28 February 2011

Looking for a water lawyer in Southern California?

Trevor Bisset (Pomona College '10) writes:
I am a recent graduate from Pomona College, majored in Environmental Policy Analysis with a focus in water rights conflicts and brownfields remediation. My focus is largely on water conflicts in California, the CO River Compact, and Texas, but am definitely interested in the lessons that international water resource scarcity holds as well.

I have a question - I know this is a shot in the dark, but do you have any advice or leads for an aspiring water lawyer, with a background in both research and sales, who is looking for a vocationally relevant position in Southern California?

This is an ideal job for me -- solving problems at the nexus of economy, regulation/legislation, and environment in a challenging workplace.

In terms of which "side" I'd eventually be on [I asked if he wanted to sue "polluters" or defend them], it's an interesting question. I got into environmental policy thinking I wanted to sue polluters who weren't being held accountable for injury to local stakeholders, help get their issues on the National Priority List for CERCLA consideration, etc. After doing countless case studies, that seems like an uphill battle with little reward, and I have little interest in helping companies shirk responsibility for dumping perchlorate into rural drinking water supplies. I would rather work in-house for a water resource developer, to provide fresh water in accordance with stakeholder interests and environmental standards. Hopefully that clarifies which side I'm on (the safe clean well-managed water resource side).
If you've got any leads for Trevor, then email or call him (650 465 0103).

Monday funnies

From The Economist:
Speaking of dictatorship, I just ran across these:

Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there.
"I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage," says the first.
"I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying," says the second.
"I am here because I got to work on time every day," says the third, "and they charged me with owning a western watch."

Why do secret policemen work in groups of three?
One to read, one to write, and one to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.

Monopoly power

The blogosphere has been chatting about Apple's "greedy" plan to take 30% of the price for apps downloaded from its website to iPads. That's not greed, that's using market power to increase profits.

Customers who buy the iPad have a hard time "sideloading" apps and data onto their $500 toy, so they go to the iTunes store to buy the stuff at the same price as they would pay by surfing the web (Apple requires this pricing policy). Why bother with the fuss, when you can get the app more easily, at the same price? Sure, Apple's strategy means that the price goes up for everyone, but that wrinkle is lost on customers paying $2.99 or $9.99 for something they want.

It's no accident that Apple Inc is worth over $300 billion.

But Apples "market monopoly" has come with keen innovation and clever marketing. Check out how a government monopoly works (from Bruges):


So the Lords of Gruut were given a monopoly on sale of gruut. When hops came along, their monopoly was transferred to the right to tax beer. In Belgium. Reminds me of the how the USPS tried to establish certified email (only $1.70!). Glad that didn't happen!

Bottom Line: Monopolies are better at extracting money from customers than competitive firms. Sometimes monopolies earn that market power (Apple), sometimes they get it from political friends (Lords of Gruut).

26 February 2011

Flashback: 20 -- 26 Feb

One year ago, these were new. Today, they are still relevant:

Macroeconomic bonanza! A Keynes vs. Hayek rap video (!) which explains their different philosophies; useful when reflecting on how a push-the-string stimulus did little for jobs but expanded the money supply by enough to give us yet another bubble.

Water Chat with Lin Crase -- Learn about the similarities between CA and Australia. Aussie beer accountingOTOH, is about round numbers :)

Reporters doing a good job -- Yes, jobs were lost in Westlands, but there's the rest of the State to notice as well. Too often reporters (and politicians and lobbyists) pay attention to the sore thumb instead of the whole body. (That's a problem when they take blood from elsewhere for that thumb.) But sometimes Politicians do a good job. In San Diego, they were asking how to cut costs, instead of raising fees, but this year they decided to raise rates and sue MWD for "being too expensive."

Energy pricing bleg -- still not sure where energy utilities pay for water extraction/consumption. In NL, they are charged for net extractions, which may cost them nothing.

25 February 2011

Imperial Valley's harvest of propaganda

Addendum: Seems like there's a problem with reports that give data on shipping/processing location compared to area where the food is grown. See the comments for more -- esp. my point on why data will not matter if water is allocated in markets, instead of a political process.
DH was also interested in my question of a few weeks ago: Does IID produce 80% of US winter veggies?.*

He sent the following email:
I googled ag production for the US just to get a ballpark number — $171 Billion in annual production. So 80% would have to be a pretty big number — even if it was only fresh winter veggies…

Next I went to Imperial County’s Crop and Livestock Report [pdf] (as mentioned in ‘CRG’s’ comment), which states that IID produces a total of $1.45 billion in crops.

So IID produces about $1.5 Billion a year, similar to Westlands. Already I’m getting suspicious- that’s a pretty small percent of the $171 billion US total to produce 80 % of anything!

Next I decided to check out USDA’s website. I wanted to compare apples with apples (so to speak) – in this case IID production against total US production [pdf] of “vegetable and melon crops” for 2008. So we get:

IID USA Share
Value: $675 mil $10,414 mil 6.4%
Acres: 117,000 1,733,000 6.7%

So IID has no more than 7% of the total production value and about 7% of the total acreage. There's NO WAY that they produce 80% of the winter veggies (three months!) unless I am missing something. Also, IID uses about the same acreage to produce a given amount of production as the US on the whole -- they don’t appear to be inordinately productive as some of the comments inferred.
DH makes some good points, but I wanted to double-check, so I went to the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Shipments report for 2009 [PDF], and I looked at every crop listed for "California -- Imperial Valley." Without exception, for every crop in every month and every year, Imperial Valley is not the single largest producer (making 80% impossible), but often quite a small producer.**

Imperial Valley's largest crop, by value, is lettuce. So how about lettuce? Imperial produces 1,720 x 100,000 pound units of iceberg lettuce. That's a lot, but Arizona produces 7,790 units and the CA-Central Valley produces 17,425 units. What about January? In IID's biggest producing month, it's 489 units. Arizona? 1,606 units. Processed and Romaine lettuce are the same.

Not content with that, I went to the USDA's report on California Agricultural Statistics for 2009 [PDF] and discovered that Imperial is 10th in production among California counties. What about individual crops? According to country reports (p. 2), Imperial's big crops are "Strawberries, Nursery Stock, Lemons, Celery, and Raspberries," but pp 6-8 say that Imperial is California's number one producer of "carrots, corn, alfalfa hay, sugar beets, and wheat." And then there's page 10, which says Imperial's big five crops are "Lettuce, Cattle, Wheat, Alfalfa, and Broccoli." That's a lot of confusion, but broccoli is a fresh winter vegetable. Oh darn. Imperial Co. is the third largest producer.

Bottom Line: Imperial County does not produce 80% of America's winter veggies, and it doesn't look like IID produces a majority of any agricultural product. It may be the number one producer of alfalfa hay (tons per acre per year), but that's not a winter vegetable. IID and Imperial Valley are not a critical or strategic source of food. They are a source of a small share of total US agricultural production.

* Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial Valley are used interchangeably here. IID manages water and power in the IV area, delivering 97% of its water to IV farmers.

** I also emailed Dean and Carlos at IID. They referred me to the county ag agent (whose reports are integrated into California reports) and -- for some reason -- data from Arizona. So, nothing from them to support the 80% claim.

24 February 2011

PPIC Report on California water

I don't intend to read it, but I agree with this part:
PPIC proposes no conservation goal for agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of all the state's water. Farm conservation, they assert, is ineffective in reducing net water demand because the saved water still ends up getting used to grow more crops elsewhere.

Real agricultural water savings come only from fallowing farm land, the authors state, which should be determined by market forces.

Anything but water

H/T to JWT

Water Chat -- Haab and Whitehead

Earlier this week, I talked to Tim Haab and John Whitehead, professors at THE Ohio State University and Appalachian State University, respectively.

Tim and John got their PhDs in the early 90s and started env-econ blog in 2005, for fun and to improve the public's knowledge of environmental economics.*

We discussed how much time they put into blogging (30 min to 2 hrs/day), how blogging affects their research (no) and teaching (yes), their influence on environmental policy (slight) and people's knowledge of environmental economics (better), and why they bother (beer?).

We also talked about how 90 percent of the work in an academic paper goes into convincing 10 percent of readers that the paper makes sense. Those numbers worry me.**

Listen in to our 46 minute conversation (18MB MP3).

Oh, and buy their book (if you can understand the title and have $115): Preference Data for Environmental Valuation: Combining Revealed and Stated Approaches

Bottom Line: It's nice to take time to understand how and why people do similar stuff to you.
* On a related note, the NY Times (via JF) reports that "Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter." That's good news to me, since fewer blogs mean less noise for those of us who are more interested in "meaty" discussions than 140-character updates of what's for dinner.

** No, not because they are incompatible. I worry about impact vs. effort (read this and this on effective scholarly communication).

23 February 2011

Water Shortages are not new

From Google's infinitely interesting ngram site (list of all words used in books since 1800):

Demand goes up and down*

RT asked me this awhile ago:
You might know that Australia has recently been through a horrific drought during which water restrictions that were imposed for a lengthy period and other demand management activities were undertaken. I'm wondering how water demand is likely to recover following the drought.

Will people 'bounce back' to normal demand levels.

Is there any experience from the US that might be relevant?

Are you aware of any papers that have looked at post drought consumption?
I replied with:
So the relevant question is the mix of "demand destruction" vs. its temporary suppression (demand curve shifting in vs sliding up in econ jargon).

This post describes an excellent study where demand dropped to 50% of pre-drought and then bounced back to 60% of pre-drought, once the "crisis" was over.*

So, demand should bounce back, but not by 100% of the drop...

Love to hear any numbers on change in demand. I think that Brisbane got down to 140lcd, but I reckon that's back up again, hmmm?
RT replied:
If you know where I'd get information on the current levels of consumption per household in Santa Barbara please let me know.

In Aus - the bounceback in demand hasn't happened quite how people would expect. Queensland dams have been overflowing but people aren't using much water.

A few reasons I think:
  • Need for water is less when it rains.**
  • Strangely, policy is such that the usage price is now higher than ever
  • Govt has invested so much in convincing people water is precious and should be conserved, and
  • There are some permanent measures that have been undertaken - people have installed rainwater tanks etc
I replied with:
All of those reasons make sense. Demand destruction is meant to be permanent.

According to this [pdf], SB dropped from 165gcd to 90gcd and now they are @ 120gallons/cap/day. So that's 630lcd (!) down 45% and then up 33% (down 28% permanently).

Yes, you may piss your pants @ these numbers, but SB is a VERY rich city in a state where "normal" residential use is 400lcd+
Bottom Line: Demand can go down in a drought, and then it can go back up in shortage. The trick, then, is to send signals of scarcity to make that happen -- and prevent shortages.
* The title of this post unintentionally sounded like Bill O'Reilley's claim that tides prove God's existence (watch on the Colbert Report). Changes in demand do too are the result of people's choices.

** This exchange took place before the current floods in QLD.

22 February 2011

The future of the Middle East

I'm glad to see the dead hands of so many dictators being removed and/or upset, but the next step is going to be important. Here's my advice:
  • Implement freedom of expression, press, religion, business, etc.
  • Reduce government (and the army) to the smallest possible size.
  • Distribute as much wealth (esp. oil revenue) as possible to citizens.
  • Use a broad tax base (e.g., property) without exemptions to fund a broad safety net (e.g., health) that's centrally funded but not centrally-operated.
The key is to minimize the concentration of power and wealth, so that there's less reason for politicians and the military to control people's lives and economic activity. Then maybe they can concentrate on good policies and governance.

Many of the problems in these countries can be traced to corruption related to capturing money; see, e.g., Iran, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Congo, China, and others... Countries without strong central control -- India -- or resource pools -- Turkey -- tend to be less corrupt. Strong institutions (Norway) or lucky dictators (Singapore) can deliver results, but don't bet on it.

Bottom Line: The revolution will succeed when it makes the average person's life better, not if new crooks replace old crooks.

21 February 2011

Monday funnies

What took the internets so long?

Speed blogging

  • House Urged to Cut Back After Bottled-Water Tab Nears $1 Million -- this headline reflects the poor quality of DC tap water, the ability of the rich to opt out of the system, and the use of taxpayer money to do so.

  • Potavida makes a "safe water indicator" for people using U/V for decontamination. It costs $2 and works for 5 years, on many bottles. Get more info at their site.

  • Engineers without Borders has a new blog on Admitting Failure. This post is about failure on a Malawi water project. For NGOs on a less-noble course, Christopher Gasson asks if they (e.g., the water footprint people) are more interested in numbers (e.g., their salaries) than helping poor people. That post is a follow-up on his brilliant critique of useless stakeholders:
    Electricity companies don’t consult all the stakeholders before they put up the price of electricity. Nor do supermarkets worry for a minute about their stakeholders before they put up the price of food. But put up the price of water, and the stakeholders must have their say.
    Also see this week's Economist for the blow up about wasting money ("training conferences") at the Global Fund for Aids, etc.

  • Fleck writes "A new Stockholm Environmental Institute analysis of water supply and demand in the Southwestern United States suggests we’re screwed." Our mysterious correspondent adds: "this level of groundwater overdraft is why I do not believe that there are large quantities of water to be gained from agricultural water conservation."
H/Ts to MF, RM and NT

19 February 2011

Flashback: 13 -- 19 Feb

One year ago, these were new. Today, they are still relevant:

Are you tired of mis-spent stimulus money yet? The article mentioned funds were used to pump groundwater in California's Central Valley. So taxpayers are helping with that billion acre-foot overdraft.

