.g., more cars, driven more often). Stack that effect on top of growing population and growing affluence, and you can see how our total energy consumption will continue to rise and its impact on the (non-priced, unmarketed) environment will grow even greater. Read more at Grist.

Bottom Line: Big companies are very interested in sustainable water supplies (folks in finance are waiting until the crisis gets profitable enough), but most of their actions and impacts are superficial relative to the inactions and adverse impacts of the politicians and bureaucrats who manage water (let alone consumers who want to use more). Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats did not seem to care about attending this meeting, sharing their perspectives or learning how to improve their business of delivering reliable water service.

18 December 2010

Flashback: 12 -- 18 Dec

These posts are still relevant. Have a read. Have a cuppa tea.

BEST: Blowing smoke up our tunnel? DWR estimates that the Peripheral Tunnel will cost $10.6 billion. One year later and it's $13 billion? I thought we were facing DEFLATION! Along the same lines, read PPIC's pro-peripheral propaganda.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold -- Are farmers still overdrafting in the California's Central Valley or is the rain replenishing aquifers in time? Maybe they are reading Water and the California Dream?, an excellent book on how we've abused water in California (crops and subdivisions trump creeks).

The Master Plan -- I was thinking of dropping out or running for Congress. Instead, I am living in Amsterdam. Not a bad plan B. Oh, and I have a new job. Stay tuned :)

BEST: Liquid Assets -- The Review -- I've cited this book on water in the Middle East many times in the last year. There will be a post on the (ab)use of the Jordan River next week.

BEST: It's what you say, not who you are -- Criticism of an idea is not the same as criticism of a person. Along similar, but not identical lines, I have a few thoughts for people living on the edge, spending 103% of their income.

17 December 2010

Local weather

It snowed today in Amsterdam. This photo is from our living room window:


About those CAP auctions

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that Central Arizona Project (CAP) administrators were planning to auction additional water supplies to contractors. I wondered why CAP didn't just auction ALL its water -- especially when it appears to have a variety of prices for different "types" of contracts.

Fleck commented on the post, pointing out that some auctions are better than no auctions.

Yes, indeed, the glass is half full.

So, I have a few additional thoughts on how CAP can run auctions for additional water:
  1. These auctions should be open to anyone who can take delivery in the current CAP system. Bidders should face price adjustments for delivery costs according to their distance/elevation from the "fountainhead." Conveyance capacity constraints may create problems that will need to be solved (I'd prefer an auction for capacity, of course).
  2. Bids and prices should be free to fluctuate, without ceiling or floor. A single price (before adjustments) will give the clearest signal of the value of new water.
  3. In the best case, these prices should determine the price that the CAP pays for additional supplies. It would be a horrible mistake to buy water at one price and auction it at a different (lower!) price.
  4. Auctions should be run every year, to allow for adjustments in supply and demand on the CAP system. Bidders wanting long term contracts should make options agreements via bonded third party brokers, not the CAP.
Then the CAP can look into auctioning all its water, to avoid the financial problems that MET (a Southern California wholesaler) is having, i.e., "cooler weather in the summer of 2010 may reduce water sales below budgeted levels, resulting in reduced financial performance for another year." MET, like the CAP, needs to sell its water (and cover its costs) with a flexibility that matches the weather, not a hopeful spreadsheet.

Bottom Line: Auctions increase efficiency in water allocation and financial stability.

16 December 2010

Ecosystem services

Here's the thought experiment: what is it worth to you, to avoid a world that's dark, dry and dead?

In The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital (Nature 1997, via JJ), Costanza et al. estimate the value of ecosystems services to be about double the world economy. Even ignoring all of the problems of GDP measurement (cutting down trees and shooting guns both add value to GDP), I'd say that this estimate is in the ballpark.

Great, so then what? First, make sure that you reflect the value of the ecosystem in cost-benefit analysis of human activity (e.g, draining a wetlands for housing development). Second, consider the value of investing in ecosystems over other human activities (e.g., a new play ground versus a clean beach).

