I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About Water

There’s an interesting piece about water rights in the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic that’s worth your time, especially if you live in the Southwest, which I did and the majority of my tiny readership (most likely) still does. Short version: it might be time to adopt a free market approach to how water rights are managed in the American Southwest. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a few highlights that I found particularly compelling:

America consumes more water per capita than just about any other country—more than three times as much as China, and 12 times as much as Denmark. People in the driest states use the most: Residents of Arizona each use 147 gallons a day (not counting agricultural water or water used to generate power), compared with just 51 gallons in Wisconsin, largely by filling swimming pools and watering lawns year-round in the desert. This extravagant use continues despite scarcity because water is kept artificially cheap. The water bills that Americans pay cover a mere sliver of the cost of the infrastructure that delivers water to them. Some city users pay $1 for 1,000 gallons. On farms, water is even cheaper. One thousand gallons of agricultural water in western states can cost as little as a few pennies.

Have you read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner? It’s a good read, although you’ll learn more about dams than you ever thought you could possibly wish, but what’s most striking about it is how prescient Reisner was; he wrote about this in 1986, when climate change was still “the greenhouse effect” and acid rain was a really, really big deal. And here we are in 2016 and it’s all going pretty much the way he predicted, which isn’t good.

Back to the article; can the power of the free market fix the water rights problem in the Southwest? Well, I’m not one to argue for “the power of the free market” to fix all of society’s ills, but honestly, I also can’t see how a free market solution could be any worse than what we’re doing now. Give it a shot, I’d say. Let’s see what happens. The environmentalist finds common cause with the libertarian on this issue.

One more excerpt from The Atlantic piece, because I’m a vegetarian and this is my blog and I can tout stuff like this if I wish:

And, of course, growing more food requires more water. In theory, Americans could simply eat less meat: A vast majority of the West’s water is used to produce feed for cattle, and data from Water Footprint Network, a Dutch NGO, show that if Americans gave up meat one day a week, they would save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year. But that cultural shift might prove even more difficult than reallocating water rights.

The entire flow of the Colorado River each year. Just something to think about.

4 thoughts on “I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About Water

  1. I’d be curious to see a breakdown of where all that water Arizonans use is going. Three times more water use is a HUGE difference.

  2. Okay, so I did a bit more looking into this and there are a few questions I’m still wondering about…

    Use vs Consumption: Water that’s used isn’t necessarily consumed, a large portion of the water that is used is still usable afterwards, either as “Grey Water” for purposes where purity is less of a concern, or available for water treatment and reuse. The obvious example is thermoelectric power vs irrigation. Water that goes through a dam is still usable water further down the line, but water that goes into a field is not. The 147 gallons per day is water use, not water consumption, and I’m curious how water consumption differs.

    Domestic vs Industrial: I can’t find solid numbers for consumption, but from what I can tell, domestic water use is less than 10% of the total. So domestic water use may not be the most productive target, especially when you consider that industrial water use may be government subsidized (as with farming in Arizona).

    Real benefits vs “Feel-good” asceticism: There’s a natural inclination to favor methods that cause personal inconvenience or pain. As strange as it sounds, it feels good to give something up. But just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it’s actually helping anyone. A classic example is the low flow toilet. On the surface, low flow toilets seem like a good idea: toilets account for a large amount of domestic water use, and you don’t need that much water to flush. And it feels like you’re doing something good, because you can see just how much water you’re saving. But low-flow toilets can cause blockages in sewer systems that ironically need a lot of water to get cleared out, so they save a lot less water than they appear to, and have a high labor cost and potentially damages associated with them.

    As for the meat thing. Yeah, Americans could probably eat less meat. I know I’ve started eating a lot more vegetarian meals in the last few years, and it’s been pretty good for me health-wise. And if that helps save water, all the better.

    1. I don’t have my source handy to cite, which makes me queasy given my library background, but the number I remember is that 80% of Arizona’s water is reserved for farming (mining might also be included in that figure, not certain though) and 20% is reserved for municipal use.

      It actually supports your example of the problems with feel-good ascetic actions; Tucson has made excellent progress in cutting back the water that the city consumes, possibly by as much as 50% relative to how much the city has grown since 1990 . . . but even with that reduction, it’s still a drop in the bucket (heh) because Tucson’s water footprint is small compared to Phoenix and agriculture.

      The biggest problem with the way water is allocated is that the current system doesn’t encourage saving or thrift. This is the problem with every bureaucracy I’ve ever encountered; if your budget for your department is, say, $10 million dollars and you manage to only spend $8 million, no one pats you on the back for your thrift. They just cut your budget next year, punishing you for saving. So you’ll end up spending $2 million dollars you didn’t need to spend, simply because you don’t want your budget slashed. The same is true for water allocation, as the Atlantic article mentions.

      Even worse, the book Cadillac Desert talks about how when water rights were apportioned, they were decided upon during a year of historically high rainfall, with no planning for how water would be rationed during drought. California really managed to throw its weight around with regards to the water in the Colorado; they get their share first and if the flow is low enough that there isn’t enough water for the other states, fuck ’em. The whole thing is a huge mess, but since it hasn’t (yet) hit critical mass and water is still artificially cheap, most people don’t worry about it.

      That’s cool about your going more vegetarian! It’s really encouraging to hear and it’s something I think a lot of my fellow vegetarians/vegans don’t understand. They’re so focused on trying to get everyone on the “all or nothing” approach to meat that they ignore how much good can be done by everyone just eating a few more veggies and a little less meat. It does so much good, both for one’s own health, and for ecological health as a whole. I’m a huge supporter of the “flexible” approach, even if I’m more all in myself.

      1. I guess my stance on water, as with most environmental issues, is that we need to treat it like an engineering problem rather than moral one. The solution will come from moving agriculture to places that can sustain it, or developing new methods that consume less water, or some other technological innovation. Free markets are good at pushing that sort of innovation, but you have to make the market shoulder the costs if you want the market to fix it. If the market is insulated from the costs (like through subsidies), they’ll just ignore it.

        As for vegetarians, I guess it all comes down to reasons. If your reasoning is moral, then saying “Maybe you should just murder a little less” seems weird. But if it’s health, thrift, or ecology, then a half measure has some legs.

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