31 October 2011

Gratuitous government-induced confusion

Yes, I am talking about the annual "daylight saving time" ritual for confusing people by changing clocks in various places on various days (yesterday in NL; next weekend in MOST of the US).
  • There's no evidence that DST saves any energy
  • DST does not "create" more day light (sorry, science-illiterate folks!)
  • DST only makes sense for businesses that keep the same hours (e.g., 9 to 5) regardless of the outdoor lighting; DST does not make sense for people who do not live by the clock or businesses that keep hours that best serve their customers.
  • In other words, DST works for government bureaucracies -- not normal people. For a curious example, look how Russia decided to face facts and end-DST, leading Belarus (Russia's lapdog) to also change, just to make sure "friends" could keep the same business stealing hours
Bottom Line: Governments use DST for their own purposes (based on a false assumption that they are going to save money), not for those of citizens.

Monday funnies

Applied game theory from XKCD (appropriate for Halloween?):

Elixir -- the review

Brian Fagan is a storyteller and showman, in person. His book, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, does not deliver the same wonder, mystique and humor.* That's perhaps an impossible thing to ask (perhaps the same can be said of my book), but it does give you an idea of the gap that may exist between what we want to read and what we are given to read.

This 350 pp book tells many stories of how people from long-forgotten civilizations managed their water. Nearly all of it takes place before the Industrial Revolution brought powered pumps to the movement of water. What we get, then, are descriptions of how water was managed in "the age of gravity," when water sustainability was a given but human sustainability was not.

Let me drop in this observation at the start: Elixir tells a different story from Solomon's Water, The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Solomon narrates the development of water, politics and economics across many cultures. Fagan describes how different civilizations managed their water, without spending too much time tracing impacts and trends. In my notes, I wrote that "Solomon traces grandiose projects across large areas" while "Fagan observes the details of small and (usually) sustainable solutions to local problems."

At least, that's my feeling after reading through it, but that feeling may be affected by the "too many notes" problem: I cannot keep track of so many kings, canal dimensions, and geographies without seeing some patterns. Maybe they were there, but they didn't grab me.

But let's get to some detailed comments:
  • Fagan provides a deep description of why farmers may be conservative. They have, after all, been trying to control water and grow food for hundreds of generations. We have to respect their conservatism as the result of protecting success amidst multiple opportunities for failure. 
  • Fagan, as an archeologist, has a different view that emphasizes the physical remnants of past civilizations over their (soft, eroded, washed away) cultural institutions. It's hard to reconstruct a legal or economic system from a culture whose language was never written down. 
  • I was very pleased to get a deeper description of the "fall" of Sumeria, which was more about drought than salt (given an extensive -- over extensive? -- irrigation system).
  • Slave labor is very handy when you want to dig canals and build dams!
  • One of the more interesting cultural vignettes comes from Fagan's own experience in Tanzania, where the assembled villagers argue and fight over who's to get what share of the water. I found the description of this process -- and the resulting settlement -- to be a compelling observation on the balancing act that takes place over and over in a community where nobody is a winner for long and everyone's voice has a place. In the end, someone gets the water. The tricky part is that everyone needs to accept that fact -- for now.
  • At the end of Chapter 4, Fagan claims that the Hohokam (of Africa) would be horrified by the water consumption of Phoenix, but I am not so sure. If anything, Elixir provides ample evidence of people pushing supplies to the limit (to the margin), subject to their technology. They are no wiser than us; they merely lacked centrifugal pumps!
  • Chapter 8 delivers an excellent example: Rulers of the Sassanian empire (220 CE to 650 CE) were able to build huge irrigation works in today's Iraq and Iran, but their push for economies of scale in producing grains undermined the diversification that had protected earlier farmers from over-reliance on a single food source. When instability (and Islam) arrived, the Sassanians fell.
  • I enjoyed the detailed description of Roman water distribution, especially the observation that outbound pipes from the castellum at the end of an aqueduct were at different levels. The lowest level went to fountains for drinking water. Then came baths and theatres. At the highest level -- and first to get cut if water levels dropped -- were private residences.
  • Such an equitable system didn't keep rich people from building their own aqueducts, pipes to castella, or punching holes in pipes to bring water to their houses!
  • I also enjoyed the tale of Chen Hongmou (1696-1771), a Chinese official who understood that investment today would lead to returns tomorrow -- and who also understood that villages should pay for part of the cost of improvements that would soon make them rich.
  • p 291: "on the day of resurrection, Allah would ignore those who possessed surplus water and withheld it from travelers." This gives you an idea of the moral and legal foundations of the wondrous water works that Muslims constructed across North Africa, Spain and the Middle East.
  • These skills, on the other hand, were strained by the adoption of water thirsty crops (cotton, sugar) that strained local water supplies -- a problem that persists today in many arid areas.
Fagan ends with an eloquent plea for local sustainability (p. 347):
Humans have managed water successfully for thousands of years... it is the simple and ingenious that often works best -- local water schemes, decisions about sharing and management made by kin, family and small communities. These experiences also teach us that self-sustainability is attainable... Only one thing is certain: Descartes was wrong. We will never master the earth.
Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR stars for its interesting description of "the way it was" and "the way it fell apart" across the centuries. Elixir provides useful context while we ponder the difference between "sustainable" and "imperial overreach."

* I asked Brian about the title. He said it was not his idea. I am particularly bothered by books that do not match their covers, and "Elixir" denotes a mystique absent from the book.

29 October 2011

Flashback: 24 -- 30 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

That 10:10 video on climate change ... scared people farther away from action. Doing nothing means that it's going to hit hard, so make plans.

Water managers, politics and corruption -- still a problem :-\

How's that economy looking? No different now than a year ago (biggest word was "uncertain")

28 October 2011

Friday party!

Not quite sure what to make of this product...but read the fine print :)

A REALLY scary hockey stick

The Economist writes about the world passing 7 billion people, with a projected 2050 population of 9.5 billion.

Population and lifestyle are primary drivers of demand for water, so scarcity is on the rise... be prepared.

Speed blogging

27 October 2011

Last four days to vote!

Vote for the winner in the contest for the best example of coping with the end of abundance on the right sidebar!

Dumb or smart China?

SK, DL and GT all sent this NYT article on China's bid to "dominate" the desalination industry in the near future.

Their strategy follows the tradition of "sell each unit at a loss but make it up on volume," i.e.,
The desalted water costs twice as much to produce as it sells for. Nevertheless, the owner of the complex, a government-run conglomerate called S.D.I.C., is moving to quadruple the plant’s desalinating capacity, making it China’s largest.