In other words:
If ecosystem services were actually paid for, in terms of their value contribution to the global economy, the global price system would be very different from what it is today. The price of commodities using ecosystem services directly or indirectly would be much greater... As natural capital and ecosystem services become more stressed and more "scarce" in the future, we can only expect their value to increase. If significant, irreversible thresholds are passed for irreplaceable ecosystem services, their value may quickly jump to infinity.
Bottom Line: Just because nature is "free" doesn't mean its worthless.

Anything but water

  • Organic does NOT require more land for production: "Organic dairy farms milking Jersey cows require an annual average 3.8 acres of land compared to 4.9 acres on high-production conventional farms." Read the report for that and much more (GHGs, meat and milk production, cow quality of life, etc.). This Swiss paper, in contrast, concludes that organic farming uses more land more sustainably (conventional farming uses many non-renewable inputs). I'm going to stop following this debate.

  • Speaking of food, I just read about Order 81, which Bremer implemented before he left Iraq in 2004. Order 81 may prohibit Iraqi farmers from using any seeds that are NOT licensed as intellectual property. In other words, only GMO and hybrid seeds can be used. Who gains? US companies like Monsanto that sell these seeds. I predict that Monsanto et al. will be reviled and Order 81 will be stricken from the Iraqi constitution. Pretty stupid way to try to corner the market.

  • Oh those spammers: "What's your birth date, place and time? I'm an astrologer and like to have the charts of the ... shakers n movers of our times." Since I am REALLY important, I also included my credit card number :)

  • Back to business as usual: "Senate Republicans' ban on earmarks, money included in a bill by a lawmaker to benefit a home-state project or interest, was short-lived. Only three days after GOP senators and senators-elect renounced earmarks, Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, got himself a whopping $200 million to settle an Arizona Indian tribe's water rights claim against the government." [more about politics than water rights, yeah?]

  • Krugman is right: the Irish government was wrong to bail out bank creditors with taxpayer money. Ironically, Ireland's fiscal implosion means that water will no longer be free. I'd call that a regressive policy, but it's a good idea to at least recover water delivery costs.

15 December 2010

Whoops! Not spam comments

I just found three long comments that were (automatically) misfiled under spam. They're published. Sorry!

Flood zones in the Netherlands

I got my safety margins wrong in the post below. The range is from one in 1,250 to 1 in 10,000 years. This map (via TR) shows the flood zones:

Living below sea level

About 60 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level, which means that the Dutch are pretty good at building dikes to protect polders from flooding.* The photo at right illustrates how Amsterdam's Schiphol airport is below water level.**

As part of that effort, the Dutch need to have accurate measurements of land levels, for planning roads and rails, for spotting weak points, and for monitoring changes in land and sea levels.

The key to accurate measurements is to maintain a base reference point of "zero" to which all other points can be compared.** That point -- known as the Normaal Amsterdams Peil (NAP) or Amsterdam Ordnance Datum -- is in Amsterdam's City Hall (the old one is under the pavement in the Dam).

So I went for a visit. The small brass hub benchmarking NAP is on top of a stone column driven into stable bedrock (maybe 20m down) that is not subsiding. The Germans (!) adopted the NAP baseline in the 19th century. Now it's used throughout Europe.

As a comparison, the small exhibit also shows the scale of the NAP+4.5m storm surge that inundated Zeeland in 1953 and flooded many inhabited areas; nearly 2,000 people died. (The photo at right shows the column of water that rises to 4.5m, to show visitors how that much water would flood the ground floor of City Hall.) That storm convinced the Dutch to embark on a massive Delta Works that took about 50 years to build (it was completed this year). The main feature of the Delta works is a progressive system of allowing water to spread on less valuable land (e.g., farms) to protect more valuable land (e.g., urban areas). The works are calibrated to allow flooding in varying frequencies, from 1-in-250 1-in-1,250 years [see post above] to 1-in-10,000 years.

