Stuff I wrote elsewhere: septic systems and groundwater contamination

I am endlessly fascinated (and frustrated) by the mess that is societal risk perception. Here (behind a Google survey wall), a look at efforts to regulate septic systems in Bernalillo County, primarily on the kind-of-rural fringes of the Albuquerque metro area:

As groundwater contamination problems go, the stuff leaking from septic systems isn’t terribly sexy. Give me a gas station’s leaking underground storage tank any day, or an old electronics plant, or Kirtland Air Force Base’s sloppy aviation fuel handling. That I can get excited about.

But waste leaking from an aging home septic system?

That, says University of New Mexico engineering professor Bruce Thomson, is precisely the problem.

“It’s groundwater contamination that’s happening all around us, and we’re not paying any attention,” said Thomson, an expert in treating human waste who delights in describing his academic specialty as “turd mechanics.”

Dry start to southwestern U.S. 2014-15 water year

PRISM October '14

PRISM October ’14

Most of the way through October, it’s been a dry start to the 2014-15 “water year”, the season in which we build the snowpack to feed the rivers of the southwestern United States. As Jonathan Overpeck says:

Wells on the fringes of Tucson running dry

Contra Porterville in California, where poor farmworkers with few options are running out of water, on the fringes of Tucson it’s those who chose to sprawl onto the edge of a relatively affluent community, beyond municipal utilities and dependent on a marginal aquifer, who are now seeing their wells running dry. Tony Davis:

In the Tortolita foothills, Glenn Phillips has plenty of competition for water. About 70 wells, drilled since the early 1980s, are registered with the state water department in a one-mile-wide swatch north of Cougar Canyon Trail, between Como Drive on the east and Seifert Estates Road on the west.

They range from 150 to 1,250 feet deep, with bedrock less than 400 feet.

One of the area’s first wells was dug in 1979 by Charles Hill, now 61, whose home now backs up against Phillips’. A computer scientist who designs and writes applications for computers at the University of Arizona, Hill and his wife moved here from Tucson three months after their marriage because they wanted to live under dark skies and see the stars.

A Boulder Dam anniversary

Yesterday was the 78th anniversary of the first electric generator go into full operation at Boulder Dam. EDN has the story:

Electricity from the dam’s powerhouse was originally sold pursuant to a 50-year contract, authorized by Congress in 1934, which ran from 1937 to 1987. In 1984, Congress passed a new statute which set power allocations from the dam from 1987 to 2017. In December 2011, President Barack Obama signed legislation extending the current contracts until 2067, after setting aside 5% of Hoover Dam’s power for sale to Native American tribes, electric cooperatives, and other entities. The new arrangement will begin in 2017.

The dam, now named “Hoover”, also stores water to grow alfalfa and other things.

Priority administration and Arizona’s Colorado River allotment

It’s generally more complicated than I think:

Central Arizona Project priorities

Central Arizona Project priorities

A member of the Inkstain brain trust points out two catches in my “why can’t Phoenix just leave its unused apportionment in Lake Mead” post last week.

The first has to do with Arizona’s application of the doctrine of prior appropriation with respect to its allocation of Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project.

As shown in the diagram above, CAP water is stacked in priority first to meet Native American water rights, then cities, then ag users, and then “excess” and groundwater recharge. Under the doctrine of prior appropriation, if a “senior” user doesn’t use water, it’s then available to “juniors” like Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District in Pinal County, which last year got 124,369 acre feet of CAP water. And storing water in Lake Mead, my brain truster argues, doesn’t count as a “use”, so I guess it’s not the simple accounting exercise I thought.

Second, what Phoenix wants to do not would not qualify as “Intentionally Created Surplus” water even if Phoenix was a direct Colorado River federal water contractor and therefore eligible for the ICS program. ICS is a legal widget in which basin water users conserve water by, for example, fallowing land or lining canals and then bank the water in Lake Mead. I had suggested in my earlier post that what Phoenix wants to do in leaving its unused apportionment in Mead is kinda like ICS, but clearly it’s not. Even if Phoenix was a contractor, what it wants to do wouldn’t qualify as ICS because it’s not water once used and then conserved (a la fallowing).

The notion of Phoenix storing unused apportionment in Mead still could be a good thing, but the details are more complicated than I thought.


Adaptive capacity to the California drought

It’s often argued, and generally true, that municipal water use is less vulnerable to drought because cities can afford to pay more for water than farmers. But as U.C. Davis water researcher Amanda Fencl points out, the arrow of adaptive capacity doesn’t always point in that direction. Affluent cities, yes, but often not rural communities:


She’s referring to this:

Larger farms have spent up to $1 million to drill 2,000 feet into the Central Valley’s ancient aquifer, Lockman said.