“Someone has to lose money,” Guo Qigang, the plant’s general manager, said in a recent interview. “We’re a state-owned corporation, and it’s our social responsibility.”

In some places, this would be economic lunacy. In China, it is economic strategy.
There are two potential problems with this strategy. First, China Inc may bet on the wrong technology or technique for handling water scarcity, wasting resources (the opportunity cost problem). Second, China Inc may not be able to take over the market (the competition problem).

Bottom Line: China's command and control bureaucrats can spend money more easily than they can make money.

Interruption to our regular programming

I am updating Kindle and paperback formats of The End of Abundance to version 1.2 (the PDF format is already done).

The new versions should be available for purchase in the next few days (I'll post an update here).

Real time water quality monitoring

This press release made me think of using the technology to turn non-point pollution sources into "points" that could be monitored. Monitoring, in turn, would facilitate trading in emissions and/or water quality.

I emailed Atlas Scientific for more information and got this reply from Jordan Press:

About 6 years ago we started working with the City of New York. We were asked to come up with a way to map groundwater flow... from there we became masters at building LARGE scale environmental monitoring networks. We also discovered that we accidentally invented (as invention seem to happen) a new method for reading pH from a pH probe. For the first time, we could network 1000's of sensors together. We moved the technology from pH to ORP/D.O. and then E.C. (which was VERY challenging to say the lest).

Now, we are in the business of selling that technology in the form of tiny circuit boards.

Let me answer your questions.

Q: Can you tell me what the cost of a system with one monitor per 100m, along 5km -- equipment only -- for monitoring TDS in a river? I am thinking of monitors of tailwater runoff from agricultural fields.
A: Let's start with a VERY general ball park estimate, so you know where you stand. I would say something like that (5km real-time monitoring) would be in the 7,000€ to 11,000€ range.

Q: Let's say 2,000€ per km then. That's all CapEx, right? And it works out to about 200€ per 100m (farm) to do real time monitoring of a broad spectrum of pollutants?
A: Yes, it's all CapEx

Q: Does it get any cheaper if data come once per day? (I know there are issues with peaking pollution, but just a question).
A: Nope. Best to go with once every 10 to 30 min.

Q: I see that you're working with NYC. Have you heard of Whitewater (Israel) -- they are selling realtime monitoring in the US.
A: Companies like Whitewater use our equipment without having to try and invent this stuff from scratch.

Q: What's your prediction of price points in 2-3 years. Are these prices falling at the same rate as other hitech stuff?
A: Yes. We have a new model coming out that is 60% cheaper. We can help you build a large scale network however, we don't have an "out of the box solution". It's all custom made.

We are actively searching for our equipment to be used in university/corporate demo projects. We can offer our services and expertise to you at cost. The cost will end up being a bit more, but we can produce about 90% of all the technology you will need to set up a very robust real time monitoring system.

26 October 2011

Anything but water

The Economist destroys the case for solar subsidies:
The rush to subsidise solar power over the past decade has been massively wasteful and squalidly political. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sorry saga of Solyndra, a Californian maker of novel tubular solar panels down the maw of which the Obama administration shovelled $535m in the hope of “green jobs” and photo ops. It got instead mismanagement, bankruptcy and scandal. The money wasted on Solyndra, though, is as nothing compared to the tens of billions of euros squandered on solar panels in Germany. So little electricity do these panels produce under its cloudy northern skies that the emissions from a single large coal-fired power station are enough to nullify all the benefits that their carbon-free contribution might bring. The green jobs they, too, were meant to bring are largely, though not entirely, in China.
For part two on that sentiment, check out their musings on "green jobs"

"Government obstructing access to science data" .. in the same way that I blogged a few weeks ago. Seems that Obama has gone from hero to zero on government transparency.

Why alcohol and cigarettes, but not marijuana? A very funny letter to Obama (who's also failed to end extended the War on Drugs Common Sense).

Speaking of alcohol and cigarettes, this article explores how employers who pay for medical insurance are pressuring workers to quit smoking (or be fired), eat healthier, exercise (or pay a penalty), and so on. Violation of rights? Nope -- they pay, they tell you how to play. (Individuals in the Netherlands buy their own health insurance -- I pay about $125/month for "basic" -- and make their own decisions.)

H/T to RM

Economist haiku?

We were asked to write a haiku on current macroeconomics. Mine was:

many angry folks
watch political duck soup
less soup more work please

You can vote on that one, or any of the other 20 or so, here (but do it TODAY)

A simple theory of regulations

from Tyler Cowen:
Quality = minimum of the number of laws or the number of regulators

The number of laws grows rapidly, yet the number of regulators grows relatively slowly. There are always more laws than there are regulators to enforce them, and thus the number of regulators is the binding constraint.

The regulators face pressure to enforce the most recently issued directives, if only to avoid being fired or to limit bad publicity. On any given day, it is what they are told to do. Issuing new regulations therefore displaces the enforcement of old ones.

If the best or most fundamental regulations are the ones issued first, over time the average quality of regulation will decline.
Love it.

25 October 2011

Solutions when THE solution is the problem

Speaking of failure, KB sent Pritchett and Woolcock (2004) [PDF], which discusses how over-reliance on "perfect" bureaucrats may lead to intentional or accidental failure of international aid.

I would have cited this paper in my own work -- "Save the poor, shoot some bankers," which also discusses the principal-agent complications of relying on people who may lack skills and/or care in delivering aid. This paper is better. It distinguishes among technocratic policies, idiosyncratic practices and bureaucratic programs.

Applied to water, we can see how technocrats may set the price of water/service area boundaries and how office workers collect payments for water services but -- most important -- how managers have discretion over practices that are relevant (or IRRELEVANT) to local conditions. Their choices often determine the difference between success and failure.

The anatomy of fail

EB responded to the contest to win the book, but his description is more about the persistence of failure:
I wish my example of "the end of abundance" had a solution to it because there are some reasonable options for action.

Essentially, in one urbanized slum ward in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the piped water system was pretty decrepit and useless, to the point where well water makes up for the bulk of water supply in the area. Electricity shortages and rationing (and the lack of generators) resulted in virtually no water from sunrise to sunset for months on end resulted in the use of shallow wells and upticks in cholera outbreaks. What is even more sad is that piped water kiosks brought into that ward (and the rest of the city) have sat non functional for reasons other than hydraulics or engineering (political party and organizational bickering over management and more than likely some degree of collusion in the water market).

