There have been a series of helpful exchanges, in the comments here as well as elsewhere on the web, between economist David Zetland and Francis, a veteran of California’s water policy world.
Zetland is a bright and articulate advocate for the use of market mechanisms to solve the thorny problem of water distribution under conditions of scarcity. David’s done a lot in helping me understand the value of markets as a potential water policy solution, and the distortions caused by market failures inherent in our current system.
Francis is an equally bright and articulate advocate for what I might call the “realpolitik” of the actual on-the-ground water world. Francis’s repeated “yeah, but” arguments resonate with my three decades as a journalist watching institutions succeed and fail over the years at trying to solve societal problems large and small.
Here, with a bit of literary license, is a template for the exchange:
F: “How, in practice, do you plan to implement that?”
When I wrote last month about Lake Mead’s dropping levels, for example, David said:
[T]he solution to this problem is obvious. Lower demand. If you need a hint on how to do that, I can tell you in 3 minutes, or you can just go and RAISE PRICES.
To which Francis responded:
Really, if you can explain in three minutes how to undo the 80+ years of Supreme Court rulings, Acts of Congress, international treaties, interstate compacts and all the rest making up the Law of the River, have at it and post the video on your website. I could use a good laugh.
Francis often follows with specific examples of existing legal, institutional and political structures that stand in the way of “Markets!” and, by extension, in the way of any particular recipe one might offer up to solve the problem.
And therein lies the reason I’ve become convinced that Francis is having the better of this exchange. It is not enough to articulate a particular solution that might better allocate the scarce resource. Markets? A ban on lawns? Abandon Phoenix? Sure, whatever. But to be in any way relevant, you have to show how that solution might be effectively implemented given the existing legal, institutional and political framework, along with the physical plumbing we have in place or could conceivably build to move the water hither and yon.
The latest round of the argument has played out over the last couple of days over on David’s blog, in response to a proposal by David for the convening of a “California Water Conference” to figure out how to solve that state’s water problems, with the conference’s conclusions to be made binding.
Francis was characteristically quick with the realpolitik:
There are plenty of solutions; there’s just no political will to make hard choices because the politicians are accurately reflecting the will of their constituents. (emphasis in original)
One sees this over and over again in western water fights: any particular suggested solution has winners and losers (if it wasn’t so, the problem would be trivial to the extent that we would already have solved it and wouldn’t be having the conversation) and the political representatives of the losers rightly object. I agree with Francis that the notion of a conference with binding solutions that could overcome the constraints imposed by existing legal and political institutions is, indeed, ridiculous. You need only look at the comment thread on David’s blog, as advocates for particular constituencies complain about being left out, to see that this would not end well.
This is not, however, to say that the problem is hopeless. I’ve been spending a lot of time of late reading about and interviewing participants in the development of the 2007 shortage sharing agreement (SSA) on the Colorado River, which has what seems like a couple of key characteristics that are a necessary precondition for effective solutions.
One is a shared definition among participants regarding the problem to be solved, what Elinor Ostrom calls “an authoritative image”. A key part of this is a common understanding of the data (which in the case of the SSA was an agreed-upon use of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River model).
As I wrote in another setting (sub/ad I think req), a discussion on how to grapple with water problems on the Rio Grande:
By that, Ostrom meant that everyone involved in trying to solve a shared resource problem like our water system must have a common understanding of the problem’s details: how much water there is and what happens under different future scenarios in terms of its continued use.
But the real key is to have participants – genuine stakeholders with a strong interest in developing a solution with a recognition that the risks of not getting to the table and figuring something out are not acceptable. That’s a hard one to force.