I find it interesting that the Dutch are planning the next stage of protection -- from rising sea level and higher river discharges -- as a result of Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. Americans have not responded with anything like the same enthusiasm. Rebuilt levies around New Orleans are designed for 1-in-100 year floods (skeptics say they are not even that strong). Remember that Katrina was an "1-in-400 year storm," but 4 other 20th century Atlantic hurricanes were bigger. (We need some bookies to recalibrate these probabilities.)

Bottom Line: You can't know where you're going until you know where you are. The Dutch are good at both.

* That's also why so many Dutch engineers are working on programs to rebuild New Orleans and the protect Sacramento Delta; the ones I've spoken to are flabbergasted at Americans inability to grasp the size of the task -- politically, socially and financially -- in terms of moving ahead.

** This point is not actually "sea level," but a reference point relevant to staying dry during high tides and storm surges.

14 December 2010

Deceptive numbers

The New Yorker has a fascinating article [$] on scientific method that asks a basic question: Why do the statistically significant results in pathbreaking publications disappear when studies are repeated by the same scientists using the same protocols? The simple answer is "reversion to the mean." Since studies with exceptional results get published while studies that find nothing do not. This can happen when results are indeed exceptional ("we discovered that Prozac makes you happy") or because a trial -- even a double-blind trial with a large sample size seemed exceptional when it was really just chance ("Prozac made this group happy, so let's approve it as a drug even though it will not make other groups of people happy"). These are NOT experiments in the social sciences (which are really hard to do well), as much as medicine, biology, zoology, etc. The implications are enormous: We may be making policies and regulations that are based on statistical flukes, not on the real world.

"The extraordinary implication... is that a lot of extraordinary scientific data are nothing but noise... Just because an idea is true doesn't mean it can be proved, and just because an idea can be proved doesn't mean it's true."

Bottom Line: Buyer beware. Useful solutions are likely to come from techniques that are hundreds of years old, not the results of a few double-blind trials.

Speed blogging

  • Gary Libecap (UCSB) has an excellent new paper [pdf] on water policy in the western US. I recommend that you complement this reference with the La Nina drought tracker for AZ and NM (Is there one for CA et al?). While you're at it, check out the Africa Water Atlas... "a visual account of Africa's endowment and use of water resources, revealed through 224 maps and 104 satellite images as well as some 500 graphics and hundreds of compelling photos."

  • Speaking of Africa, the Economist notes that the Sahel may be experiencing greater variation of climate -- more rain and floods interspersed with more heat and droughts. How are people responding to crop failures? They are relying more on food aid. How are donors responding? By sending more food. "Donors are more willing to stump up cash for dramatic emergencies than for prevention, where success is harder to measure. `This is more expensive but more sexy... Donors like to see impact.'" Seems like they are feeding Sahelians like they feed lab rats.

  • Join the Agricultural Wetland Research Network!

  • Bob Williams drops in "Enron" as an excuse to avoid water markets; then he pretends that water trades "privatize" water that's already owned -- via water rights. DOUBLE FAIL.

  • EPA fails to get ahead of lead in the water, but the nutso-wing of the blogosphere is more interested in the possibility that lithium will be added to the water. (They agree with themselves here.) They need more Soma reality in their water.
H/T to Fleck.

13 December 2010

Water is heavy

Watch the roof of the Metrodome (Minneapolis, MN) collapse:

Monday funnies

My dad sent this Johnny Carson classic on politicians and their lies:

Search is broken

If you want to search old posts, please use the google search on the right sidebar. The one on top left doesn't work. Damn.