I haven't heard back from my contacts in Dar es Salaam in ages, and don't know if they have acted on either the 'electrical connection" solution for the wells, or have turned on the kiosks (that were all built in 2007-2008). I wish I were in a position to solve this, but I'm just a lowly recent PhD.
I asked him to elaborate on the political/market failings. He replied with:
The political was basically a local level situation where a minor party ("the upstart muslim party", to grossly oversimplify) adapted to lack of cooperation from city and national level major party (TZ has been dominated by same party since birth) groups by creating 'relationships" (read 'bribes') between the private sector sellers and local government. All of this was in a context where the national government quietly fell (parliament dissolved and reconstituted) in a series of huge ($250 million dollar) utility scandals (Richmond Electricity Scandal, Bank of Tanzania scandal, etc. -- more information here) back in February 2009.

What was both pathetic and farcical was that 24 hours after parliament was dissolved, GW Bush arrived with the first tranche of Millennium Challenge Corporation (Good Governance) funding for infrastructure!

As for solutions, I think that the water kiosks throughout the city are good temporary solutions -- ones that would help address water quality issues. Improving the grid, providing alternative sources of pumping power, etc. (or creating a market with these products and services, better yet!) are also useful. I've spoken to city engineers who speak of longer-term issues with expansion of the city's piped system, and they say that it would take an overhaul of the whole thing (including creation of two or three decentralized pumping and treatment stations [see this blog post]) to be able to deal with any further large scale diversion. I think that improved revenue collection from some stubborn groups (the TZ Army once kidnapped a utility employee over an unpaid bill brought to them!) could reduce the 65% NRW rate and go a long way by itself.

Feel free to take a look at parts of my (very imperfect) thesis [PDF] if you are interested.

24 October 2011

Monday funnies

via AZ:

Why do YOU work?

Rob's experience with the EPA -- they wouldn't give him data unless he filed a FOIA -- made me stop and think:

It seems that some bureaucrats work according to demands from FOIA requests. They do not release information without a request, and they wait until the deadline to comply. They do not appear to care about being proactive OR staying ahead of customer demands (low intrinsic incentives).

This scenario is similar to that of lazy referees who minimize their (voluntary) effort in review papers for journals by looking for reasons to reject instead of ways to improve. They are particularly useless when they ignore the possibility that an author may have an original perspective or novel insight (the not-invented-here problem).

I am happy to say that I am neither resistant nor lazy. I work hard to forward information that people may want to know -- often much more quickly than they expect it. I review papers looking for new insights and improvements. I still recommend rejection for many of them, but only because most academic output is worthless.

[Recall that academics are paid according to the number of publications that they have, which does not mean those publications are good. They are often published by colleagues in specialized journals using specialized language that few people can understand or use. There is little incentive to appeal to a broader audience because accessible writing takes more work and may not even go into a "peer reviewed" journal that counts towards professional output. An op/ed in the New York Times is worth less to an academic than 14 pages of gobbledegook in the Journal of Whatchamacallit Studies.

Bottom Line: People who dislike their "work" do not serve customers. This implies that many people should get different jobs, which -- in turn -- implies a radical restructuring of the economy from unpleasant tasks (supply side) and reduction of income-driven consumption (on the demand side). This disruptive process can take place one person at a time, but it would make more people happier.
Slightly related: Success in business requires networking and let old guys go to war (funny).

22 October 2011

Flashback: 17 -- 23 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

21 October 2011

Friday Party!

Here's one way to prioritize your life:
When someone comes up with a new task/complexity for me, I ask them to justify it economically (usually ROI) so that I can determine where it should go on the list. Putting the ball back in their court means that I only have to pay attention to the highest ROI tasks and that I do not make enemies since it is their job to show me that what they have is of value to me. It is not my job to show value to them.

As an example, I got invited to give a talk 3 hours from here. The talk would be fun. My total time invested, however, would be 8 hours. I priced my marginal cost at $250 an hour and asked them to convince me that the talk would be worth $2,000 to me. They seem to have done that.
Think about that idea next time you are spending an hour commuting to work.

Or think about it this way:

Now go party.

The macroeconomics of publishing

Last week, I discussed the microeconomics of publishing -- the detailed revenues that I got from different sales channels for my book and the overall experience of self-publishing.

In this post, I will offer a few thoughts on the impact of publish-on-demand (PoD) and electronic distribution (ED) on the book business. [Here's the Economist's view.]

First, both PoD and ED remove the need for warehouses and bookstores. Both distribution channels ship directly from the printer to the buyer, saving time and expense. It's possible to extend this argument to cut out the "publisher" (editor, design, marketing) when Amazon (et al.) are willing to connect authors directly to readers.

Second, PoD and ED remove the need for discrete print runs, returns and so on.  That means that books can be continuously updated (the upcoming version 1.2 of TEoA will fix 4-5 errors). Way more important, the improved matching of supply and demand means that fewer books will go unsold -- lowering costs and thus prices to consumers.

Third, eBooks will expand the demand for books (instant gratification), even if they do not increase reading (limited time). Offsetting higher sales volumes will be lower prices -- 99 cent books are one thing; pirated books are another thing altogether. It's possible that pirating will force authors to make their money via paid public speaking -- the way that music artists now make more money in live performances.

Fourth, bookstores are in trouble -- in the same way that computer stores are already in trouble. People try the product in the store then buy it online (you can sit in Borders [bankrupt!] a bookstore and download a Kindle book right now, while holding the unbought hard copy in hand). The trouble with bankrupt bookstores -- as many have told me -- is that they provide a distinctive browsing experience. Lots of people like to wonder around and see what's available, not knowing exactly what they want. Luckily for these people, another experience awaits: public libraries.  I bet public libraries become the "bookstores" of the future. People will visit to browse books. Some will check out the books but others will buy the books from online vendors affiliated with the library. The library may get a small commission for sales originating at its kiosks.

Bottom Line: People will still read, but they will pay less for a product that's distributed more efficiently (cutting out a few middlemen in the process).

20 October 2011

How farmers sell water

Kevin France at SWIIM (Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management) sent me this email:
The SWIIM system uses a proprietary algorithm developed with the USDA that takes soil moisture, climatic, economic and water inputs, and “optimizes” the farm for economics and water allocation. It then attempts to “parse off” a portion of the water for use alternatively (lease to cities, municipalities and/or environmental) – that is designed to increase on farm net income by a significant amount. The software manages an entire river system or basin, and allow farmers to control the allocation of water on their respective operations – sort of like the Quickbooks of farming. It allows the farmer to monetize his asset (the water right) in multiple applications, opposed to just agriculture.

We have our first “water move” and client is scheduled in March 2012 – Fort Collins (a Colorado city), the Nature Conservancy and New Belgium Brewery (creator of Fat Tire) will pay a series of farmers to use SWIIM and save water on their farms. We are expanding into other regions as we speak.
Check them out.

