27 April 2015

Dear John -- I think you need to talk to your neighbors

In Living with Water Scarcity, I wrote:
The end of abundance
Scarcity is like the fuel warning light in your car. Ignore it for too long, and you’ll be stranded. People who grew up with water abundance may not see the flashing light. Their attitudes and habits — and the social, economic and political institutions that reinforce them — make it hard to respond to water scarcity. Neighbors who share water from rivers, lakes, or aquifers may refuse to acknowledge that there is not enough water for every need. Others fight to get their “fair” share. A third group wants to address scarcity, but they cannot without help from others.
"I am going to water this lawn until WE run out of water."
Last week, a court ruled in favor of John, Jim and other neighbors who claimed that increasing block rates were "unfair" because those rates reflected a need for water conservation (reducing demand), rather than reflecting the cost of delivery.

The trouble with their logic (and their "victory") is that the cost of delivering water -- unlike the cost of delivering gasoline, housing or other commodities -- does not include any cost for water, since water "rights" are acquired for free. The result of this hangover from an era of abundance -- as every economist will tell you [2] -- is that scarce water will be underpriced and overdemanded, such that supplies run out. The implication, in other words, is that guys like John and Jim will continue to water their lawns with water that others in the community would rather keep around for drinking, cooking and bathing. Indeed:
Too many people so busy fighting for their right to misuse public resources and generally demand the right to act like an uneducated, selfish and classless idiots. It's far too easy to block respectable legislation by creating a legal gridlock and far too easy to create legal gridlock based on unreasonable assertions. The spirit of greater good needs to prevail here and elsewhere in our society.
So, you can see that John and Jim's neighbors are already pissed off about abuse of "the public good," i.e., the water that they must share as a common pool good because they are not allowed to price it as the private good it is.

That's a long prologue to an announcement that I am not making

I was thinking of launching a Kickstarter to fund a "California water tour" to various communities, to have discussions on the end of abundance and ways of living with water scarcity.[3] I decided -- after thinking about it, reading many emails and articles, and even considering charging fees -- that it wasn't worth it. That was painful to me in the context of the State's support for my education, my friendships, and the clear interest in my win-win solutions.

It's not that I think that change is impossible, it's that there are guys like John out there who are unwilling to face facts (falling water supplies) or pay for their luxuries (green lawns in desert conditions). Indeed, John is just the latest of many "no can do" people who are preventing the change that California needs.[4] To put it simply, California's water management is the result of its messy politics, complex laws, and warring communities. As an ex-resident, I have neither the standing, nor the interest in fighting in the trenches with people who cannot add 1 and 1.[5]

I am glad to see that lawyers are already reinterpreting the court's decision, that simple "show me the water" ideas may reduce abuse of shared aquifers, and that the discussion on water use is finally getting some nuance.[6]

So it's up to you Californians. Some of you think the time is ripe, and others may disagree, but the drought doesn't care. Nobody cares about your beliefs when there's no water.[7]

Bottom Line: Californians need to reform their water management to allocate limited supplies among social and economic demands. The good news is that any community can begin this process without worrying too much about what other communities are doing. The bad news is that every community needs to have people who are willing to push against the water managers who learned their trade in an age of abundance and Johns who feel entitled to take what belongs to everyone. I am willing to help any and all water heroes, but the job is really your responsibility.

  1. I'm pretty sure that their victory will be Pyrrhic. Absent pricing as a tool, the only choice is regulation, i.e., no outdoor watering. Now John and Jim will not be able to have ANY lawns.
  2. And here they are...
  3. Yes, those are my books [pdf], and the names were not accidents! :)
  4. The first were the managers at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They even rejected pilot trials of auctions to allocate water among member agencies, preferring to waste $millions of ratepayer money on zero-sum lawsuits. Talk about abuse of office!
  5. via FB: "Here is an analogy: I go to a restaurant and order a chicken dinner at 5:00 in the evening for $12. An hour later my buddy shows up and orders the same, to which the water says, "Due to a recent shortage in chickens, yours will cost $15." Who should the burden be on? The restaurant (state) that didn't prepare for the demand or the customer? The problem isn't water supply. It is our state government failing to store water for times like this. We should not have to open our wallets every time the politicians put us in a bad spot." DZ: Sorry, but you haven't worked in a restaurant, where it's "We're out of chicken. How about fish?" When it comes to water, you need to limit demand within supply. But you, like John, don't seem to get that.
  6. That said, I've heard a LOT of complaints from other people with "dead obvious, used elsewhere" solutions that are getting no traction in California. I trace their lack of success to water managers protected status. Fire a few managers for presiding over shortage, and I bet they'll start looking for new ideas!
  7. "If you listen to the spokespersons on all the sides and the pundits on all the sides, you'll pretty quickly come to understand that waste is always water used by other people," says Jay Lund. "This is, I think, a natural human condition in such a dry place."
H/Ts to JD, ND, RM, JR, SS and DV


  1. You may be right to complain about John, Jim and other neighbours and their selfish and short sighted approach, but the Court’s hands were effectively tied by the clever people who drafted Proposition 218 (for probably very good reasons at the time) but who didn’t look forward to now, and by the city officials who didn’t see the big hole in their fee structure (which appears to be a really dumb omission by the city officials).

    Good rate structures need to be logical and effective, but also legal.

    1. @NM -- American laws are often vague, leaving space for Johns to bring suit against the letter but not their intention. The result -- more time spent in court and less on reliability -- is common in the US and a big barrier to good governance (people work with loopholes over mandates).

      "Obamacare" is under similar assault due to a missing word -- subsidies given to state but not (by omission) federal "exchanges" (markets). Nobody thinks the law was supposed to give subsidies unevenly but the missing word may derail the biggest reform in decades...


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