28 January 2011

People choose their paths

Peter Gleick emailed me a response to a recent post (Craig Wilson is wrong about ag water use), and it brings up some interesting issues, which I comment on by [number]:

Your post from yesterday borders on dishonest and ad hominem, though that does seem to be a trend in your blogging now.

"The Pacific Institute's flawed reports (and Peter Gleick)..."? [1] And then you go on to misrepresent our actual reports, which either you don't read, or you choose to misinterpret.

We are far more explicit, and accurate, about the definitions of consumptive versus non-consumptive, beneficial versus non-beneficial, efficiency versus conservation than practically anyone else. We understand far better (apparently) than you, the distinctions and advantages and disadvantages of saving different kinds of water. You apparently do not understand how drip irrigation actually works and when and how it saves water -- having bought into the arguments of farm lobbyists that it doesn't save water.[2] (How ironic: I was just on a panel with a top representative from Westlands on Saturday who described the success their farmers had had in using drip on Pima cotton, reducing water use 30% and increasing yields 30%. Farmers get it. You still don't.) You say we argue for "subsidizing" farmers and then "cite" your own false and misleading blog from last year rather than our report, which is far more sophisticated in its financial arguments, not to mention comprehensive in the tools we recommend.[3]

I realize the only tool you consider worth using, talking about, or forcing on water users is full-cost pricing and markets.[4] But don't misrepresent facts and other points of view when doing so.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick
President, Pacific Institute
Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
MacArthur Fellow

[1] I referred to both Peter and PI because they were both quoted in the articles. Taugher's article says:
Wilson will argue Wednesday that farmers who use water inefficiently are violating the constitution's requirement that its use be "reasonable."

His recommendations, if adopted, would mark the first time the doctrine has been applied so broadly.

"It's been taboo," said Peter Gleick, a noted water expert and president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research organization based in Oakland. "No one has wanted to step up and say, 'This is not a reasonable or beneficial use of water.' "

Gleick added: "We don't have enough water anymore to be able to avoid that conversation."
And just how will that conversation occur? Who participates? Who decides what's "reasonable"? Can a farmer claim that flood irrigation is reasonable because it makes him happy? What if he floods the adjacent wetlands? We all know that the definition of reasonable and beneficial has been changing over the years, but its basic nature is the same: use that makes people happy.  The Pacific Institute's emphasis on measurement and technology is helpful when we need to know numbers, but these numbers are irrelevant compared to the process of deciding water use. As I've written many times (and discuss at length in my book), people have personal subjective opinions on different water allocations. A political mechanism for deciding allocation is not going to please everyone. That's why I recommend a market allocation of water.

[2] Of course drip doesn't "save" water. The main question is where "wasted" water goes. In some places (Westlands, IID, Israel), it's likely to evaporate. In others, wasted water returns to the groundwater or other surface flows. The problem with PI's report (and especially the way that it's been presented and interpreted to policy makers) is that high efficiency irrigation is presented as the solution across California. And Wilson is advocating rulings and regulation on water use technologies, as if outsiders know what type of irrigation farmers should be doing. Westlands is a heavy user of high efficiency because farmers there pay about $200/af for water. Drip makes sense to them, just as it does not make sense for IID farmers who pay $20/af. (That's not to say that I do not advocate ways to move water from places like IID to places like Westlands!)

[3] The executive summary of PI's report says:
The report Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future shows that California agriculture can flourish despite diminishing water supply and future uncertainty from climate change, but it will require great strides in increasing the water efficiency of the agricultural sector.

Many farmers and irrigation districts have already been making water-use efficiency improvements. Yet the analysis estimates that potential water savings of 4.5 - 6 million acre-feet each year can be achieved by expanding the use of efficient irrigation technologies and management practices... ["practices" are later defined as]... including efficient irrigation technologies, improved irrigation scheduling, rainwater collection, integrated groundwater management, and measures that enhance soil moisture retention.
So the tools recommended in the report, the tools that everyone reads about and understands immediately, are technological and engineering techniques to get more crop per drop. There's no mention of the incentives to use less water or use these tools. Once again, the Pacific Institute demonstrates a mastery of measurement and technology while ignoring failing to integrate management practices that include incentives, decisions, cooperation, coordination and so on.

And that gets us to [4], where Peter (apparently not a close reader of this blog) misses three main points that I often make here:
  1. I do not advocate "force" (a la Delta water master) for reforming agricultural water allocations. I recommend all-in-auctions for those, within self-governing irrigation districts.
  2. For urban water supplies (not the topic here, except that Peter mentions it), I certainly do recommend that water managers "force" customers to pay prices that reflect scarcity (some for free, pay for more). Full cost pricing is useful for paying the bills but it does not prevent shortages.
  3. As an economist, I am concerned with incentives. With water, that means the incentive to use more or less water. In the debate over means of reducing shortage, Peter advocates [IMO] the "soft path" of reducing demand though water conservation measures -- as opposed to the "hard path" of building infrastructure to increase supply. So let's say that there's a fork in the road, one leading to a soft path and one leading to a hard path. Peter argues that people should take the soft path, but that doesn't mean that people will take that path. I am interested in the incentives for going hard or soft, and I go beyond economics, to politics, sociology and psychology, to understand the institutions that affect our decisions at that fork and how we make decisions at that fork.
A few years ago, I created a tag for this blog, economics vs engineering, to highlight the difference between mechanistic solutions that assume "just adopt this technology" answers and political-economic solutions that address social or political compromise or allow people to choose custom solutions. That's why I advocate water markets for agricultural water: they give farmers the option to sell water instead of using it. Some farmers may fallow land to sell water (the case at PVID); other farmers may adopt technology to reduce their consumption, to save money, or sell their surplus (a solution that often goes wrong due to our habit of quantifying rights in terms of diversions, not consumption; cf lining of the All American Canal )

Although the Pacific Institute's report may mention water prices or markets (or financial arguments that are more about accounting than economics), it's clear to me that its main emphasis, point and impact has been to advocate technological, soft path, fixes that have little economic justification and require political force to foist onto farmers.