How farmers buy water

A desert bird sent me this story (too late for TEoA contest):
In August 2011, the Arizona Water Banking Authority approved an amendment to the 2011 Plan of Operation that will provide more water this year to two agricultural districts in Pinal County that operate as Groundwater Savings Facilities. The ag districts asked for the additional water because historically high commodity prices for cotton last year resulted in large amounts of planted acreage, a spring freeze killed many plants and required replanting of 30% of the cotton crops, and a dry summer produced an emergency need for more water. The irrigation districts used up their allotment of CAP water for the year by the end of August, and were unable to bring enough groundwater wells and pumps online in time to save the crops.
One district paid the full cost of the water - $137/AF – for 15,000 AF, for a total cost of $2M. The cost share normally paid by farmers for CAP water in this district is $33/AF. Ironically, this purchase for additional water above and beyond their plan does not actually “save” any groundwater. The post script is that the farmers report the crop was saved by this emergency influx of water (reportedly they were already in for $1,200 per acre), and the Water Bank said that this was a one-time deal only. But still…
Minutes for the August 25 meeting have the details.

19 October 2011

Speed blogging

H/T to DL

Murdering a river -- biased science

HS made an interesting connection between science and propaganda:

The Center for Environmental Science, Advocacy & Reliability (CESAR, as in Chavez!) sounds like a great place to "bring scientific rigor to regulatory decisions undertaken pursuant to environmental statutes." They have the web address of bestscience.org after all!

Likewise, the California Water Institute at Fresno State sounds like it "provides education, research and analysis of policy issues involving water resources including water quality issues and integrated regional water management planning"

Both places recently hosted a talk on water flows, science and the Delta Smelt, but I think that it's more likely that they presented biased opinion than neutral scientific research.

Why? One big clue lies in the board of directors @ CESAR (CWI does not list its advisors), which has Jean Sagouspe, a politically-active farmer in the Westlands Water District (see this post on his request for favors for campaign contributions to Feinstein and this post on his $$ earnings due to a federal order to release water to Westlands). Another big clue? CWI's "Current Projects" all ended in 2005.

Bottom Line: They may call it "science," but I call it nutz almonds!

18 October 2011

Murdering a river -- the dry details

In response to my review of Water Follies, Bill Kier wrote the following email:
The surface water/groundwater interface issue is playing out as we speak in California’s Scott River, an important tributary to the Klamath, where the interconnection is (a) being investigated as part of a State Water Resources Control Board-adopted total maximum daily load (TMDL) plan; and (b) the subject in fact of litigation brought by the Environmental Law Foundation and the commercial fishermen’s PCFFA, charging that the SWRCB has failed to protect the public trust in allowing the diversion of streams containing an about-to-wink-out coho salmon population. There appears to be a substantial interconnection between the Scott’s surface and ground waters. [The extent of that connection is controversial. Dueling studies of impact are more likely to retard than advance the discussion, which may be their objective.]

The real Scott River ‘follies’ showgirl is the USDA, which started a $60 million Klamath basin restoration program on the heels of the Klamath Reclamation program-related Sagebush Rebellion in 2002, when yahoos from all over (covered by media from as far away as the Netherlands) cut locks off US Bur Rec water gates and diverted Klamath Lake into irrigation canals in defiance of Reclamation’s duty to conserve water for Klamath Lake suckers and downstream coho salmon. This was the year of the gigantic downstream Klamath River salmon kill in late September. USDA has apparently (they say the data is proprietary, despite its federal funding) made dozens of grants to ranchers to sink wells in the Scott and Shasta rivers floodplains, thereby exacerbating coho salmon habitat loss (particularly in the Scott basin, which research has shown to be heavily tributary-dependent - see this PDF).

Speed blogging

  • An interesting document [PDF] from San Diego that compares the cost of water from different sources (desalination, recycling, imports, etc.)

  • A ten minute interview [9MB MP3] with me on KOGO radio -- San Diego's right-wing radio station. I was quite disappointed to hear the host -- after the interview -- turn my message (higher prices will help conserve water) into a baseless polemic on "we're doing what we can" (per capita consumption is 165 gallons/day, or 625 liters/day, so not really) and how the REAL problem are those damned regulations preventing water exports to Southern California. I now have even less respect for talk radio (if that's possible).

  • The SD Union Tribune, on the other hand, published my op/ed: "Southern California’s real water problem – pricing"

  • The End of Abundance RIGHT NOW: "on the island of Nukulaelae, there were only 16 gallons of fresh water remaining Tuesday for the 350 residents... the combination of rising water levels and low rainfall mean makes life on the islands look increasingly precarious."

  • A California court has ruled that tiered prices and water budgets do not violate Prop 218 BUT that tiers need to be proportionate to cost of service, so one district is revising two years of water bills [PDF]. Sounds a lot more complicated (consultant fees! lawyers!) than uniform rates for all customers.

  • Read this paper [PDF]! "International water rights do not address threats to the availability of clean water – pollution, depletion, monopoly, corruption, conflict of interest and mismanagement – and could even exacerbate them. The dark irony of international water rights is that they could frustrate the very objectives they are intended to achieve."
H/Ts to Anon, BF and DL

17 October 2011

Monday funnies

Facebook shower curtain, anyone?

This is just one of many crazy "gifts" at this is why I am broke -- a site offering much more interesting ways to waste money (dog umbrella! shark attack coffee mug!) than the crap sold in those airline magazines.

Poll results -- urban food

Hey! There's a new poll (Contest! What's the best example of coping with the end of abundance?) on the right sidebar ===>
I will pay more for urban-grown food compared to farm-grown when (choose 1+)
It tastes better 27 votes
It helps my community 32 votes
It puts neighbors to work 22 votes
It makes me healthier 17 votes
It is more sustainable 33 votes

These results indicate that voters may be more interested in the health of their communities than their own health (or is that a misinterpretation)?

IMO, it's easily possible for farm-grown food to taste better, be more sustainable, and be healthier for you. It's also possible for urban food to be less useful for communities and jobs -- mainly in the case where resources (land, subsidies, political effort) devoted to urban ag leaves fewer resources for other businesses, e.g., light industry, professional services, education, and so on.

I'm not saying this because I think it's always true (or even often true), but because a lot of people claim that urban agriculture will bring these benefits without thinking too much about how and why that would be so.

Bottom Line: We should all get food from places that deliver value (a big idea) for money; we should also spend time working together with our neighbors. Urban agriculture can deliver on both of those needs, but not automatically.