Investigating the Russian Mafia -- The Review -- As the year has passed, Russia's politicians have only moved closer to the mafia. Interesting to see rebellion in the Middle East against similar state-exploitation of citizens.

Are lost "ag" jobs really fishing jobs? The trouble with statistics that group together professions that fight over the same resources (less water for fish, more water for farmers and v.v.)

18 February 2011

Cities as centers of competition

In this review, I said
Why do companies evolve so quickly to give us what we want? Because markets reward those who do the most good (quality goods and services at low prices) for the most people.
Then I read this review of a book praising life in cities, which suggested a clear extension of my comment on market competition, i.e., cities are full of interesting people and innovations delivering the good life to urban residents because the urban market maximizes the rewards to innovation. Buildings, restaurants, clubs, stores and other businesses all compete for residents' attention and money, so they are constantly driven to improve.

Compare that happy result to cities (or military bases or shopping centers or college campuses) that are centrally planned and built. They can be ugly and non-functional to the extent that they do not have to compete with other areas for residents' attention.

BTW, this whole discussion fits something that Adam Smith said over 240 years ago:
the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market.
I always thought of extent in the horizontal sense, but it's obvious that it really refers to the population, which is denser in cities.

Bottom Line: There's more cool stuff in cities because there are more people to produce and consume it.

Droplets of wisdom from Down Under

Last year, I talked to Mike Young in Adelaide about water policy in Australia.

He referred me to a series of "droplet" briefings that he had written with Jim McColl between 2006 and 2009. I finally got 'round to reading them recently, and I recommend them highly if you want to learn a little more about water policy in Australia or take some new ideas for use in your local area.

I've put a few reactions after each title.
  1. Stormwater: Expensive nuisance or an opportunity? Use credits to turn nuisance into opportunity, at lowest cost.

  2. Thinking like an accountant about rivers and aquifers How to do a proper accounting for flows (e.g., the Jordan River).

  3. Undermining water – Accounting for flow reducing activities A discussion of the tricky problem of knowing where the water goes, and who's allowed to divert it.

  4. Governance of large water bodies National, basin and catchment -- what to do where.

  5. Urban water pricing: How might an urban water trading scheme work? Cap and trade among urban consumers? You bet (similar to my idea for turning a human right to water into a property right).

  6. Irrigation Water: Use it or lose it because you can't save it! Storage smooths supply for irrigators, reducing the chance of shortage, increasing the value of water rights, etc.

  7. MDB Authority: Keeping the devil out of the detail Things to consider when managing the Murray Darling basin.

  8. The unmentionable option: Is there a place for an across-the-board purchase? A few thoughts on how to buy/retire over-allocated water rights in the Murray Darling basin.

  9. New water for old: Speeding up the reform process How to set up a register for water shares, to facilitate trading.

  10. Pricing your water: Is there a smart way to do it? Fixed charges plus increasing block rates are regressive ($50 + $1/unit means that someone who uses 10 units pays $6/each; someone who uses 20 units pays $3.50/each). Strong scarcity pricing is a good idea.

  11. Cullenisms: Thinking about water Wisdom from a recently-deceased colleague. Why meter water? "Disconnecting the fuel gauge might be one way to stop worrying about how much fuel might be left, but it's a pretty stupid strategy."

  12. A sustainable cap: What might it look like? Don't manage flows in a river with quantified diversions (hear that Colorado River?) -- use inflow sharing, storage, minimum base flows, etc.

  13. Grounding connectivity: Do rivers have aquifer rights? The interaction of aquifers and groundwater.

  14. Yucky Business: Paying for what we put down the drain Use a fixed charge plus percentage of inflow based on indoor (winter) use. Greywater credits? No (less sewage, yes, but higher density).

  15. Shepherding Water: Unregulated water allocation and management Trying to reform Australia's complex system of rights based on flow thresholds.

  16. More from less: When should river systems be made smaller and managed differently? Trying to maximize the "services" from shrinking rivers and lakes (e.g., Aral, Salton)

  17. Water-security: Should urban water use, like rural water use, be capped? Live within your supplies instead of assuming water will come from elsewhere (got that, Vegas? Beijing?). A cap will create incentives to conserve efficiently.

  18. Securing water: What is the best and fairest way to secure water for the environment? Maybe buy it, but certainly better to set a minimum flow that's shared by the environment and irrigators.
Bottom Line: Lots of good ideas here (with references) from some clever guys. I am stealing a few for my book :)

17 February 2011

Macroeconomy Survey

I was one of 30-40 economics bloggers who participated in a quarterly survey by Tom Kane at the Kauffman Foundation. These results -- much like October 2010 -- have "uncertainty" in the center, but there are nuances [pdf]:

Irrigation 100 years ago

Katharine Coman's 1911 article, "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation" was just republished (open access).* Coman concentrates on the problems of property rights and allocation of infrastructure costs in the Western US, commenting that
The irrigation district can only succeed where cost of construction is light, and where soil and climate render the lands highly productive, as in southern California. Western men were becoming convinced that if the homestead law was to have any meaning west of the hundredth meridian, government must come to the aid of the settler, first in the adjudication of water rights, and second in the construction of the more costly irrigation works.
This statement is put into an interesting context
... much of the reclamation work remaining to be done is beyond the scope of private enterprise. The federal government alone is able to undertake construction on the scale necessary to convert the great interstate watercourses such as the Missouri, the Big Horn, the Yellowstone, the Snake, the Grand, the Green, and the Colorado to their highest efficiency as irrigating systems.
Thus we can see that private groups were able to complete projects that were economically efficient, but that the government would have to develop other projects, because
the government can afford to wait decades for returns on capital invested, water right charges can be gauged by what the settler can afford to pay, and considerable leeway allowed before cancelation of entry. A private company would be ruined by so generous a policy.
Others might interpret these words to imply that projects would only be built if the government was willing to give them away below cost (using Other People's Money to fund them), which is in fact what happened with most Reclamation projects; see Dead Pool for Reclamation's early failures (I'll be blogging on Boswell's cotton operations and Westlands Water District soon).

The article totally ignores the current problem -- how to reallocate water from irrigated agriculture to urban or environmental demand -- which is simultaneously not a surprise and a sign of how difficult it will be to rejig the system.

Bottom Line: We knew 100 years ago that most irrigation infrastructure in the western US was not cost-effective, but we built it and proved it was not cost effective, a Pyrrhic victory. Now we face the difficulty of reallocating water in the face of changing demand, as well as rising costs from environmental destruction that were never included in the cost column of the political ledger.

