How should your community manage its water?
By David Zetland at Aguanomics, author of Living with Water Scarcity [free download for Angry Bear members]
How should your community manage its water?
MB asked one last question after my AWRA seminar:
You said that each location should decide which system/structure they think is best for their context, but in the places you’ve traveled or studied, have you witnessed any significant effects of culture on selection or implementation of water pricing structures? This could be a “culture of consumption” that certainly exists in many places, but also legacy and tradition of property rights systems, governance/authority, equity? I suppose these could be “negative” or “positive” as we might define them, but I just wanted to cash in on your two cents!
This is a great question, as it focuses on the impact of local politics in determining how to allocate water.
The first question is whether local people face (or realize they face) a problem with over-consumption of water relative to sustainable supplies. In some places, it appears that people have decided that it’s ok to use too much water, either because they plan to leave the area, have faith in divine intervention, or plan to take water from some other place or people. In others, people agree to set a limit on water use, to ensure their ongoing, independent existence.
The next question is how to allocate water and costs. In some places, people pursue “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” policies, i.e., the rich pay for the cost of water services that others use (e.g., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). In others, people have decided to charge water users much more than the cost of service, i.e., unit water prices exceed the unit cost of service. Both of these systems are problematic. The former relies too much on outside funding while failing to discourage wasteful use of resources. The latter ends up destabilizing utility finances and encouraging extra use.*
My favorite system aligns system costs with billing charges to customers (with the addition of a surcharge if/when scarcity dictates) to protect reliability. I recommend direct income support to poor people in places where people want to help, since “cheap water” is an inefficient way to help the poor.
Bottom Line: Communities manage their water so they should discuss and understand the tradeoffs (to efficiency, sustainability and fairness) in their decisions.
* This may seem paradoxical, but low unit prices mean that people do not pay much attention to how much water they use. Water managers, OTOH, definitely notice aggregate revenues, which they do not want to fall, so they have little reason to discourage consumption.
Much of the problem comes in the definitions — what water does a community own? What is it’s water? What is a community?
In this instance, shouldn’t the “community” be the entire population of a particular watershed? Yet the Colorado River watershed encomasses parts of nine States — seven in the U.S. and two in Mexico — but no whole State. Our man-made political boundaries do not follow watershed boundaries.
Furthermore, the people upstream really have no concern for what happens to that water downstream, but those downstream certainly are concerned with what happens to it upstream.
Do we in the United States have the right to use “our water” such that we can dam up the Colorado and use it’s water to the point that there is nothing but a trickle getting into Mexico?
Very difficult questions indeed, and no easy answers.
Any use by corporation or commercial use should be highly taxed if not forbidden, should the use change the condition of the water it should simply be consider a crime with mininum 10 prison term.
@jack — good questions indeed. Putting aside “ownership” what about use? As @beene says, “corporate use should be banned,” which excludes 95% of farms, so no food.
Beene has not though this through, but it’s ok to have different ownership (who gets paid for the water) and use (how is it used, for social/economic benefit).
As usual, I’ll recommend my book (Living with Water Scarcity), for a discussion on these issues. It’s free to download:
Not to mention shipping water from the great lakes to the SE and desalination as instant responses to solving supply issues even in the US as evidence from other posts and comments….the 2007-08 drought was instructive.
When oil was short, how many times did we hear “freezing a Yankee out?” Seems like things are changing.
“which excludes 95% of farms, so no food.”
Or at least the 50% of all consumed grown in the US.