15 October 2011

Flashback: 10 -- 16 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

Reporting flop at Newsweek, which is still around. I guess I don't have super powers :-\

Coping with social networks -- the struggle continues. I rejoined FB; Google+ is having trouble overcoming FB's network economies, but it's brought useful competition.

Poll results -- Water issues -- yes, they are still getting worse and still appear to be with us. Job security for me? Check.

14 October 2011

Friday Party!

I AM addicted...

Speaking of drugs, check out "When Jesus ate the magic mushrooms" for good reasons to imbibe (Steve Jobs loved his LSD).

H/T to DC

Contest entry: Time for toilet to tap

Goal: Give the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed the problem.

DW writes:

When imported water began to become too scarce and expensive, the city of San Diego was convinced by a group of environmentalists and urban planners to begin exploring the idea of repurifying and reusing wastewater as a new potable water supply. That concept has evolved into indirect potable reuse and the city is now conducting a proof of concept pilot project that will eventually result in major salvaging and reuse of our wastewater supply. That may eventually turn into a semi-closed loop system where we drink, then repurify and recycle much of our ongoing water supplies. Hopefully this will result in far less demand for imported water in our region. It took more than ten years to get the media and some members of the public over a "toilet to tap" fear mentality, but recent polls show that the concept is now accepted by a majority of survey participants.
Other entries: TEoA in Mexico City Wyoming's big flows Harvesting rainwater in Brazil The Great Lakes wake-up call

Speed blogging

H/Ts to JB, RM, CW and SW

13 October 2011

Contest entry: The great wake-up call

Goal: Give the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed the problem.

EC writes:

In 1998, a decision by Canadian officials in the province of Ontario to permit the annual shipment of 158 million gallons of water from the Great Lakes Basin of North America to Asia set off a flurry of public criticism and, in turn, political action. That water from the Great Lakes could be bought, sold, and shipped to another continent, presumably never to return in any real sense, brought Great Lakes basin citizens to the realization that no strong legal framework was in place to prohibit such use of the basin's water resources.

Three shortcomings of existing law at the time included: 1) insufficient and inconsistent coverage of regionally applicable law, 2) legal weaknesses of the Water Resources Development Act due to lack of decision-making standards and enforcement mechanisms, and 3) non-binding regional agreements. An interstate compact amongst the Great Lakes States (US) and Provinces (Canada) was designed to promote long-term protection and sound management of the Basin’s water while preserving state sovereignty that would have otherwise been forfeited under federal regulation. In cooperation, Great Lakes States and Provinces developed a legal mechanism whereby the ability of each state to weigh in on one another’s decisions safeguards against abuse of the basin's resources.
Other entries: TEoA in Mexico City Wyoming's big flows Harvesting rainwater in Brazil Time for toilet to tap

Anything but water

  • All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace [more info] is a three-part BBC series on the interaction of self-organizing computer networks, ecosystems with their feedback loops, crashes and evolution, and the struggle between conservative and radical political movements. I recommend highly this deeply profound series.

  • Singapore's government bans the "Singapore Complaints Choir" for... complaining singing? Listen!

  • USDA criticizes a report critical of biofuels (yawn) with a total disregard for facts. Tell me, again, what the USDA does for the American People?

  • A TEDx talk on Bhutan's pursuit of Gross National Happiness, a goal that does not necessarily require consumption and economic growth.

  • An analysis of the bad judgement (good corruption?) inherent to "investments" by the US government.
    Related: The Economist points out how dangerous governments are for innovation on the internet (showing, once again, that governments should leave the D in R&D to the market)
    Also related: EF tells me his local development authority says they are "Investing in the future today." His analysis: "I may be missing something but I am pretty sure that you can no longer invest in the past or the present so the future is the only thing left." Touché.
H/Ts to CC and MR

12 October 2011

Contest entry: Harvesting rainwater in Brazil

Goal: Give the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed the problem.

RT writes:

The Brazilian semi-arid steppe was never a place abundant in water. Quite the opposite, rain is concentrated in few months of the year. The high temperatures (average 26 C), fast evapotranspiration and strong sunshine year round make life hard for over 20 million people in the Northeastern Brazil. For decades people have suffered with the water scarcity in the region. The severe lack of water reflects in historically the lowest social indicators and highest out migration flows of the country.

A remarkable change came in the past decade with a very simple and ancient technology. Rainwater harvesting (RWH) started as a successful coping strategy against drought. Cisterns are now the most popular word in Northeastern Brazil. Runoff rainwater is diverted from the rooftops of houses via plastic gutters and stored in a 16m3 ferrocement [reinforced concrete] tank. In the region, a rooftop of 40m2 area is able to capture clean water and fill a cistern during the rainy season. It enables a family of five to satisfy drinking and cooking water demand during eight months of drought.
It costs about US$800 to build a cistern. The cost has been split between government and the civil society under the One Million Cisterns Program. The program also fosters social capital. Cisterns are jointly constructed, as households (and neighbors) must provide labor force. Moreover, women are empowered as water care promoters and men are trained as masons, both learning a profession. RWH not only increases the quantity and quality of water available to the households, but also relaxes the time constraint of individuals. It allows them to pursue more productive activities, and puts together communities, building and strengthening ties.
Other entries: TEoA in Mexico City Wyoming's big flows The Great Lakes wake-up call Time for toilet to tap

All-in-Auctions -- the video

Five students at Wageningen helped me make this video demonstrating the All-in-Auction.

This explanation is the fifth sixth means of explaining the AiA (joining the powerpoint, academic paper, public lecture, book, and Solutions Journal explanations), so I hope that people can now start to experiment with using the AiA to reallocate water (for efficiency) while recognizing existing property rights (for equity).

The microeconomics of publishing

As many of you know, I self-published The End of Abundance after giving up on my publisher (UC Press).

Many people are curious to hear how this venture has worked out so far.

First, let me say that I am very pleased to have total control over the marketing and production of my book. Most publishers do nothing to market your book. Their technical facilities are less advanced than the Print-on-Demand service I use (version 1.1 took 10 minutes/one day/one week for PDF/Kindle/paperback versions).

Second, the book would not have been possible without the massive support of you readers and the very special people who helped with editing and detailed feedback. FYI, this (slightly dated) book helped me with the publishing process; this blog post offers useful tips on Kindle publishing.

Third, the financial model also appears to be much better for me.