* Several contemporary economists have written updates on these issues:

16 February 2011

Obey the rules or die

Some water management areas may have trouble getting people to follow the rules. Dutch water boards (in charge of the flow of water and maintenance of infrastructure) had a solution for that:
Punishments that Water Boards could and did carry out were mostly fines for misdemeanors such as emptying waste in the nearest canal rather than in the proper waste disposal, but according to various archives, the death penalty was used more than once for serious offenders who threatened dike safety or water quality.
So that's why the Dutch (usually) stop at traffic lights. Check.

Utilities DO charge per person

While messing around researching water tariffs for my new job, I came across this tariff schedule for annual water service in Brussels:
Block Volume Price
Tranche 1 - Vitale de 0 à 15m³/hab/an 0,9518 €/m³
Tranche 2 - Sociale de 15 à 30m³/hab/an 1,7414 €/m³
Tranche 3 - Normale de 30 à 60m³/hab/an 2,5809 €/m³
Tranche 4 - Confort de 60 m³/hab/an et plus 3,8336 €/m³

The first thing you should notice is that the tariff rises with consumption (increasing block rates), as consumption goes from "vital" to "social" to "normal" to "comfort" (I guess that's similar to my idea of "luxury" or "lifestyle"). Fifteen cubic meters per year is 41 liters/day (about 10 gallons/day, at a price that works out to $3.65/ccf).

The second thing you should notice is that the tariff of per person (per "habitant"), which matches my recommendation that water tariffs should be based on the number of people using the water, not the size of lawn, etc.

I emailed to ask how the utilities gets their headcount. They take the count from the annual housing registration that Belgian citizens must file with their government.

Many American water managers have asked how to implement per capita water pricing if headcounts are not obviously available. I've suggested they use self-proclaimed numbers, but they've worried that people will lie.

I guess that's what the American aversion of a national ID has got us: a social security number that's a de facto ID number but cannot be legally used that way, and a government that has no problem violating citizen's rights (via wiretapping), but no easy way to know how many people live at a house.

I prefer the Belgian system -- limited data with strong security protections.*

Bottom Line: It's easiest to implement per capita increasing block water tariffs where the government keeps count of how many people live at an address.
* Yes, they've learned from WWII. That's why the Germans are after google for breach of privacy. Love to see what they've done with Facebook.

15 February 2011

Anything but water

H/T to RM

Your iPhone will not save the world

While listening to Russ Roberts discuss Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments with Nicholas Phillipson [1], I thought about the difference between wealth and happiness. Wealth and income -- measured by balance sheets and GDP -- are not very good ways to characterize progress and happiness. Progress is perhaps the wrong word, since it assumes change, and there are many ways that change do not always make us better off (everything from freedom to divorce to freedom to text people). Happiness is even less amenable to GDP figures, since there are plenty of "zero-GDP" activities (walking in the woods) that make people happy.

Most economists understand this, in the way that they define "utility" as the object of man's desire. Most economists translate this to mean happiness; sloppy ones, politicians and gossip columnists translate it as income or consumption [2].

Double the income (or consumption) clearly does not mean double the happiness, so you can see the fallacy there (past posts on the growth cult and consumption vs family).

On the other hand, Smith was surely aware of these problems, and I reckon that his notion of "wealth" had a lot to do with the good life.

With those thoughts on the table, I turn to the next podcast, where Russ talks with Kevin Kelly about "What technology wants." This talk was interesting in many ways, but they spent some time discussing the use and abuse of technology in our society.

That podcast, along with humans innovate and "things are great" podcast with Matt Ridley [3], made me put on my resource and environment cap.

First, we have to remember that a lot of our prosperity came from mining non-renewable resources and dumping waste into the non-renewable environment [4]. The Industrial Revolution was built on technology, yes, but it was also built on coal. We live well now because we are borrowing and consuming energy from the future. That's the kind of thing that's unsustainable if either we run out of energy supplies and other resources to mine (something I am not worried about, because prices will help us replace peak oil) or we run out of environment where we dump the pollution from our lifestyle and population.

I am definitely worried about the environment, and for a very simple reason: it's a commons which we all benefit from and pollute and for which we cannot attach a price to ensure that it's carefully managed [5].

Now here are the important points that many people (including Roberts and his guests) get wrong do not think through:
  • The readers of this blog -- most of them in the developed world -- are going to have to pay more for sushi, lose the reefs for diving tours and spend more on disaster insurance. For us, adopting to damage to the environment and climate change is going to be annoying, but ultimately cost us less than 10 percent of our income.

  • The people who are going to suffer are the people who live in the developing world. They are going to lose their food supply, their homes and perhaps their loved ones, as floods, mudslides, crop failures and disease take a massive toll on their already fragile lives. For example, the countries identified as having the fastest growing weather disaster impact until 2030 are: Venezuela, Myanmar, Honduras, Micronesia, Haiti, Bangladesh, Grenada, Somalia, Samoa and Nicaragua.
The iPhone will not save them. Money probably will not save them. What they will need is a massive improvement in their institutions for public works and disaster response. From what we've seen in Haiti, it's more likely that we are going to see millions (maybe close to a billion) people in wretched condition.

Bottom Line: Consumption is nice, but it may not make us happy. Even worse, it may have adverse impacts on our environment and our neighbors -- impacts that will come back to bite us in the ass. Plan accordingly.

[1] The discussion veered onto Bernard de Mandeville, a 17th century free thinker who favored "greed is good," or (more diplomatically) the benefits that individual choice and demand delivers to those who supply. His Fable of the Bees is entertaining.

[2] Donald Deidre McCloskey's book, If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise talks about how economists are not very good at explaining the world (the alternative subtitle is "...then why ain't you rich"), but McCloskey (who changed her sex after writing the book) was surely missing the point of economics: It's not to be rich, it's to be happy, and plenty of economists I know are pretty good at being happy.

[3] I'll review his book The Origins of Virtue soon.

[4] Background posts (one two) comparing environmental goods to natural resources.

[5] I wrote about this a few years ago: Conversation with My Dad, part one and part two.

14 February 2011

Solving the collective action problem

Many Egyptians protested their government, but they were not usually more than one million (there were 600,000 members of a protest group on facebook). At least 302 of them were killed by government forces.

Now over 80 million Egyptians are free of an incompetent, corrupt government. They should thank their vocal minority for standing up for everyone, and I do too.

Bottom Line: The same can be said about water management. If it's unfair, inefficient or unsustainable, then go protest. A few people can have a big impact.

Monday funnies

XKCD once again:
Oh, and don't forget to make dinner for your valentine!

PS: Read these Valentine's letters between members of the water-food-energy love triangle.