Good report, bad report

Bad news first: Food and Water Watch has a new "briefing" called Priceless: The Market Myth of Water Pricing Reform. I put briefing in quotes because this propaganda hackjob...
  1. Uses selective quotations of academic articles that are cut and pasted to create a quasi-scientific impression that FWW is doing analysis when they are really rationalizing a foregone conclusion.
  2. Is full of false assumptions attributed to FWW's non-existent, straw-men opponents. For example, FWW says "Water pricing reform alone is no panacea for America’s water-management challenges...Water is essential to life; commodifying access to water treads on the basic human right to water." These words are misleading. First, nobody claims that water pricing alone will solve water-management challenges. Second, SOME water is essential to life but the rest of the water (even freshwater) CAN be commodified -- as is true in Australia and Chile -- without fear of killing thousands.
  3. Confounds water uses (8 percent goes to household use, so we can't look at that) with reforms (lots of water is lost in leaky pipes, so we have to repair them) in an attempt to eat their cake and have it.
  4. Spends 20 pages (and MY time) on hand waving towards their old idea: spend more money on public water infrastructure.
Even though I agree with FWW's stated aims (let's manage water well, to maximize social benefits), I am appalled by their biased distortions of alternative ideas of how to address mismanagement.

Now, the good news is that the CEO Water Mandate (a joint project of the UN Global Compact and Pacific Institute) has put out an excellent Guide to Responsible Business Engagement with Water Policy [PDF]. Here's why:
It is difficult for companies to mitigate water-related business risks if they only look internally; many risks stem from external factors, such as local environmental conditions and public water policy and management. Among many other roles, water policy sets out how water use is prioritized and how allocation decisions are made in the face of limited supplies, establishes water prices, sets quality standards and safeguard measures to control pollution, and builds and maintains the infrastructure that delivers water services. Even if “formal” public water policy is adequate on paper, in practice, it can suffer from low levels of priority and funding and a lack of implementation and enforcement. These conditions, in turn, can exacerbate water scarcity, pollution, and infrastructure problems, creating or amplifying social, environmental, economic, and business risks. These issues are of particular concern in emerging economies and developing countries, where public institutions often lack adequate resources and impoverished communities and sensitive ecosystems are highly vulnerable to the consequences of unsustainable water management practices.

[snip]

This Guide emphasizes that the management of water remains a governmental mandate and that responsible engagement requires that private-sector actions align with public policy objectives. The Guide further recognizes that companies will face water management regimes along a broad continuum from highly functional to dysfunctional and that company decisions related to the scope, nature, and degree of engagement must vary accordingly.
Bottom Line: Ignore the rubbish from FWW; read the more-accurate, more-thoughtful analysis of failure and solutions from the CEO Water Mandate.

HT to WH

11 December 2010

Flashback: 5 -- 11 Dec

Enjoy a few posts from a year ago that are too good to forget...

BEST: Global issues: Climategate: A PR Disaster yes, but only for people that did not believe in it anyway, which leads us to... The global water crisis is a self-inflicted wound, but failure in Copenhagen was inflicted by the US and China. Any progress in Cancun?

Conflict over water or water as a weapon? The latter.

BEST: Grades don't matter. Really. Tom Birmingham of Westlands -- 5 hrs of audio discussion with him.

Prius vs. BMW -- BMW still winning...

BEST: Blowing smoke up our tunnel? Would the Peripheral Tunnel only cost $11 billion? Speaking of infrastructure, Carlsbad's perfect storm of incompetence? Don't trust these guys with spending your money on a desal plant.

10 December 2010

Visualizing water in California

Nathan Weyland is doing a photo project on water in California. His site says:
Two thirds of the state is a desert, transformed into an agriculture Eden and urban playground by the greatest public engineering works, in scale and number, the world has seen. Consequences of our massive remaking of the landscape include: A stable, domestic food supply, a vast agricultural economy, damned streams, depleted fisheries, and endangered species. This essay, which is still in progress, looks to capture this duality and provide a visual portrait of the various entrenched interests.
He's asking for two things:
  1. Do you have any photo ideas or locations that he should shoot? Comment or email him.
  2. Do you have data or background on any of the photos below that will give them life?

(1) A tree rises from Indian Valley Reservoir. Lake County CA

09 December 2010

Comment on the UN's water development report!

United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR4) is open for public comment here.

