16 Sep 2014

The practical ways in which laws are undermined

A water bureaucrat (WB) explained to me how laws that sound good in theory may be worthless in reality.

Water users in his state can pump groundwater with permission, without permission (exempt), or in excess of their permission (illegal).

Problems result from exempt or illegal pumping, so WBs (who want to represent/protect the public) should either monitor everyone (assuming adequate resources) or go after the largest abusers (prioritizing given a lack of resources).

WB told me that neither of these strategies are pursued. Politicians have withheld funding to monitor all uses, and they have directed WBs to monitor permitted uses. Given that most permits (say 90 percent) go to small users, these instructions mean that WBs spend 90 percent of their time on users who may account for 10-20 percent of total use (and very little abuse). WBs do not pay extra attention to large users, and they entirely ignore exempt users. The upshot is that the WBs are busy but useless.*

Bottom Line: Vague regulations and mis-prioritized enforcement can lower bureaucratic impact to zero, even with hard working, qualified staff. Pay attention to outcomes, and pay more attention to politicians who talk about sustainability but then hinder its pursuit.
* We would predict this result if we knew politicians condone over-use of groundwater. We can assume they do condone such over-use, given the predictable and known impact of their instructions.