18 Jun 2014

The list of shame: bad water policies

Here -- for your future reference -- are a few popular policies and their drawbacks. I'd prefer to see less of these and more of the policies that are more likely to deliver targeted benefits.

A national water strategy is usually inappropriate because it's at the wrong governance scale. The largest useful scale for governance is a watershed or catchment, which may cross national or political boundaries. When in doubt, make strategies and take actions according to local water conditions, aggregating with neighbors where necessary.

Increasing block rates are confusing, unfair and worse for conservation than just raising prices on all units of water.

The discussions around a human right to water often imply that laws, once made, will be implemented. But that won't happen if corruption (the real culprit) must be addressed first.

The energy-water nexus is simultaneously too narrow (add food-climate-transport-etc. to the nexus) and too broad (few people can understand the energy or water system, let alone how they interact). It would be better to manage each sector separately (e.g., dealing with water stress, from all causes) instead of linking them up to make management hopeless.

Water footprints are a good way for consultants to make money, but meaningless for sustainability. A carbon footprint is meaningful, as your carbon emissions have a global impact, but the same water footprint has different impacts in different places (e.g., cows raised on rainfed grass versus irrigated hay). Sustainable water management (="can continue indefinitely") will result in an "appropriate" footprint.

Subsidies for efficiency may result in equipment upgrades, but they do not limit total use and cost money. Higher prices will tackle both AND generate revenue.

Do you have any BAD policies to add to this list?


  1. That's a very nice, abbreviated list David. Those items are all on point and fundamental. If we could design commandments from that list, the world would be a much better place and the water rent-seeking industry would collapse too. I might add to the human right item that any reference to "need" using anything other than a environmental/biological definition is misleading in developed country contexts. Also your water footprint assessment can be extended to virtual water. "Sustainability" has become a sloppy word (so I wonder if we should outlaw it), but at least you define your meaning. I wonder if conservation oversight policy (thou shalt have a conservation plan before we consider your application) should be added. Striking down barriers to transferability but retaining third party protections. Eliminating acceptance of average-cost pricing, at least when costly projects (e.g. desal) are on the agenda. Stop allowing states to spend general revenue on new projects unless (a) x% of benefits pertain to true public goods and (b) a CBA is performed by an indep. nonwater agency. Stop allowing unmetered water diversions or pumping. Place surface water and ground water law on common footing (e.g. quantified prior approp. permits). We could go on, but with decreasing returns as compared to your list.

  2. @Ron -- great additions. When it comes to conservation, I've said: "“Acceptable” levels [of environmental flows] should not be set by those with an interest in diverting water. They should be set by scientists who understand the connections between flows and healthy ecosystems. Scientists may be vulnerable to the bias of reserving too much water for nature. That means we should make changes if their recommendations lead to outcomes that over- or undershoot the community’s ecosystem targets. These adjustments will add or subtract water available for private uses, but a two-step allocation (reserve environmental fl ows before allocating remaining waters among human uses) is much easier to manage than balancing between “coequal goals.”"


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