The WWDR4, which will be launched in March 2012 during the 6th World Water Forum, consists of 3 modules: Module 1 addresses the current status and possible futures of the water resources, Module 2 covers the overarching theme of the Report, “managing water under conditions of uncertainty and risk and Module 3 constitutes the knowledge base and includes regional and thematic reports as well as indicators and data. Module 3, prepared by UN agencies making up UN-Water, won’t be subject to public consultation (see the structure of the Report).

We would appreciate your reviewing at least those sections of the report of most interest to you. Please draw to our attention any errors of fact and indicate areas that you feel should be strengthened. We welcome contributions to the report in the form of text or boxes that reinforce the messages or provide examples of good practice. Please indicate in your response what you could contribute.

Users should pay

ITT (an infrastructure company) reports "that a majority of the American public wants a reform to the nation’s aging infrastructure..." 80 percent say the government should spend more money on infrastructure (with ITT!) but only 60 percent say that they are willing to pay more (the other 20% want others to pay, I reckon).

Hey folks! You want more water infrastructure? You gotta pay for it!

California water users, meanwhile, are protesting the SWRCB fee on water permits. They say that it's a tax subject to legislative approval; SWRCB says it's a fee "for free water."

Hey folks! It's free water. Pay the fee!

Better yet, pay back all past fees to users, take back the rights, and auction them to the highest bidders. Time to raise some money for this valuable resource to (1) ensure that it goes to valuable uses and (2) raise revenue for our bankrupt government.

Bottom Line: People are willing to pay for valuable water, so charge them. Don't use other people's money to cover costs or give it away for free!

08 December 2010

The World's Going to Hell, but...

Tell everyone what you're happy about at my new blog.

(I needed a little more good news...)

Gasland -- The Review

[I guess that Rachel Carson's work is not yet done...]

JD insisted that I watch this documentary about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the US. (Aquadoc's detailed summary of the film and review is here; also see wikipedia.)

In the film, Josh Fox travels in areas that have "experienced" fracking for years, collecting stories and data about damage to the environment and people's health that result from fracking in shale formations. (The most appalling scenes in the movie are where industry representatives try to deny that they have anything to do with polluted surface and ground water, using the old "those claims are over-stated" and "we have no evidence" excuses to cover up their activities.)


Here are a few of my thoughts:
  • Dick Cheney's secret energy taskforce was directly responsible for the legislation that exempted fracking from regulation under the clean water act. (Iraq appears to have been a hope for the energy folks, but that invasion was more about neoconservative's pipedreams of democracy, I think.)
  • Some environmental regulators (from PA and NY, e.g.) appear to think that their job is to protect the energy industry, not the environment.*
  • Halliburton (the company that admits it was using weak concrete on the Deep Horizon wellhead) does a lot of fracking work. Cheney is also its ex-CEO (and apparently, he's being sought by Interpol for bribery in Nigeria). Bad news.
  • Fourteen percent of Americans get their water from wells; these people often live in rural areas where fracking happens. These people are the ones losing their water supplies. It's ironic (and sad) to me that these stereotypical pro-fossil fuel Republicans are getting screwed by Republicans and the fossil fuel industry.
  • Companies that take responsibility for polluted groundwater often provide drinking water. This does nothing to replace polluted water that cannot be used (safely) for livestock, irrigation, etc.
  • The famous "flaming tap water" scenes in the movie may be caused by methane instead of natural gas.**
  • The FRAC Act to close the "Halliburton loophole" by requiring that chemicals used in fracking be disclosed and that fracking operations comply with the safe water drinking act is still stuck in Congress.
But I have three big conclusions from this film:

First, the problem with fracking is not necessarily the chemicals that are injected underground. Those may or may not be dangerous. The problem is how the fracturing allows ANYTHING to mix with groundwater -- polluting it with **methane, natural gas, arsnic or any other substance that was previously isolated from the aquifer. It's in this sense that fracking operations may be causing the most damage.***

Second, the infrastructure for moving natural gas is responsible for significant pollution (e.g.,  Dallas-Ft. Worth has the same pollution from pipes and compressors as ALL the auto traffic in the area.) -- this pollution should be added to the pollution from production AND consumption to get the REAL cost of pollution from "clean" natural gas.

