26 Feb 2015

Water prices, sprawl and conservation

After my AMA on Reddit a few months ago, ND sent the following questions:

Q: You mentioned at one point that reducing sprawl can help with local water issues. I know that dense cities have far lower per-capita water usage, but do you have any data on the cost of infill versus exurban development? I'm generally supportive of smart growth, but I have heard some detractors say that the cost of upgrading pipelines to accommodate higher density is greater than the cost of new supplies to the suburbs.

A: Yes, it's true that repairs and retrofits are more expensive (due to finding pipes, ripping streets, matching old layout, etc.), but (1) those networks need to be maintained anyway for existing customers and (2) sprawl "uses more water" due to landscaping on larger lots.

Q: My professor (who specializes in water policy) said that water conservation programs subsidized by ratepayers are often used by cities to supply new developments (presumably the property taxes from these will eventually pay off current residents). That seems like corporate welfare, and dumb, unsustainable growth.

A: Well, that's certainly possible, even if it is fraudulent. The only use of those funds that makes sense, in terms of new developments, would be upgrading new infrastructure to improve conservation, e.g., installing a "purple pipe" network for distributing recycled water for landscaping. The tax-existing-residents-to-subsidize-new-residents-whose-taxes-will-repay-existing-residents idea sounds like robbing Peter to pay Paul...

Q: I've seen your advocacy of (excessively) high water rates with a per-capita rebate to pay back revenue. While I agree with that in theory, I don't see how it could be politically feasible in most places. Maybe it would be easier at a local level, but Republican politicians seem unwilling to support a fee and dividend consumption tax (whether it is a carbon tax or higher water rates) that would both help the environment and poor people.

A: I agree that Republicans often promote anti-poor, anti-environmental policies,* but I'm hopeful that local politicians -- the ones affecting water prices -- might see the advantages of lowering water use and rebating excess revenues. They might see this because of the importance of protecting citizens from water shortages without putting undue financial stress on the people who use the least water (they are not the problem). I outline this system in my book and in this post.

* I highly recommend (1) this great talk about the crisis of capitalism and (2) this excellent paper [pdf] on the rise of the "winner takes all" society.

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