But individual residents, whose wells are not so deep, have a harder time of it as the water supply shrinks into the earth.

So how are we going to build these western water markets?

Peter Culp, Robert Glennon and Gary Libecap have published an excellent new analysis of the potential for water markets to help us dig out of the western United States’ water mess:

Culp, Glennon and Libecap

Culp, Glennon and Libecap

Water trading can facilitate the reallocation of water to meet the demands of changing economies and growing populations. It can play a vital role in encouraging conservation and stewardship of water supplies in a way that can address cultural, social, and environmental priorities. It can facilitate building a structure for managing the ever-increasing risks of greater variability in water, including through methods such as insurance contracts, hedging tools, water banking, and other mechanisms. Deploying market tools in the allocation of water can help us to overcome the growing fragility and vulnerability of the water management institutions and infrastructure in the American West.

I agree, and their new work offers a great menu of policy options to move down this path. In brief (again quoting Culp et. al):

  1. Reform legal rules that discourage water trading to enable short-term water transfers.
  2. Create basic market institutions to facilitate trading of water.
  3. Use market-driven risk mitigation strategies to enhance system reliability.
  4. [B]etter regulate the use of groundwater by monitoring and limiting use to ensure sustainability, and by bringing groundwater under the umbrella of water trading opportunities.
  5. To make water markets work at scale, strong federal leadership will be necessary to promote interstate and interagency cooperation in water management

This is great stuff. But how do we actually do any of them?

Each of their first four bullet points is a staggeringly difficult task that will require enormous institutional capacity within the states to carry out. Consider California’s efforts to move on number four, for example. In the midst of the drought of record, with overwhelming problems caused by groundwater pumping, all California could manage was some feeble legislation aimed at just the first part – monitoring and limiting use to ensure sustainability at some future point in time sorta maybe. This is not for lack of smart scientists and policy people pointing out that the problem is deeper and requires stronger action. This rather reflects a shortcoming of the political system that has left us at with a sub-optimal equilibrium because of the ability of individual players, acting in their own short term interest, to block progress toward a more socially optimal solution. We’re stuck in the wrong spot, and years of water politics in California, despite calls to move off of it, have failed. From Kosnick:

There exists a socially optimal level of production of a good…, but without coordination of the overlapping players involved, optimality is not guaranteed. For example, this is a prisoner’s dilemma, where each player acting independently in his own best interest fails to internalize the externalities of his actions on the other players, and so a suboptimal (if dominant strategy) Nash equilibrium results…. Self-interest and a limited perspective reduce the benefits to society as a whole.

Not to pick on California, but nearly two decades of experience in trying to put together markets to move Colorado River agricultural water from Imperial and Palo Verde to the urbanized coastal plain (Glennon’s Unquenchable discusses the efforts at length) shows how hard this can be.

Culp et. al clearly get the difficulty of the task that they’re proposing. In a discussion of the impediments posted by existing water law doctrines, for example, they write:

Comprehensive reform of these doctrines would be controversial and could take decades to implement.

But I think they’re on to something when they suggest the following approach:

[S]tates could immediately act to facilitate effective short-term water trading. Particularly important would be for states to encourage existing water users to invest in conservation by allowing users who free up water to lease their water savings on a short-term basis to other users. This strategy offers obvious, real-world opportunities for win-win solutions, benefitting all parties and increasing economic efficiency.

Having spent years watching the New Mexico legislature’s lack of institutional capacity to make even simple water rule changes, and watching California thrash about this year in the midst of genuine crisis, I think Culp and his colleagues are a tad optimistic to suggest this could be done “immediately”, but whatever. I’m all for optimism. And I’d file this under the critical category of “baby steps,” smaller and relatively easier things that can be done that provide shorter term benefits and the learning experience to help amass the necessary social capital to take on the harder challenges to come.

I also think they’re on to something important in suggesting a federal role:

The federal government has a key role to play in assisting the development of water markets through its leadership on water issues, facilitating large-scale planning and interstate cooperation, developing critical data and information, modernizing the management of existing federal projects, and reforming existing federal agricultural policies.

Minute 319, the U.S.-Mexico agreement that, among other things, allowed last spring’s Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow (and which Culp helped design) is a great “baby steps” example. It includes some of the elements Culp, Glennon and Libecap are asking for (albeit dressed up quite differently), but it was as much about learning how to do stuff as it was about actually doing stuff. It also demonstrates the importance of the role of the U.S. federal government.

The important thing we need recognize here, I think, is that the investment in the social capital needed to do these things, an investment in what I’ve sometimes called the “institutional plumbing”, is every bit as real and important as the investment in pumps and canals and dams that make up the physical plumbing of water in the West.