14 April 2015

Thoughts on my Reddit AMA on drought and shortage

My third "ask me anything" on Reddit was the most popular so far. There were 2,700+ comments (300+ from me) on a range of topics. Many were directed at silver bullet solutions ("reduce demand through vegetarianism!" or "increase supply with desalination!"), many were "what can I do?" or "how screwed are we?", and a good number came from people wanted to work on water issues. About 20-30 percent were about water issues in other countries (India, Saudi, Brazil, Mexico, et al.)

As usual, it was a fun but exhausting 6-7 hours of give and take.

I am VERY happy that an AMA-bot has collected and formatted the popular questions and my answers, but these were my favorites:
Q1: Why does everybody in CA politics go on about people having to preserve water personally when only about 6% of the water in California is used for personal consumption? Most of it seems to be used for growing fringe non-essential agricultural products like alfalfa and almonds.
A1: "It's something you can do while we get more campaign donations from farmers"

Q2a: If you were emperor of California and you could implement any three projects related to water, what would they be and which would be given priority? Why?
(1) Intertie distribution systems and allow water markets to allocate bulk water, BUT
(2) Cut off long-distance water transfers. It's time to live within your means and restore ecosystems that provide HUGE benefits.
(3) Bring urban systems into full performance such that treated wastewater (and stormwater) could be recycled into human use. How to pay?
Q2b: Um... ok... can I get an ELI5 (Explain like I'm 5) on this anyone?
(1) Allow people to share water (or sell it)
(2) Use your water, not your neighbors
(3) Don't break your toys; if you do, fix them so you can use them.

Q3: Does the CA water board recognize you/your work? After watching the CA Board's meeting yesterday, live, I saw a few presentations that showed frustration at the board's lack of progress. Is the politics and the bureaucracy the real culprit on progress?
A3: Yes. They may say their hands are tied by procedure, etc. (see this), but there's also a constituency for business as usual. It's time to bang heads, like they did in the 80-90s in Australia

Q4a: What are the biggest lifestyle changes individuals can make to help combat shortages of fresh water?
A4a: No watering outdoors
Q4b: What, in your opinion (unless there are facts to back it up with), is the biggest culprit/beneficiary of the outdoors watering?
A4b: Developers, real estate agents and gardeners

Q5a: If California were a blank slate in terms of water law, what legal framework would you suggest to allow for the most economically efficient use/distribution of finite water resources?
A5a: I'd follow the Aussie example with LIMITED licenses for surface and groundwater, so that demand was "capped" and trade could occur (not strictly necessary for, e.g, local g/w). California has a mix of prior appropriation, riparian and g/w rights that conflict.
Q5b: So I'm a resident. This sounds like a good idea, and we have this mostly stupid system of ballot propositions. Could the voters fix this damn thing in 2016? Who would be against it, besides farmers with senior rights?
A5b: Void all rights, reform rights for issue. Auction them. Pay off prior owners of rights. My idea

Q6: When it rains in SoCal, I see all the dry river beds, Santa Ana River, etc. flowing and think we should be pumping that into holding areas [for groundwater infiltration]. Is there any chance of that happening instead of letting it flow out to sea?
A6: Yes! There's a BIG project in LA to remove concrete and allow water to infiltrate.

Q7: I heard some houses don't even have meters in California. I think Sacramento area? Is that true?
A7: True. Water was "too cheap to meter" in the past. Meters are, AFAIK, only 70-80 years old. In the past (and now in places), water was a "civic service" paid by property taxes, rather than a utility service with user fees. There's a different philosophy behind each choice.

Q8: Don't any other Californians wonder why the rice farmers constantly have those commercials explaining that they aren't a water intensive crop and that they provide habitats for birds!?
A8: Rice is not actually a problem when it's grown off of flood flows...

Q9: What does it cost to move water in a pipeline – like the keystone XL deal? vs the cost of desalinating water? Or what other wacky options are out there?
A9: Desalinated water costs about $1,000/acre foot (US measure; roughly $1/m3) which means a barrel (42 gal) costs about $0.13. Oil is worth about $40/bbl, so it's WORTH shipping by pipeline.
These are only a few, but there are many more as well as the FAQ-type links I provided at the top of the AMA. (Luckily, it looks like people downloaded around 1,000 copies of Living with Water Scarcity. Free is a good price :)

I'll add here a few things that I should have on the AMA, i.e., a primer on water in California from the Legislative Analyst's Office (source of the figures) and statistics on urban water consumption [my XLXS from here] that show the highest users (above state median of 100 gallons/capita/day -- four times the use of people in Amsterdam) are mostly in southern California. Lawns anyone?

Bottom Line: People are very interested in water issues, but they do not often know how policies lead to outcomes (my book explains). Nature makes a drought and man makes a shortage, so it's up to us to reform the way that water is priced in cities, limit withdrawals to protect environmental flows, and improve water re-allocation so the best lobbyists farmers can grow more with less.


  1. Sorry I missed the AMA. Is there some reason there shouldn't* be a single price for water based on cost of transport + demand/supply, in order for water to be put to its most productive /valuable use?

    I.e., some reason you, as Water Czar, wouldn't seize ALL water rights (eminent domain, baby!) beyond that which falls onto one's own property, and auction them off without special allocation based on intended usage?

    Rates in my utility district are 0.5¢/gallon after the monthly fixed cost. That's $9.00 per pound of beef produced, showing even low-income households are subsidizing exports.

    * Shouldn't in the sense that this would be unfair or misallocating from Pateto-optimal. Under auction, there'd be little/no need, but allowance for, secondary sale of purchased water.

    1. No, there's no reason why there should not be one price (ignoring transport) for each sale. Price differentials WILL persist when basins are not connected (enough), but that's a good thing. Indeed, what I recommend is "reserve environmental water (for all)", then put the rest up for sale, one watershed at a time. Existing rights holders can be repaid if their rights go to others (i.e., they can buy them back under my all in auction)

      Your 0.5 cents price probably reflects system costs, NOT water costs. Call your utility and ask what they pay for WATER (not pumping or delivery, etc.) It's usually nothing due to rights.


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