Bottom Line: Engineering and numeric calculations mean nothing without the economic incentive and political freedom to change water use decisions.


  1. Oen of the things that PI does not understand is that you can't get blood from a stone. Forcing a business to do somehting uneconomic but broadly laudable can work if the costs are relatively modest (such as requiring worker safety equipment). If mandates present an overwhelming economic or operational burden (drip irrigation on pasture, anyone?) the regulators are simply de facto outlawing something that they can not attack de jure. Things like the 55mph speed limit and the 21 year old drinking age were imposed this way (by withholding highway funds). The ET of the principal crops in California for each production region is pretty well understood. Applying this amount of water, plus some provision for soil types, leaching, and carriage, is pretty clearly within the meaning of "beneficial use". The amount of water that could be freed up from conservation alone is far smaller than PI imagines, and would be available in such small and diffuse amounts that nobody would notice.
    When water is priced correctly, it will flow to the most valuable use. When water is priced correctly, it will make sense to improve conveyance and storage systems to make them more efficient and environmentally sensitive. The self appointed experts, Canute-like, can jump up and down mandating stuff, with little effect except economic harm to their enemies.

  2. Funny story. On the same day as this post, The Oil Drum mentioned a new article by Peter regarding the term "peak water":

    The concept is so important and relevant that The New York Times chose the term "peak water" as one of its 33 "Words of the Year" for 2010 (along with "refudiate," "top kill," and "vuvuzela"), a term that a colleague and I defined in a new research paper in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (available here).

    I misread this as claiming that they had coined the term "peak water" which, combined with the NYT name-drop, gave me pause. While checking up on that (turns out that his book from late 2008 was preceded by Bill McKibben in late 2005, Richard Heinberg in 2007, and perhaps others, although he still pops up a lot on Google), I found that the first paragraphs of the "peak water" article on Wikipedia read like the abstract of the paper, which is no coincidence:

    The clearest definitions of the term were laid out in a 2010 peer-reviewed article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan.

    In what may yet be a coincidence (I hope), Peter and the mystery contributor of the essence of the paragraphs in question both hail from Oakland. Small world... :)

  3. fucking awesome dude. I too have had my rounds with Peter.

    You have to accept that he is the smartest man on the planet ref water, just so long as you also accept that changing the toilets we use will solve all of our water problems - except where they don't use toilets.

  4. Ha ha! Such posers! They have been writing that 'water efficiency' report for years. I can't believe people are still giving them money! What a joke!

  5. When will you finally figure out that you'd be far better off teaming up with Gleick instead of trying to position your self
    as the anti-Gleick? There is a reason he has a column in the SF Chronicle and you're blogging from
    the Netherlands. You could add valid economic arguments to supplement his points, but instead you seem focuses on trying to tear him and his institute down. Makes no sense if you're really trying to influence California water policy.

  6. @DW -- I've offered -- many times -- to work with PI on the economics of water. They've not responded.

    Left with no inside track, all I can do is make sure that their work gets a critical evaluation.

    I am no anti-Gleick. He's just a guy. But his work needs improvement sometimes.

    (I am happy when people point out the weaknesses in my work; I am just interested in good ideas.)

    Oh, and I much prefer working in the Netherlands to blogging in the SF Chron :)

  7. Wow! I'm a little timid to jump in on this one, but feel inclined to recognize the continuous misunderstanding of the relationship between efficiency and consumptive use. Taken from the email, you can't reduce water use 30% and have a 30% increase in yield. Think about it. You can reduce diverted volume 30%, but this isn't consumptive water use. Yield is. If you increase your yield, you've increased you consumptive water use.

    Here's my cash analogy that David shared previously. http://activelymovingwater.com/?p=48

  8. Rainbow Water Coalition29 January, 2011 23:50

    Dr. DZ:

    A little *Water Diplomacy* goes a long way:


    One of the best discussions, responses, commentaries that I observed yet on Aguanomics, but do lighten up a little. It is the Dutch way.

  9. 30% yield increase means about 30% increase in crop transpiration i.e. consumptive water use. It seems that PG made a mistake with the sign in the efficiency calculation, isn´t it?

  10. Seems that the discussion has ended yet, but hope to revive it with a magnificent paper which adds a lot to this thread I think. Unfortunately the full article is only accessible for those that work on scientific institutes.

    Bottomline: basin-scale water use is likely to increase as a result of water conservation policies and subsidies aiming at more efficient irrigation techniques, because in many basins return flows form an important source of downstream water supply

    Link: http://www.pnas.org/content/105/47/18215.abstract


Spam will be deleted. Comments on older posts must be approved.
If you're having problems posting, email your comment to me