Let's get into those details (everyone wants NUMBERS!)
  • Since June, I have printed 650 copies and distributed 620 copies. Of these 620 copies, 470 (75%) were paid for; the rest I gave away (mostly to thank contributors).
  • I make $7-9 on paperbacks that sell for $20 on Amazon or $15 direct.
  • I make about $7 on Kindle copies that sell for $9.99 on Amazon.
  • I make about $9 on PDF copies that I sell for $10 via e-junkie.
  • These numbers and the distribution of copies (sold and free) across channels (below) mean that I have just about broken even on the CASH cost of producing the book. Further sales reward me and fuel my ambitions (hint!)
  • MOST books were direct distributed (book signings, teaching, etc.), which is great for meeting readers but tough in terms of moving volumes. I need to increase indirect (online) distribution.
  • My cash costs were low since friends helped with the production; I did my own typesetting and index. (We weren't perfect -- there were some typos.)
  • There were also non-cash costs (my time! my blood pressure!) but also non-sales benefits (speaking fees, invitations to talk about water, happiness). These "indirect" benefits are a huge bonus on a book that's not even a loss leader :)
Fourth, I think this book is a better move for me, compared to putting MORE time into academic publications that are slow to release and inaccessible (both in time and format). Maybe I will never become a professor, but I'd don't want THAT job if it means losing my role as a public intellectual.

Bottom Line: I am very happy I put this book together; it's working out really well. If you liked it, please leave a review to encourage others to read it. If you haven't read it, then order up!

Next week, the macroeconomics of publishing

11 October 2011

Contest entry: Wyoming's big flows

Goal: Give the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed the problem.

JM writes:

The capital city of Wyoming, Cheyenne, is a town of small population by most standards (59,466 per 2010 census).

The water supply for the municipal system is derived from local surface water and groundwater sources and a transbasin diversion of surface water. As most water systems are experiencing, there is a lack of supply to meet demand. The municipality has, under legally authorized action, began a tertiary recovery and re-use program to use treated effluent for watering of recreation areas within the municipal boundaries. This in itself is nothing new and the city is probably behind in the reuse game.

However, what I wanted to share is the down stream consequences of water reuse. Historically the effluent had been discharged to a surface water drainage and the water then served to recharge aquifers tapped by irrigation wells or as direct diversion by senior surface water rights.

My point is management decisions transcend local economics, local political notions, and have real impact on real people. Intended or not. Water flows down hill (or in my world down gradient) and so do the problems. We either pay upfront or we pay at the end, but we pay none the less.

We must as managers and promoters of management strategies remember to look at the big picture.
Other entries: TEoA in Mexico City Harvesting rainwater in Brazil The Great Lakes wake-up call Time for toilet to tap

Speed blogging

  • This weekly report [PDF] from Waterfind (Australia) shows what a REAL water market looks like. But they're not done yet! Western Australia's Department of Water recommends auctions for right to access scarce resources.

  • Judge Wanger says that employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service acted in bad faith, giving an incredible testimony "riddled with inconsistency." Then he told them to stop activities they claimed would save the Delta Smelt. I long ago gave up trying to understand the details of this mess (so maybe I misunderstand his action), but I understand that "bad faith" means lying (bad move) and getting caught (worse move).

  • Rob Froetscher examines the affordability of water from US utilities, comparing PPP and municipal (private and public) providers. His paper has data challenges, but his provisional finding -- that PPP-utilities are more affordable -- is useful. Why? Because it supports the theory that PPP-utilities will use outside expertise to improve operating efficiency. Read the paper [DOCX] and send Rob comments.

  • Two examples of self-dealing in Colorado. First, there's the lawyer who represented farmers selling water and the utility districts that bought it. The farmers got screwed. Second, there was a deal to buy water where the cash traded hands before the water could. Ratepayers got screwed.

  • The EPA's guide to Effective Water Utility Management is highly recommended by a guy who's working to prevent the largest municipal bankruptcy in history (read more on Alabama wastewater and corruption.

  • "Australia now provides a great case study of the developments in maximizing water recycling opportunities from policy, regulatory and technological perspectives. This paper explores the evolution in thinking and how approaches to wastewater reuse has changed over the past 40 years from an effluent disposal issue to one of recognizing wastewater as a legitimate and valuable resource."
H/Ts to PB, CG and BT

10 October 2011

Contest entry: TEoA in Mexico City

Goal: Give the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed the problem.

Anonymous writes:

The Irony: Mexico City was built on top of a lake, there was lots of water everywhere (main reason the Aztecs decided to establish there), so we can say water scarcity wasn't a problem) but now, many centuries after what is wrong? Well the city is sinking because constant depletion of its aquifers, the rate at which we are pumping water out of them is much higher than the natural or mechanical reload. We don't have a clear price policy on water and it is heavily subsidised. All problems have been partially “solved” trying to manipulate supply instead of demand etc.

So what is the best example of the End of Abundance?

People storing water in buckets for weeks, consuming as little as 25 liters per day per family. Fights at 5am in the morning over water rights when the pipes arrive to deliver water in 200 liter containers. Diseases and unsuitable climate for kids to assist to school and families spending as much as 60% of their income in water bottles (Mexico is the top consumer after USA of this un-sustainable product)

Other entries: Wyoming's big flows Harvesting rainwater in Brazil The Great Lakes wake-up call Time for toilet to tap

Contest -- Dealing with the End of Abundance

Several readers responded to the contest to win a (signed) copy of The End of Abundance with "the best example of the end of abundance in water and how people addressed/solved the problem." I will post one story per day over the next week for you to read. Voting will take place during the following two weeks, so that you readers can choose the best story (according to your own subjective opinion).

One reader notes:
Your readership has not had to confront "the end of abundance" issue. You may be addressing the first billion while the extreme effects of the situation are closer to the next billion and closest to the bottom of the pyramid of poverty. Those folks are probably not reading your blog.
Although this observation may be true in terms of your water service, I think that you will understand a good example of the end of abundance when you see it. So do a good job!

Monday funnies

Bad news, straight from The Onion:

Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

CUPERTINO, CA—Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. "We haven't just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we've literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on," a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas—attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen. "This is a dark time for our country, because the reality is none of the 300 million or so Americans who remain can actually get anything done or make things happen. Those days are over." Obama added that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore.

We're screwed. Now what?

It's well known that there are two responses to climate change: mitigate the problem by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the problem by preparing for the consequences.

I've blogged for several years on the importance of mitigation (via, e.g., a carbon tax), but two trends mean that I will spend more time on adaptation (as I did in my book).

First, there's the politics of mitigating a global public bad. I assigned The Logic of Collective Action to my Berkeley students to help them understand the nature of skewed costs and benefits when it comes to collective goods (the atmosphere). I ran a simulation with climate negotiators and found they suffered from the same problem.