Third, I blame (like with the BP spill) inadequate regulation drafted by corrupt politicians. The 2005 energy bill gave frackers the exemption from clean water laws; citizens are not allowed to sue (under common law) for damage to their water supplies when companies "comply with the law." Yes, of course the companies are responsible for pulling the trigger -- in running operations that rape the earth and destroy the environment and health of the people, plants and animals in the area -- but those companies were given the gun and permission to fire by politicians. It is in this sense that Dick Cheney (with help) is the equivalent to Stalin, Mao or Hitler -- willing to sacrifice "his people" for his selfish pursuit of glory, money, etc.

Bottom Line: I give this film FOUR STARS for highlighting the cost of "All-American Clean Natural Gas"
* NY's legislature put a moratorium on fracking last week. That's good news for NYC's drinking water.

*** In recent news (via aquadoc), farmers in Wyoming (Cheney's home state and location of many fracking operations) are selling more of their groundwater to oil companies. The state engineer is approving these sales, but they are going to deplete groundwater more quickly (because water is being used more rapidly AND not recharging aquifers) and probably result in more polluted water (via return flows from fracking, produced water, etc.)

07 December 2010

Vegas water-energy consumption

In this post, I quoted this article that said "The amount of electricity used to move and treat water in Southern Nevada annually is enough to power the entire valley several times over." I was going to use this in my book, but fact checking revealed that only 6.5 percent of total electricity consumption in Las Vegas goes to processing and pumping water, or about 1.02 TWh [pdf] over 14.3 TWh.

Bottom Line: Vegas uses a lot of energy, but most of it is NOT for water.

Technical problems

My urls got all screwed up in some way.

www.aguanomics.com (and related post links) works

[no www] aguanomics.com (and related post links) do NOT work (as of now)

Sorry!

Silent Spring -- The Review

Holy cow. What a well-written book. I can totally understand how Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) jump-started the modern environmental movement.

The 300 page book starts and ends with hopeful fables of a healthy environment full of vibrant flora and fauna. The middle 15 chapters document, in painful detail, the damage that synthetic chemicals inflict on life. The book is famous for exposing the dangers of DDT (and aldrin and heptachlor), but I was shocked and angered by the bigger problem: All knowing bureaucrats over-applying chemicals in places that do not need them, to fight bugs that may not be present, without a clue of the collateral damage that they are causing.

Yes, we're talking about the USDA (and various government "landscaping" bureaucracies).

I took a few notes while reading the book:
  • Carson started speaking out about DDT in 1945. It was banned in the US in response to her book.
  • She too respected, intelligent and careful to ignore. She died in 1964, of cancer.*
  • DDT went everywhere, even hundreds of kilometers from where it was sprayed.
  • She wrote, consistently, about the need to be careful about using chemicals and pesticides. She did not advocate bans on chemicals, per se.**
  • Monsanto appears as the face of evil -- as they have recently, twice, thrice.
  • Western Sagebrush was labeled a "weed" and sprayed with herbicides, with massive bad results.
  • Same thing in Maine and Michigan, where they devastated thousands of acres of ALL life, by overspraying for insect populations that were NOT out of control. Spraying frequently led to massive rebounds and much more damage, often by killing predator and competator species.
  • California rice growers sprayed their fields. Local insects, fish and migratory birds died.
  • Fisheries (salmon, trout, bass, etc.) were destroyed (by direct damage and starvation for lack of insect food), but people were also harmed by eating fish that had bioaccumulated DDT and related chemicals.
  • The USDA's campaign against the fire ant is a case-study in the chemical abuse, money waste, and massive environmental destruction [p. 171]:
    In 1959... the Agriculture Department offered the chemicals free to Texas landowners who would sign a release absolving federal, state and local governments of responsibility for damage. In the same year, the State of Alabama, alarmed and angry at the damage done by the chemicals, refused to appropriate further funds to the project. One of its officials characterized the whole program as "ill advised, hastily conceived, poorly planned, and a glaring example of riding roughshod over the responsibilities of other public and private agencies."
    [USDA incompetence made me want to throw the book across the room at this point. I feel the same about corn ethanol. I bet politicians were involved...]
  • Many entomologists (bug scientists) worked for chemical companies, either on staff or at universities, because these companies funded their research. Not surprisingly, these "professionals" supported chemical control of insects.
A big thought: Most farmers will tell you that they minimize the volume of chemicals (and fertilizer) that they apply to their land, because they do not want to waste money and time on over-application. It's thus important (and sad) to note that the biggest abusers of chemicals in Silent Spring are bureaucrats whose jobs dictate that they should "do something" with other people's money (OPM!) and homeowners who do not understand the dangers of the chemicals they use and who think that "some is good, so more is better" when applying them to their yards. Both groups are convinced to buy and use by salesmen and advertising;*** both groups have little idea of how effective chemicals are (they do not watch yields); and both groups do not suffer the consequences from over-use of chemicals. Bureaucrats apply them to other people's land; homeowners just wash excess into storm drains and distant environments. Farmers may be willing to chemically sterilize their land, but at least they experience most of the costs and benefits of those actions.