The Irrigation Efficiency Conundrum

A guest post by John Bredehoeft (Hydrodynamics Group, Sausalito, CA)*

There is a well-known misconception that improving farm irrigation efficiency can save water in an entire water system. Often the argument associated with irrigation efficiency is analyzed with a large and complex model of a real system—I have done some of these models. With these large models it becomes difficult to see the clearly the relevant hydrologic principles—one gets lost in the trees and loses sight of the forest. Often it is useful in both science and engineering to use a zero-order analysis, a back of the envelop calculation, to illustrate a basic principle. A simple explanation will illustrate the problem associated with improving farm irrigation efficiency:

Nevada has several rivers that flow east out of the Sierra Mountains into the western part of the state where irrigation uses all of the water in the river, except in the wettest years. The Walker River is one of these; Walker Lake is drying up because of irrigation upstream along the Walker River. The irrigators are very efficient in capturing the streamflow.

Let’s use the Walker River as a rough prototype for a very simple irrigation system. Let’s assume that the River flows during the average irrigation season at 100cfs, and that there are 10 farmers along the river, with more or less equal water rights of 20cfs each. Typically the irrigation system including, the canals and laterals and the farms, are 50% efficient; we need not complicate our analysis with where the inefficiencies occur. So we have:
  • 100cfs of streamflow
  • 10 farms
  • 20cfs water rights/each
  • 50% efficiency
Each farmer diverts 20cfs, uses 10cfs for ET for his crops, and 10cfs returns to the stream, available to the next farmer downstream. Everything is fine until we get to farmer number 10; he finds that there is only 10cfs left in the stream. This is not sufficient for his needs, and he does not farm—so 10cfs remains in the stream, is used by riparian vegetation or the aquatic ecosystem.

If we now examine the entire system, 90% of the water is used productively, even though the farm efficiency is only 50%. We need to distinguish a system efficiency, as well as a farm efficiency.  

IMPROVED EFFICIENCY

Now let’s improve the farmer’s efficiency. For the sake of argument, to make our point, let’s assume the efficiency is improved to 100%: meaning we line canal and laterals, and go to drip irrigation on the farms: Now we have a decision -- What is meant by a water right?
  1. Is the farmer entitled to use all the water his right allows him to divert, or
  2. does the water right apply to water that he previously consumed?
In the United States various state courts have decided this issue both ways.

Let’s first look at the situation where the farmer is entitled to use his entire 20cfe right. With 100% efficiency, the first 5 farmers use their 20cfs, drying up the stream, and the other 5 farmers get no water. The system is 100% efficient, all the water goes to crops. Of course, only five of our ten farmers get water.

In the second scenario each farmers gets 10cfs—his previous consumptive use. Now all the farmers get water. Again, the stream is dried up, and all the water goes to crops—the system is 100% efficient.

COMPARISON OF THE TWO SYSTEMS—50% versus 100%

When we compare our two systems; the 50% farm efficient valley uses at least 90% of all the water available. Of course, the 100% efficient system uses all the water. In terms of the entire valley, we gained, at best, 10% by going to 100% farm efficiency. This is hardly a policy one wants to subsidize. There is the issue of how to pay for the increase in farm efficiency. An individual farmer may increase his output by using his water more efficiently, but usually his increased water use comes at the expense of less water in the system for his neighbors—he beggars his neighbors.

Bottom Line: In focusing on increasing farm efficiency, one often loses sight of looking at the efficiency of the entire system. From a policy perspective, it is usually the performance of the system that is of ultimate concern. Increasing farm efficiency usually does not save water in the system.

* In response to my posts (here and here) criticizing the Pacific Institute's claims about "saving" water from efficient irrigation.

For academic studies on this issue, see:
  • Ward, F. A. & Pulido-Velazquez, M. "Water conservation in irrigation can increase water use" in Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences, 2008, 105, 18215-18220.
  • Pfiffer, L. & Lin, C.-Y. C. "Incentive-Based Groundwater Conservation Programs: Perverse Consequences?" in ARE Update [PDF], 2009, 12, 1-4.

12 February 2011

Flashback: 6 -- 12 Feb

One year ago, these were new. Today, they are still relevant:

A perpetual motion machine (not really -- it's a river-powered pump)

BEST: Ending the water-charity oxymoron -- wise words from Ned Breslin.

Wasting our most precious resource? Where I rebut the more babies leads to more prosperity fallacy.

BEST: Governing the Tap -- The Review: An interesting book looking at the way water is managed, which leads us to Bureaucracies are not businesses, a few words on how government's mistakes become your obligations.

Water Chat with John Quiggin of Brisbane about their 130 lcd water consumption (that's less than 35 gallons, folks!) and other stuff. Maybe I need to get an update!

Congratulations, People of Egypt!

Fantastic country with fantastic people!*

Now, go out there and get a good government!

(And don't worry too much about what the Americans want. Do your own thing!)

* except some taxi drivers

11 February 2011

Amsterdam -- Love and Hate

I made this list over the past few months. This site gives a VERY interesting comparison of the difference between the Netherlands and the US (or any other two countries). In the US, people spend 93% more on health care, work 38% more hours per year (very interesting article on why Dutch women don't work longer hours), etc...

Things I love about Amsterdam:
  1. My gym has deadmau5 playing on the PA system
  2. No-fucking-around bike infrastructure
  3. "Moroccans" (mostly)
  4. Skinny streets, buildings, stairs and PEOPLE
  5. Buying pot when you want it and using it where you want it
  6. Water water everywhere, and delicious in the sink
  7. It's not always raining (shhhh, don't tell anyone!)
  8. Bakeries
  9. I can't understand the news
  10. Cheap mobile phones
Things I hate about Amsterdam:
  1. The bike theft mafia ("Yes, you're a nice guy selling me this bike, but can you tell your cousin to stop stealing them?")
  2. Trying to understand traffic lights, and when to ignore them
  3. Scooters in the bike lanes
  4. Dutch who are slaves to rules (and enforcing them on you), no matter the circumstances -- mostly Dutch working for monopolistic agencies, it must be said
H/Ts to SV and AZ

Does IID produce 80% of US winter veggies?

That's claimed in this NPR story:
Southern California's Imperial Valley produces about 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables
I wonder if this number includes food grown for farmer's markets or imported into the US.

Does anyone have official data on that? Fact check please!

Greenwashing update

Tom Birmingham claims [pdf] that Westlands is California's economic engine:*
Unfortunately, this allocation forecast also shows how broken California’s water delivery system is... This is further evidence that if we are going to sustain the economy of this state, we have to fix the Delta problem
Westlands Water District's last annual report (2006 [pdf]) does not mention the value of crops grown, but I recollect that Birmingham said WWD crops were worth a billion dollars. Let's double that and then divide by the State's economic output (approximately $1,800 billion). So Westlands farmers are responsible for 2/1800 = 0.001 or one-tenth of one percent of California's economy. I'm not sure that Westlands is "sustaining" very much in the State, but I am sure that the cheap CVP water that taxpayers subsidize for Westlands "sustains" them.

