27 Sep 2011

Water Follies -- the review

I've been hearing about this 2002 book (subtitle: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters) for years. Robert Glennon wrote it before Unquenchable.

In this book, Glennon describes the failure to sustainably manage groundwater via case studies that concentrate on the rising cost of falling groundwater levels and the hapless -- and often cynically sabotaged -- efforts to reverse the damages. Glennon's background as a lawyer provides a useful complement to his detailed descriptions of the people and institutions in every location. Readers like me will come away with a new understanding of just how badly wrong -- and how achingly long -- a misconceived policy can continue.

In most cases, the original sin is a combination of laws that fail to acknowledge the hydrologic connection between surface- and groundwaters (dating from a legal opinion of 1894 that was reaffirmed as recently -- in the book -- as 2000) and which thereby put no limit -- from a Public Trust or property rights perspective -- on the use of groundwaters from "under" one's property.

In a typical scenario, what we get is a situation in which Actor A's use of groundwater starts to affect the water that Actor B cares about -- usually by sucking water from under B's property, but also by sucking water from streams, wetlands and other water environments that B -- and plenty of plants and animals -- would prefer to see wet. B, having no institutional basis for claiming harm from A's actions, struggles to change A's behavior -- often to no avail.

I discuss this theme -- the causes and consequences of institutions that fail to respond to an end of abundant water -- in my book, which looks at surface and ground-water management across a number of topics and spends more time on the incentives for success and failure and how to change them.

Glennon's book is an excellent complement to my book, as its case studies describe just how barriers to change are assailed (or erected) and how harmful "business as usual" is to innocent people and the environment.

Now to some detailed comments on the book, which focuses on groundwater in the United States:
  • Some places restrict groundwater extraction but allow unlimited numbers of "exempt wells." These provide a loophole large enough to drive a subdivision through -- with unfortunate results for new homeowners who find their water gone in a short time [related blog post].

  • Florida public officials went out of their way to deny and obscure their heavy pumping of aquifers surrounding Tampa Bay. Local lakes and wetlands dried up. Homeowners saw their properties -- and dreams -- ruined for the sake of endless growth. It seems that the same managers were responsible for the later failure of the Tampa Bay desalination plant -- of which I know few details. Got stories?

  • Texas. What a place. Not only do they practice Right of Capture (the biggest pump on a border between two properties wins), but they also pump water from an aquifer to create a "river" that San Antonio tourists can walk by and admire -- for all its natural engineered beauty. I was amused to see T. Boone Pickens' [recently-discarded] plan to pump and export water from the Panhandle to San Antonio. That guy's a persistent resource exploiter!

  • Glennon describes a complex effort to coordinate a rescue of the Ipswitch River from the perils of wells located next to its banks that deplete wetlands and base flows. Glennon also showed me the (now) obvious: it's better to discharge treated wastewater upriver -- not to "export" it downriver or into the ocean. (I know of one town in Colorado -- Aurora? -- that discharges wastewater ABOVE its drinking water intake, so it use it again -- just like Vegas, Orange County, et al.)

  • The Corps of Engineers defines "flood control benefits" in terms of protection to homes at risk of flooding. That takes one option off the table -- NOT building in the flood plain -- while promoting another option -- building defenses around new homes in the floodplain. Even worse, USACE is happy to accept a project that costs taxpayers $1.00 while providing $1.20 in benefits to real estate developers. Yes, it passes the benefit/cost ratio test, but it's also an explicit subsidy to silly construction. (Apparently, this kind of stupid still happens, but often as the result of myopic legislative direction.)

  • The Sacramento Delta gets a mention, by way of a "dewatered" Cosumnes River and death of a salmon run. (According to a recent email, there is water in the Cosumnes. Not sure if that's because of record precipitation or a long-term restoration.)