She concludes with [p. 297]:
The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from the Stone age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.
Bottom Line: FIVE STARS. Be careful with poisons; they can kill you and everything that you love.

* Scientists suggest that cancer is purely man-made, as in the Egyptians -- old Egyptians -- didn't have it. Mukherjee claims that it's been with us for a long time, but his book summarizes ancient references to "tumors" that may not be cancerous.

** Protecting rainforests and draining hatching sites is more effective controlling mosquitoes (malaria) than DDT.

*** My favorite is pine-scented bug killer. I guess you can spray it on your kids too!

06 December 2010

Energy water webinar tomorrow

The Union of Concerned Scientists and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) is holding a webinar on The Energy and Water Collision – 10 Things You Should Know.

You’ll hear about intriguing connections, dangerous risks, and potential solutions to the energy-water collision as UCS staff share early findings from our three-year Energy and Water in a Warming World initiative (EW3). John Rogers and Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analysts with UCS and co-managers of EW3, will present along with SACE’s high risk energy choices program director, Sara Barczak.

Register here.

Monday funnies

Dilbert teaches us about strategic standard-breaking (one reason I hate MS's .docx extension):

More corruption in the Central Valley

The Congress has appropriated $900 million for high speed rail between Borden and Corcoran. Why choose these giant metropolises?* Perhaps because Fresno is between them! Yes, $900 million** will get you from north of Fresno to south of Fresno in 15 minutes!

No, that's not it. Perhaps because Jim Costa represents the area included in Corcoran, and he only won with 51.2% of the vote? Luckily, he outspent his opponent (Vidak-R) by over 2:1, with 87% of his money coming from "big donors," many of them in food processing, law and real estate.

Or maybe because the train tracks will go through Boswell land. That company was recently talked up by an analyst (who owns some shares), and "Boswell's land (in the middle of the former Tulare Lake bed) is getting too impaired to grow anything," so perhaps Mr Costa is delivering some nice fat, smelly pork to his home-builder-farmer-spectator-donor friends?

I hope that we can rule out Dennis Cardoza (Madera), who calls it a "gross misuse" of taxpayer funds.**

The one thing I do know is that after they burn $900 million (**plus the other $2.5 billion required to get the 56 miles in service) in this rail to nowhere: Lots of people are going to say "we can't stop now!"

...and then who's going to pay the other $40 billion?

Bottom Line: Stupid projects are stupid projects, even when they are subsidized with other people's money. Give the money back to the feds, leave farm land as farm land, punish corruption, and stop wasting our money and time stimulating stupid ideas.
* Half of Corcoran's 26,000-strong population is in prison; Borden is too small to have a wikipedia entry; nearby Madera has a population of 56,000 or so.

** Although he appears to have voted for it before he decided he didn't want it. That's the problem with these huge bills that cover hundreds of topics: too many special interests get squeezed in.