Speaking of delusions, the Water Advocacy Coalition claims that the revocation of a permit for a single coal mining operation will produce:
implications [that] could be staggering, reaching all areas of the U.S. economy including but not limited to the agriculture, home building, mining, transportation and energy sectors...[disallowing the permit will] chill investment and job creation.
Wow. World War III? No. WAC poses as an environmental organization (homepage: protect my water), but they are really a front for a who's who of businesses that prefer "progress" to the environment. I'd prefer them to call their website "exploiting your water."

Bottom Line: Some facts may be obvious, but that doesn't keep people from misrepresenting them as they try to take advantage of trusting people who do not have time to check for lies and deception.

* Birmingham may also claim that Westlands "provides over 50% of the food supply for the United States," but he may be claiming that farmers using BurRec water do that. The first claim is batshit crazy; the second appears to be right -- for ALL irrigated land.

HTs to LC and DG

10 February 2011

Speed blogging

  • Australian floods = more supply: "In early December prices for Temporary water in the Southern Murray Darling Basin were at $30 per ML and have dropped steadily through the month down to near $20 per ML on average," according to from Waterfind's 12 Jan newsletter. (I read somewhere that Brisbane is having the opposite problem: floods are polluting drinking water sources, so they are using more desalination.)

  • An interesting essay on LADWP's efforts to revive (or bury) Owens Lake. Interesting fact: LA has already spent $540 million (or was it $1 billion?) on dust control, with $18 million/year in maintenance. Water from elsewhere to replace Owens water would cost $75 million per year (but save $18 million). That's the price of restoring Owens Lake. NB: Author rebutted in comments.

  • A Powerpoint show (just hit play) with lots of pretty water photos

  • Poor tap water quality leads to higher bottled water consumption [pdf]. (Competition! Like I hoped!)

  • Orchard land with better water supplies (east side of the Central valley) sells for more than land facing political and environmental cuts to supplies.

  • New Tech: Using iron ferrites to clean 75m liters of water/day -- from the back of a pickup truck.
H/Ts to BK and AZ

A few views of Venice

I was there for the kick off meeting for the EU project I am working on ("Evaluating Economic Policy Instruments for Sustainable Water Management in Europe").

I will put up more on the project in the future, but it's basically a project to measure the impact of instruments (taxes, markets, prices) on water management. I'm in charge of the package for evaluating the size of the impact, positive or negative.

So, back to the fun stuff!
At the airport, bottled water was more expensive than soft drinks
(maybe not the same size but 2,89€ for 0.5 liter is pretty steep!)



It was a dark and stormy night on the canals when we arrived...



A bit sunnier the next day...

09 February 2011

Speaking of floods

RM sent me this video from Oregon's Sandy River:

Sandy River Flood from alexandra erickson on Vimeo.


Bottom Line: Nature goes where she wants.

Speed blogging -- Read this!

My inbox is FULL! Take a minute to look through these -- and try to read them...

Groundwater:
  • California Public Utilities Commission's Policy & Planning Division has released a white paper [pdf] that looks at the potential of imposing a "public goods charge" on groundwater withdrawals in order to achieve conservation and efficiency goals. You can comment on the report HERE. There are just 2 comments so far -- and this paper was written in seven months ago!
  • "The core concept of the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project is that sustainable management of groundwater is feasible only if users understand its occurrence, cycle, and limited availability." Read more here -- also with a link to a 2010 World Bank report on sustainable g/w use in India.
Sustainability:
  • An entire website devoted to Sustainable Water Resources. On a similar note, this page is devoted to sustainable water use in Minnesota (lots of money being spent to maintain the Great Lakes).
  • "This dissertation [pdf] analyzes whether households in India’s semi-arid regions are likely to voluntarily cooperate in the maintenance of soil and water conservation (SWC) investments." It depends, of course, but the author uses surveys, trust experiments and data to conclude that "trust is higher in homogeneous communities and that it is a significant determinant of the household’s willingness to contribute to SWC maintenance..." There's lots more, so dig in.
  • An excellent report on the opportunity cost of water used for electricity generation in the Western US. Uses water prices and environmental impacts.
Markets:
General:
H/Ts to LG, RG, RM, DR, SS, TS and JW

08 February 2011

Poll Results -- Leaving on an Airplane

Hey! There's a new poll (willing to pay?) on the right sidebar ---->
If you were going overseas for 5 years, how much of your stuff would you store?
5% or less 24%20
5% to 20% 24%20
20% to 40% 19%16
40% to 80% 25%21
Everything (even the cake mix) 7%6
83 votes total


I brought two bags to Amsterdam at the end of September last year. I bought a bike and a few jackets. Then I got a job (30 month contract). So I returned in January, emptied my storage unit, sold most of my stuff (except the BMW!), and put the rest into "my room" at my Dad's house. By volume (excluding the car), I got rid of 75% of my stuff. I kept photo albums but got rid of lots of kitchen gear, computer, DVDs, books and clothes. The remaining stuff is too personal and timeless to sell or toss, but even now I don't miss much of it (I brought three bags over, filled mostly with clothes).

I think that others' answers to this question reveal more about the way they see possessions, "home" and permanence.

I guess a similar poll would ask people what they do with books once finished. I always rush to get rid of books I've read -- partially because I want more empty space, partially because I like it when people use things up. Other people love to hold onto them. Some people reread books later, others lend them out, but many -- I suspect -- just like to see them on the shelf.

Bottom Line: Possessions can be comforting, but they can also stifle mobility.

The Company -- The Review

This short (190pp) well-written history of the company (from 3,000 BC to present) provides an interesting overview of the evolution of an institution responsible for enriching our lives.*

The book gets into important questions:
  • Where is the line between the corporation and market (Coase 1937)?
  • Why do corporations see social responsibility as profitable (Ford's $5/day wage, etc.)?
  • How do we regulate the tension between shareholders and managers (the principal-agent problem)?
The authors, like me, agree with Friedman's prescription: Companies exist to maximize profits within a clear and fair legal framework (watch the video), and this book highlights how that framework has changed over time, as the East Indian company has lost its power to rule India, and English and American merchants lost their power to own and trade slaves.

The key theme in this book is how companies evolve in response to opportunities in technology, markets and consumer demand. Why do companies evolve so quickly to give us what we want? Because markets reward those who do the most good (quality goods and services at low prices) for the most people.

That leads us to an interesting comparison: why are governments less nimble at giving us what we want? First (and legitimately), because they provide communal goods that are complicated to finance and create. Second (and here's where governments overreach), because they provide private goods (healthcare, education, water service) as monopolists without competition to "customers" who cannot easily leave the market.

The lesson -- to me -- is not that we need governments to behave more like companies. Governments need to get out of a lot of activities where companies (or individuals!) would do a better job.

Assuming such a fantastic, wealth- and happiness-enhancing event should come to pass, then what would make governments improve their basic services (from monetary policy to defense to the environment)? More competition from other governments. How is that possible? Give every human a second passport, so that they can easily live in another country.