  • Speaking of salmon, I didn't know that the Atlantic salmon were being put under pressure by... blueberries. Yes, "wild" blueberry irrigation harmed salmon by changing the quantity and timing of river flows. Local politicians -- as tenacious as an Iowan defending corn ethanol stupidity -- fought tooth and nail to get those blueberries into your snak-pak muffins. Can it get any worse? Sure -- they started to farm salmon in pens. When the salmon all died (virus + close living), the USDA spent $17 million to "compensate" salmon farmers for being stupid. Really? Are you kidding me? Maybe they will pay me for playing on train tracks?

  • Nevada mining companies pumping water out of their open pits and into a river dried up springs and groundwater used by Native Americans for thousands of years as well as creating an artificial surge in water flows that will end -- like a Disney ride -- when the mines are closed and the pumps turn off. Although the abandoned pits turn into lovely lakes, I am not so sure that the remaining chemicals will be nice for swimmers or fish.

  • Atlanta's urban sprawl and irrigating farmers managed to dry out an area that gets 50 inches of annual precipitation (1.27 meters!) -- mostly because there were no restrictions on groundwater use. The Apalachicola River ecosystem was put under severe pressure. The fight over water from Lake Lanier can be traced to the conflicting demands for environmental flows, irrigation and urban consumption.
After the onslaught of bad news case studies, Glennon turns to solutions. After presenting a (thankfully brief) caricature of "free market environmental" and "dysfunctional political" alternatives, he offers a set of sound solutions:
  1. Set water conservation standards.
  2. Establish minimum environmental flows.
  3. End unregulated groundwater pumping.
  4. Set an extraction tax on pumping near surface waters.
  5. Collect data on the number of wells and how much they pump.
  6. Limit total pumping (cap) and allow offsets for new pumping (& trade).
  7. Raise water prices (in Atlanta, e.g.) to reflect scarcity (yay!).
  8. Allow water rights trading, but leave some water in-stream when diversion points move.
 I support, without exception, everything on this list.

I had a few minor quibbles with this book (the discussion of bottled water extractions seems a little strong sometimes, but I agree that there can be local problems with overpumping for "spring" water), but it was almost always an excellent read.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for its clear explanation and demonstration of the follies that result from our failure to recognize groundwater's natural characteristics. The resulting destruction of the environment and damage to innocent bystanders far exceeds the benefits to those who exploit (and expand) this failure of markets (profiting on "free" water) and governments (mangling property rights).

Glennon was kind enough to answer some questions (18 Sept 2011):

Q: What catalytic moment led you to writing a book on groundwater policy/failure?

It started with work I did with a UA hydrologist on a couple of grants, including an NSF one. We focused on a river in AZ and one in CA. I was slack-jawed to find out the disparity between the legal rules and scientific reality. That led to some academic articles, which in turn led to a very long article on the problem around the West. That convinced me it was a huge national problem that no one had addressed. I decided to write a book for a general audience that would also speak to those in the professional fields who deal with water.

As remarkable as it seems, WF was the first book ever published on the environmental consequences of groundwater pumping. Indeed there had never even been a magazine article.

Q: What interesting changes have happened in the places you describe since the book came out in 2002? Atlanta surely looms large, but are there instances where developments surprised you -- or confirmed your darkest fears?

As for changes, a lot has happened. How much is directly attributable to WF I can’t say. Causation in these matters is quite tricky. But it is clear that I was the first to blow the whistle on bottled water. Since then, lots more local groups have weighed in, as I note in Unquenchable, and Peter and Elizabeth have written their books. Wisconsin, which I highlighted, changed its gw law the year after WF was published.

Policy changes have been implemented in lots of states. Again, I can’t unravel the cause and effect links. It certainly put my name on the national map. I maintained a very busy speaking schedule and became a regular source for journalists. Even hydrologists seemed to enjoy hearing a lawyer make fun of “hydrostitutes.”


Cynthia Barnett said...

Great post, David. I'm a big fan of Water Follies and it helped inspire me to write my first book, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. If you want more detail on the Tampa Bay desal plant, review Mirage next. :)

John Quiggin said...

I also enjoyed this. Australian water policy is a mess, but we have at least dealt reasonably sensibly with groundwater

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