Second (and related), we've seen a huge failure to make even a fraction of the necessary effort on mitigation. Republicans (mostly) who claim that mitigation will be useless created that result by failing to pursue mitigation. The financial meltdown (tied to unsustainable practices, so a double whammy) mean that there's little tolerance for paying to avoid events 20-50 years down the line.

How are people absorbing this emerging fact? Some are ever-hopeful of a global governance miracle; others are desperate but know nothing except to persevere.

I have three ideas:
  1. The Earth will "survive" -- as it has before -- even if 50% of species are wiped out.
  2. Some humans will make it, but the transition will be costly.
  3. Most important now, mitigation-focused investments (solar, biofuels, zero-emissions stuff) are wasted if there's no "carbon reduction payback" -- this means that a lot of projects are going to turn instantly unprofitable.
Bottom Line: It's time to adapt: lift your skirts for floods and prepare for droughts.

08 October 2011

Flashback: 3--9 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

Westlands, Nazis and Politicians -- quiet these days, now that they got their water. That said, entitlements, change and waste offers a brilliant insight on welfare farmers.

Crime and punishment aka, why I live in Holland. (A young woman told me yesterday how the local police were "balancing the budget" by handing out $165 jaywalking tickets. Makes you want to brew some tea.)

Sustainable bottled water? Sure. Where carbon is concerned. But maybe we are paying attention to the wrong thing with carbon (more soon :)

07 October 2011

Friday party!

This is what they call "Cool Ranch" flavor in the Netherlands...

Watering the forest

JR writes:
The basic concept is that forest densities have some measurable effect on water supply – more trees use more water. The way the theory goes, originally the old growth forests were not very dense, had lots of fires, and had a rather stable overall evapotranspiration (ET) rate. After the old growth was logged, water supply likely increased, and logging continued pretty heavily until the 70’s or so. Then fire suppression, logging suppression, and other land use changes meant that the forests, particularly on public lands, started growing very rapidly and achieving peak ET (that happens when the trees are something like 40-150 years old, after that, when they are old growth, ET drops off). So, all the social issues and policies etc. have put us in a place where forest policy may be impacting water availability to some extent, and this effect will continue without management for the next 100 years or so. No one really knows exactly the degree of that effect, but some “back of the envelop calculations say maybe around 3 million acre-feet for the Sierra Nevada in California.

This is clearly not a solution, but is just another example of a piece of the problem – one of those key things that can’t be ignored as you try to fix the larger water problems. You can find out quite a bit about this just by googling “Forest evapotranspiration rates water supply.” There is also a study being done in the Sierra that has a pretty interesting water supply component to it, but the funding may be drying up for that. Another resource, sort of related, is the Forest Service's attempted estimate of the value of water it contributes.
Although I worry about an effort to show a "water contribution" via forests, I totally agree that these policies have impacted water flows within forested watersheds. I remember being quite skeptical of a claim I heard a few years ago from a logger ("we can have more water if we chop down trees"), but now I see the sense of this claim in the context of forests that are "unnaturally dense." The next question is trickier: who gets the "extra" water?

Bottom Line: We need to carefully design policies if we want to avoid unexpected impacts and make no policy at all when the quantity and quality of impacts has the potential to overwhelm any benefits from a policy.

06 October 2011

Steve Jobs on life before death

Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

[Recommended here one year ago. Go watch it again]

"My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Bottom Line: He ended his address with "Stay hungry, stay foolish," and that's some damned good advice from a damned fine man.

Customers? What customers?

RM writes:

Just thought I would offer some commentary from the perspective of an ordinary water consumer. Several months ago I purchased a foreclosed home in my neighborhood and am working to fix it up. A few days ago I got my first bill:
Water Service Charge $13.82
Current water $4.92
Sewer service charge $19.99
Current sewer $5.47
EPA consent decree surcharge $16.26
Current drainage bi-monthly $12.55
Total current charges $73.01

In my city, Louisville, KY, the Metropolitan Sewer District and the Louisville Water Company bill together. I don't know how common that is, however as far as customers are concerned, it's all "the water bill." We are billed bi-monthly, which to me means we don't get feedback very often about how much water we are using.

But here's what really gets me. I spent $4.92 to use, so the company says, 2000 gallons of water. I spent $5.47 on current sewer even though 95% of the water that was used was used to water new grass (drought tolerant, uses less water once started Open-mouth smile) that I put in over the area that had been dug up. So most of my bill has nothing to do with my water usage but feels more like a "thank you very much for letting us screw you" kind of thing.* Secondly, the EPA consent decree, which I feel was pretty bogus anyway, was in no way my fault. But fining the company does not penalize the company in any way because customers pay the whole thing.** It amounts to taxation by the EPA (and the state of KY, see this) of the residents of Louisville. Another reason to love the EPA, right? The reason I think the thing was bogus was not that I disagree that there was a problem, which was that the sewer district had too many accidental sewer overflows into the river, but that on average, the water is probably much cleaner leaving Louisville than coming in (we use the Ohio River as our water source) and that the decree doesn't seem to do much to address the real problem with the sewers.

But the real problem is this: The Louisville Water Company and the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District operate as one monopoly. As long as this is the case, customers like me feel screwed because it seems that they just charge us whatever they want. If water companies charged market rates for water, which would usually be higher, but there is no competition for customers among the water companies, we'll just feel even more screwed.***

We must find ways to bring competition to these "utilities" or customers will not support paying market rates for water.

DZ comments: I agree that the water companies do what they want and charge what they want. That means we need to improve oversight (this means customers need to care), compare prices across utilities, and introduce incentives to punish poor performance/reward good performance.

* See this post on water tariffs in Southern California.

** This is indeed a bizarre result, since fines are passed along to customers. EPA judgements do require action by the utility (which is why Memphis saw the greatest percentage price increase of any of the 308 global cities in the GWI survey. I wonder if the general manager of "Memphis Water" (don't know the name) was fired.

*** * I think he means that market rates will reduce demand (no shortage), but that customers will not be happy with these rates if they do not know why they are so high.

05 October 2011

Bottled water banned on campus

This is a stupid idea. (It's even more stupid when they give away steel bottles -- manufactured with a lot of resources -- that students put on the shelf!) People are not forced to use bottled water. If you want to SAVE students from themselves and the environment from plastic bottles, then why not ban soft drinks? Sounds stupid? Yeah, that's my point.

Bottom Line: Bottled water is no more evil than peanut butter; plastic bottles are not worse than glass bottles. Pay attention to the real problem (litter, water quality, sustainable extractions), not just a business that is correlated with poor management of resources.