I've had this idea for a long time (and I have two passports, so I can live in the US plus any of 27 EU countries), and this book reminded me of it. (It's also known as Tiebout migration.) I can't think of a single politician worldwide that would approve of the idea (of losing a captive audience), but I reckon that a LOT of citizens would love the opportunity to leave their failure of a state for opportunity elsewhere.**

Bottom Line: Companies make it easier for us to work together and provide services that improve our lives. I give this book FIVE STARS for explaining how we got the companies that we have.

* Some people are suspicious or hostile to companies, contrasting them with some romantic vision of a charitable organization that picks up your kids from school and serves organic food to starving peasants with a side of educational enlightenment. They are deluded. In a comparison between "the state" and "the company," companies are better 95% of the time. First, because companies do not have the legal power to kill and punish;*** second, because they acquire customers and employees on a voluntary basis, while competing with other companies and opportunities.

** Yes, I'd open the borders -- but not the welfare system -- to non-criminal migrants.

*** I see the corporate "right of free speech" to bribe US politicians as an extension of political corruption. No such right (as far as I know) exists for non-US companies. OTOH, bribes are still tax-deductible in some countries. In others (e.g., Russia and China), it's hard to tell where the State ends and companies begin.

07 February 2011

The Economist forgets the economics

the Economist had an update on ongoing chaos in California water management, but they forgot something:*
In your article on water in the American West, you left out a fifth dimension: economics.

Water demand is higher when it's cheap, and water is cheap in places like Las Vegas because prices are based on the cost of delivery, not supply and demand or scarcity. The water bill for a family of four using 100 gallons/person/day in Vegas ($33/month) indicates that Ms. Mulroy has not learned much from the dismal science. In San Francisco, the same family would pay $58/month. Not surprisingly, per capita consumption in San Francisco is 57 gallons/month. In Vegas, it's 110 gallons [source]

On a larger scale, agricultural water users continue to "waste" water in places like the Imperial Valley because they cannot easily sell their water to other farmers, cities or environmental organizations. Under "use it or lose it" rights to water supplies, it's better to flood irrigate than let the water flow by. Markets would give them the option of selling water to higher and better uses. I hope that the Economist puts a little more economics into future updates.
* Fleck and Emily Green also commented.

Monday funnies

Dilbert on market power:

Anything but water

  • "AP exams [in economics] stress mechanical exercises at the expense of the economic way of thinking... very few of the exam questions test the ability of students to reason, to systematically compare and contrast different choices in a variety of settings, to interpret the economics of current events, or to identify the errors often present in articles in the popular media... This mechanistic approach leaves students with the false impression that economics is like engineering."

  • While in a ritzy hotel recently, I had a business idea: collect all the partially used shampoo and soap and recycle it into "new" products. Turns out that some hotels already do this in some places (no link, just a story from the front desk guy). The recycled product is sold in developing countries.

  • Russ Roberts discusses the ins and outs of inflation and monetary policy in this podcast.

  • Politicians fail to agree on what caused or how to prevent the next financial crisis. Looks like we need to cut too big to fail companies down to the size where they can fail. The bears explain why TARP was still a give away by The Bernank.

  • Robert Pyke leaves a comment on the difficulty of leaving good comments on email, blogs, etc.

  • Climate ignorance in one picture:

H/Ts to SK and RM

05 February 2011

Flashback: 30 Jan -- 5 Feb

One year old, and still lookin' good:

J David Foster ponders why Indian water managers can't make a shake (I don't think the problem is limited to Indians.)

BEST: Policies for People, not special interests, Part I -- my students give some brilliant solutions to collective action problems (e.g., oil companies lobbying for less regulation). Part II is here.

Travelblog: Incentives on islands -- How the Indonesians struggle with unsustainable tourism. Speaking of pillaging, read these reviews of Avatar and King Leopold's Ghost

BEST: Water is Boring -- and that's why it's so widely mismanaged.

04 February 2011

Congressional Reform Act of 2011

[Speaking of corruption] I agree with this guest rant, via JWT:

The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took only 3 months & 8 days to be ratified! Why? Simple! The people demanded it. That was in 1971... before computers, before e-mail, before cell phones, etc.

Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less to become the law of the land...all because of public pressure.

This is one idea that really should be passed around.

Addendum: Corrections below, per Roadrunner's advice. That said, I posted this mostly for the (stated) goal of term limits and (unstated) goal of reducing personal enrichment based on power, whether in office or retired.

Congressional Reform Act of 2011
  1. Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below.. A. Two Six-year Senate terms B. Six Two-year House terms C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

  2. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.*

  3. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress [already] participates with the American people.

  4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.*

  5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%. [not true]

  6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people. [not true]

  7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people. [Not sure about this in the letter of the law, but there are some suspicious problems with the meaning of the law.]

  8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. [mostly true]
Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.
* This may imply pay for life, but I saw it as a type of pension based on pay while in office -- as opposed to contributions to a pension system -- which they DO receive, at the rate of $35-65k/year.

Water conservation up means use up

That's the the gist of this paper ("Water conservation in irrigation can increase water use") published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by an agricultural economist and water engineer.

I thank Johannes for bringing it to my attention in a comment on an earlier post where I was discussing the lack of economic (or human) content in some engineering models that assume high-efficiency irrigation will (1) be done without a good incentive and (2) "save" water for use elsewhere. Glad to see that facts fit the theory (that's based on facts, actually :)

You can download the paper here [PDF]

03 February 2011

Corruption and integrity in US politicians

RD responded to this post with a few thoughts on what works, and fails, in local politics:

Having work in the US Senate and then for President Reagan, and having worked at the state level and local levels of government I can tell you the key is finding candidates who have integrity. Yes there are a few and too often even they get corrupted by money and power, but there are still a few.

I have found that if you have integrity and are recognized as an expert they will treat you with respect.

But never lie or overstate, NEVER or you will lose it all.

I have been successful because I recognized this early. they don't always like what you tell them, but if they respect you and your knowledge and insight, they will come back to you for more.

One of the biggest problems I've encountered in politics are those who hire "yes" men/women only. They want staff to make them feel good and "protect" them. this is wrong headed management philosophy. you want the most talented and competent people you can find. Loyalty in politics usually only runs up, not down.

I've fallen on the spear a couple times. Once it was the wrong decision and once it was the right one.

If I find a Member has lied to me or not been fully honest with me, they go on my shit list for life and I quietly work hard to get them out of office.

Surprisingly, I found politics most corrupt at the local level.

Bottom Line: We have to find candidates with integrity, and that is NOT easy today.

The internet IS the social network

Fortunes are being made and lost in the quest to create the next great internet business model.

Trees are dying, electrons are flying, in the debate over social working, web 2.0, whatever.

To me, these debates are simultaneously boring and interesting.

