10 Jan 2011

Learning from the Dutch

I've often wondered if it's possible to improve on water management in the US (from fracking to Atlanta to the Sac Delta to New Orleans to...). I've taken a lot of inspiration from water markets in Australia, but those merely need a decent set of rules to allow self-interested farmers to trade with each other.

But what about public infrastructure projects that help one region but tax everyone? What about projects that take 50 years to implement? What about projects that take climate change into consideration?

Well, the Dutch face all those issues. They assembled a Delta Commission to "plan the future." The Commission's 2008 report [pdf] provides a national roadmap for managing water for the next 50+ years.

Read the report (the link is to the full English version) to get lots of great detail (or watch the movie), but keep these important points in mind:
  • The number one goal is public safety (from floods and water contamination). Land values and environment come second (no "co-equal goals" confusion).

  • The Dutch assign differing cost-benefit ratios, depending on the area at risk. This helps prioritize investments to, e.g., protect Rotterdam over farm fields.

  • Nothing happens until there's broad public support for long-term, heavy investments. Historic investments have averaged 2-5% of GDP; the Delta Commission's recommendations will cost about 0.5% of GDP ($1 billion/year) for the next 100 years. Funding happens across generations because benefits will accrue across them. Such a funding model (paired with gradual investments) means that it's possible to start NOW, but change path if the future is different.
It's a report like this that makes me happy to work in Holland (more details on the project soon).

Bottom Line: American bureaucrats and politicians should use this report as a reference of "how it's done," to give an indication of how well or poorly we are addressing our water management problems.


Wes said...

David, I really agree with the methodology chosen by the Dutch. However, reading the report leads me off on several additional thought experiments:
- how will even the Dutch cope with the infrastructure demands arising from underestimating the pace of sea level rise?
- this seems to work well as a large scale public project. How might that work with a hodgepodge of public / private entities such as we have here? Might this not become yet another rationale for the argument against privatization?
- can Californians ever agree on the risk assessment that so obviously favors urban use over agricultural use?

I don't have the answers, just the questions.

David Zetland said...

@Wes -- they looked at the range of projections and took the worst case scenario (fastest highest rise), but they also have a process for updating standards if events get worse.

There are both private and public components in this project. The public ones are obvious; most of the private action is voluntary (build according to these well-publicized scenarios) but there are also zoning laws to push development out of vulnerable areas.

Californians need to decide if they value houses over farmland.

I am sure that others have their answers too :)

Anonymous said...


NL GDP is 770 billion, and since it is prob gonna be less than 1 billion the investment will be 0,1% of gdp and not 0,5...


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