Speed blogging

  • This short World Bank note [PDF] on "reform of water tariffs in Chongqing" (perhaps the largest city in the world) gives some useful pointers: (1) people will pay more for water when payment goes to improve quality (and save them from buying bottle water or getting sick) and (2) higher rates are not "regressive" when the rich gain more from "social tariffs" (better to give income support to the poor)

  • Aquacue (a company that I advise) is holding a water conservation competition at UC Merced in which students in nine dorms compete to see who can use the least amount of water per person. You can track their results -- updated daily -- here. I predict more people showering at the gym, but this contest gives everyone an idea of how the combination of feedback and competition can reduce water use.

  • "Argentina is promoting a new era of mining and energy production, welcoming billions of dollars in foreign investment to unlock huge new reserves of natural gas, oil, gold, lithium and other metals once thought to be unprofitable or out of reach." I worry about this announcement since it -- combined with Argentina's growing emphasis on local production ("import substitution" all over again) implies that the government may waste and pollute water resources in its quest for more local energy production and mining.

  • San Antonio has replaced unsustainable groundwater pumping (as described in Water Follies) with a wastewater recycling scheme. Success in Texas!

  • The IUCN Water Programme is pleased to announce the launch of its new Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) website for Integrated Water Resource Management knowledge and solutions.

  • H/Ts to MF, DL and RM

04 October 2011

My lectures at Delft

A few months ago, I gave eight 45 minute lectures to a class of international students studying watershed management at the Institute for Water Education in Delft.

The class was based on The End of Abundance but only covered a few chapters in the book. In other words, this is me teaching economics :)

Here are the videos (WMAs that you can watch with Windows Media Player. What do Mac people do?)


Lecture 1

Lecture 2

Lecture 3

Lecture 4

Lecture 5

Lecture 6

Lecture 7

Lecture 8

Global survey of water tariffs

We've had a few posts on water tariffs here in the past week, and here's another one :)

Global Water Intelligence recently published their annual survey of water and wastewater tariffs from around the world (registration gives you access to three free articles).

I contributed a commentary that included this:
The countries with the most cities in the survey (USA with 27, China with 25 and India with 17) show significant domestic variation. The minimum, median and maximum prices per cubic metre of water are $0.53, $1.13 and $3.14 in the US, $0.17, $0.35 and $0.59 in China, and $0.05, $0.11 and $0.28 in India, respectively. There may be many reasons why prices vary within one country, but the lesson is clear: no country has “average” water prices.

We have water tariff data for 308 cities and wastewater tariffs for 248 cities. The most common rate structure in the survey is increasing block rates (151 cities), followed by linear rates (141 cities), decreasing block rates (9 cities) and fixed charges (7 cities). The correlation within water-wastewater price pairs is 67% (a 100% correlation would mean that water and wastewater prices moved in the same direction and at the same rate).
I recommend that you read the whole thing -- especially to look at numbers such as these:

03 October 2011

My talk on agricultural water

The Water Channel posted it here.

Monday funnies

Some people having fun with the PC crowd

More on US water tariff structures

GS sent the following comments in response to this post:
Not sure if you are still looking for data on the proportions of utilities using different rate structures, but I came across this EPA document [PDF] that states:

Three rate surveys give us some insight into existing industry practices regarding conservation pricing. The Raftelis Environmental Consulting Group’s 2000 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey depicts 29 percent of surveyed communities using increasing block rates (where cost per thousand gallons increases at various increments of usage). The American Water Works Association’s 1998 survey of the residential rate structures of 827 utilities shows approximately 22 percent employing increasing block rates and 2 percent employing seasonal rates.

The largest sample set (over 1,200 systems) comes from EPA’s Community Water System Survey 2000 found at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/cwssvr.html. This survey shows only 9.2 percent of systems employing increasing block rates. To be precise, all these surveys pertain to water rates and not wastewater rates. However, most residential wastewater is not metered but is instead billed in proportion to water coming into residences (drinking water) or by some other formula.
FYI, the EPA has a LOT of information on water, but I turned to Rob Froetscher (a recent graduate of U Virgina), who has been playing with EPA data for some time, for some context. Here's what he said:
Those are some interesting numbers. 29% versus 22% versus 9.2% certainly suggests that at least two of the surveys have some bias.

Interestingly, Raftelis (whom the document references as having done their own survey in 2000) also did all the American Water Works Association surveys that I have (2006 and 2008). That makes me wonder if they also did the 1998 AWWA survey that the document references.

I know there is selection bias on the AWWA survey (and probably the Raftelis) too. They tend to underrepresent small systems because those systems don't have the resources to respond to their surveys. Additionally, because they publish the full names of their systems and ask detailed financial information I would assume that unprofitable systems would be largely underrepresented.

The EPA goes to some lengths to make sure they have a representative sample of systems on the CWSS, including sending personnel out to small systems in order to help them respond. Additionally the CWSS is "anonymous" (unless you manage to get the key matching it to SDWIS) so that probably reduces selection bias.

In short, yes, I would worry about selection bias especially on the Raftelis and AWWA surveys. I would say that the EPA's number (9.2%) is likely the closest. I bet the number from the 2006 CWSS is even closer.
As further background on this topic, I quote the first email Rob wrote to me:
The EPA's 2006 Community Watersystem Survey has information on pricing mechanisms. Their PDF report can be downloaded from their website or you can get their Stata data (which I had to FOIA them for) over at my site, waterthought.org, on the "Knowledge" page [ZIP file].

If you get the PDF I think you'll want to look at table 71.

If you download the data I think what you'll want will be in the stata file called cwss.dta. The question that asks about pricing mechanisms is question 22.
Now the craziest thing of all is that Rob had to file an FOIA to get water pricing data. It's not because such data are a national security risk; it's because EPA prioritizes its workload based on "pull" demands from people filing FOIAs. Talk about transaction costs!

* Rob is also looking for a job researching water economics/policy issues (email him)

01 October 2011

Flashback: 26 Sep -- 2 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

Mulroy's propaganda -- has not died down in a year. Pity.

Free water? WTF? Schools have to provide free water -- by law.

Can politicians overcome bias? Richard Howitt and Jeffrey Michael worked together to reconcile their estimates for job losses due to cuts in agricultural water. Politicians ignored those results and kept talking about the wrong numbers so they could beg for more ag water.

Institutionalized racism -- Sowell is a genius.

30 months of aguanomics -- that was a year (and 600 posts) ago! I'll put up a detailed "report" in 6 months, but -- for now - I am glad that I've got my job in the Netherlands and have finished the book :)

Special note: TWO years ago, I discussed Stalin's Reincarnation. Now Putin is taking over again (I hate to be right this way).