Obviously, people are social; they are using the internet to socialize.

Obviously, they don't like being monetized while they socialize.

So there's a tension between their willingness to adopt better, cheaper tools and paying for these tools.

We understand that face to face conversations are free, but we often forget how expensive it is to get faces in the same place, at the same time.

That's why we've been willing to pay for services that save us time while delivering some version of that face to face conversation -- letters, phone calls, email, text messages, etc.

Technology (hardware, software and internet protocols) has lowered the cost and improved communication over time. A free video chat with someone on the other side of the planet is an amazing improvement on a letter that takes 2-3 weeks to get there, at a cost of a stamp and trip to the mailbox.

These new technologies are evolving, in both format (from voice to video) and quality (from hotmail to gmail). Amazing services (napster, digg, orbitz, myspace) are quickly replaced by more amazing services (torrents, reddit, kayak, facebook).

Where's the business model here? Subscription (buy broadband, get skype for free) and subsidy (see ads, get gmail) can work, but they fail when the competition gives a better deal (gmail ads are less intrusive than hotmail ads) or when the revenue model doesn't match the use (facebook is not about buying things from advertisements).

Most of these thoughts are directed at the unfolding Facebook disaster, but they apply to the rest of the internet, where volunteers produce the best services.

Why are so many people willing to work for free? Personal pride, community standing and/or participation in a gift exchange. It's hard to monetize these instincts and ever harder to compete with them.

Just sayin.

Bottom Line: The internet makes our lives better when it helps us to be better humans.

02 February 2011

This is really cool

RM sent this video about a remarkable Dutchman and his beach creatures:

Mine or salmon?

The Dec 2010 National Geographic had an interesting story with an important question:

Should we destroy one of the best salmon runs (and natural areas) in the US to build one of the biggest mines in the world? To go from what you see on the right to something closer to what happened in Utah (below)?

The CEO of the mine (and former commissioner of Alaska's Dept of Natural Resources) claims that the "mine design is more environmentally sensitive than ever before," but that's not saying much when we consider the massive pollution linked to current mines.

The article says that income from salmon is $120 million/year, but mine revenue is expected to be $100 - $500 billion in total.

Does this 1,000-fold difference mean that mining should happen? Not necessarily:
  • Salmon income is local and known to the community. Mining income is based on projections; most of it would leave the region.
  • Jobs, cheap energy and economic development. Do we really need this? Some locals want money from the mine, but their jobs may take money, jobs and lifestyle from their neighbors.
  • What about the costs of permitted pollution or effects of catastrophic pollution from the mine?
  • Once the ground is opened, there's no going back. Is this something that we can decide now that will have an impact far into the future? Is it a good idea to leave these decisions to politicians who have election-cycle time horizons? Bush II's administration gave the go-ahead for the mine; Obama's reversed it. Not a very good sign for careful decisions.
  • With fish in decline worldwide, is it good to take out one of the best salmon fisheries in the world? The one that's still described with the word "abundance"?
Bottom Line: We should not decide for the mine until we consider the scale of missing costs and benefits, and their distribution to locals, mining shareholders, and the American people.

01 February 2011

My talk on politicians and regulators last week

About 30 people listened into the webinar. Unfortunately, that was too many for a round table discussion, so I had to reply to written questions.

The audio (54 min) and overview of the webinar are here.

My slides (with links to URLs for background and stories of success, failure and "success") are here [PDF]

My thanks to 2Degrees (they are involved in all dimensions of business and sustainability) for inviting me and hosting this webinar!

The People defeat the Government

On a related note...

In response to this story announcing that Botswana's Bushmen will be able to drill for water on their traditional lands, Jamie Workman (author of Heart of Dryness [five stars]) offered this guest post:

This important ruling comes as a huge relief, not only to the Bushmen families who have been separated for years, but to the deeply conflicted citizens of Botswana and to sympathetic outsiders who could not fight their fight for them, but only watch as this long saga played out.

It remains to be seen whether the government will comply with the ruling. It has indicated it would do so, but officials made the same public statement five years ago while then quietly escalating its policy of exclusion, harrassment and arrests of Bushmen. I hope this time they mean what they say.

Some of my friends claim that this victory was the direct result of a U.N. resolution supporting a human right to water. Perhaps, although Botswana, like the U.S., abstained from voting on that measure, and in any case such a global privilege handed down from on high can always be rescinded or ignored. The only human rights that endure are fought for by those who resolve to never let go.

In that respect I believe this ruling is in fact a victory for those extraodinary, intransigent and resilient individuals who -- against the sometimes violent wishes of their elected leaders, a multinational conglomerate, and even many social and wildlife activists -- voted with their feet and remained in place. Instead of caving in (like the rest of us) to the temptation of comfortable dependency on a centralized absolute water monpoly, these men, women and children chose the harder but far more responsible life of thirsty freedom and autonomy to live, and die, on their own terms.

Bottom Line: I shall continue to let their brave example trouble my conscience and inspire my choices.

Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen

I visited and traveled in these countries in 1996 and 1997. Since then, I have paid attention to the ongoing corruption, cronyism and government failure that has made many citizens miserable, many politicians rich and many soldiers and bureaucrats fat, lazy, evil and incompetent (articles on Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen).

What kept them in power so long? Friends like the US government.

I wrote this on Sep 12, 2001:

The Muslims get screwed quite often (with support from Christian/Western Governments)... Before we go off and start shooting (or nuking) all the "rag heads" (as Howard Stern's listeners want), perhaps we should consider where the perpetrators are coming from in terms of their anger at what "America" has done to them. It's too bad that US citizens are not called upon to make the decisions that the government makes for them, because, if we knew more of what was happening (there is a clear lack of coverage and bias in most of the US press/television - against Muslims), it is likely that the USA wouldn't be responsible for as many messes as it is.
For example, the Egyptian government used "MADE IN USA" tear gas canisters against Egyptians:

Someone left a funny comment about these rebellions that I thought appropriate: "Wow. Looks like these guys can liberate themselves without our help. So much for GW Bush's grand plan to save them."

Watch this 2 minute video. Listen to the guy at 0:45 and tell me that we are not all the same:



Bottom Line: The US and other liberal democracies need to stop military, financial and political aid to illiberal countries. The Iraqi, Saudi, Afghan and other oppressed peoples can take care of themselves, but not if their freedom fighters are assassinated by CIA operatives, shot by riot police using "made in the USA" bullets, or imprisoned by regimes whose torture the US ignores. Don't worry, China, Russia, Iran and other exporters of political tyranny would never win. People like freedom and they will fight to get it.

Addendum: A friend emailed this response: "1989 all over again?" and it made me reconsider the parallels: If the Berlin wall was held up by Soviets, maybe the Wailing Wall is held up by Americans. Interesting thought... and what an amazing thing it would be for people to throw out so many authoritarian rulers in the region!