A friend just pointed me (thanks E!) to a provocative column by Bill deBuys last month published via High Country News last month on the loss of societal resiliency that accompanies water conservation efforts. DeBuys (author/editor of two of my favorite western water books – Salt Dreams and Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell) calls water conservation “a hoax, or at best a waste of time.”
Part of his argument is a familiar one: Why should I conserve water at my just to enable all that sprawl development to continue on the fringe of my city? But he’s also making an argument more nuanced:
[W]ater conservation is good for the short-term economy because the water it frees up keeps the real estate industry, the building trades and much else going. But it doesn’t work out well for the resilience of our communities because it leads to “hardened demand.” That means that the water is needed all the time, no matter what.
This is the big irony of water management: In dry times, the practice of wasting water becomes our best friend. When water has been used wastefully, it is easy to deal with drought. Once everybody stops watering the lawn or washing the car, current demand drops like a stone.
But when everybody conserves all the time — putting in low-flow toilets, xeriscaping the yard and all that other good stuff in both the public and private sectors — the demand for water “hardens.” The uses that remain are essential; you can’t turn them off, and sometimes you can barely pare them back.
Conservation enables a community with fixed water resources to continue growing. But the more it grows on the strength of conservation, the more vulnerable it becomes to drought. Then when dry times inevitably come, there’s no flex in the system.
If you agree with deBuys’ argument, what’s the appropriate response?
Some other planet, with some other inhabitants who behave differently. 🙁
This is a good time to link once again to the classic paper “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.” It’s not just climate change, of course, it’s any stock-and-flow problem.
Depressingly, I’m becoming more and more convinced that severe (metaphorical) pummeling is about the only thing that will produce the needed focus. The question becomes one of exactly how push will come to shove and to what extent there will be pieces left to pick up afterwards.
Hardening of demand is a serious problem, but DeBuys is to a certain extent conflating the problem of conservation with the problem of too many people.
For now, most cities still have plenty of opportunities to meet demand attributable to growth, from conservation to desal to wastewater reuse to increased groundwater recharge of the occasional slugs of surplus water coming from rain.
However, it is also entirely possible that in 50 years time IID will be stripped of a large portion of its entitlement because the cities watered by the Colorado have the votes and need the water. Imperial County will return to the desert it once was. Alfalfa prices and, therefore, meat prices will rise. But that’s not the end of the world.
I more or less agree with Francis. DeBuys is conflating a shift in demand (more people) with a reduction in demand (via higher prices, cutting out high elasticity uses).
It’s easy to maintain reliability if you limit population growth.
Cheap water and heavy use is NOT a virtue. It’s an accident of underpricing.
“But the more it grows on the strength of conservation, the more vulnerable it becomes to drought. ”
is flat wrong. Thus the argument falls flat.
Steve Bloom, your last para. is the human condition. If you are depressingly because of the human condition, there’s not much you can do to change it. If you are depressingly because the condition is being gamed by corporations, that is the human condition too. The job is to manage for a soft landing or a hard landing.
Assume that the amount of water available to a city is the minimal amount of water needed for each person plus the minimal amount of water needed for the jobs that each of these people hold and that there is no extra money for importing more water.
Then assume that the water supply drops or the demand increases (e.g., a company wants to add a new job) in a particular year.
Then, given the first assumption, a company or some people have to move out and the city gets smaller. There will be lots of histrionics (“We can cut back. We are stronger people than those people in that city.” “We can build a pipeline to those mountains.” etc.). But the net result is the same. The city gets smaller. The people or companies that leave are those who are least willing to accommodate to decreased water availability.
Are there other solutions to decreased water?
I do not see them.
Based on what I have seen, hardening of demand shouldn’t occur until you have daily per capita household demand well below 100 gals. How many Western cities currently fall into that category? Not very many I suspect. The perceptions associated with conservation are important and can help to prematurely harden demand at a higher value. The problem of where conserved water goes to is important and many cynically bring up the conserve to grow idea. But there is an alternative, called Conserve to Enhance (see http://www.ag.arizona.edu/azwater/conserve2enhance.html), that can overcome that bias. The other problem, though, is the cost recovery model that most utilities use, where much of their fixed costs are recovered by water sales. Therefore, when they ask people to conserve and they conserve more than predicted, the utility has a revenue shortfall they make up by raising rates – giving a negative signal to conservers. That, I think, is a serious problem.
The other problem, though, is the cost recovery model that most utilities use, where much of their fixed costs are recovered by water sales. Therefore, when they ask people to conserve and they conserve more than predicted, the utility has a revenue shortfall they make up by raising rates – giving a negative signal to conservers. That, I think, is a serious problem.
Yes, exactly. The Front Range has a very large problem with just this very thing.
6&7: That’s why I always advised water agencies to cover their fixed costs — salaries, rent, equipment etc. — with the base rate, while variable costs — water purchases, electricity — are covered by the consumption charge. No agency should be in the position of raising rates because its clients are doing too good of a job in not using the product; it’s poor management and terrible public relations.
@Francis – in a perfect world there would be a revenue model that both provides for a steady, predictable revenue stream for water providers and permits use of price signals to encourage conservation. Unfortunately, reality dictates that those 2 objective often work against each other. Because fixed costs make up most of the cost of providing water to customers (as long as both water and electricity remain relatively cheap), in order to have inclining block rates to encourage conservation it’s generally necessary to impose some of the fixed costs associated with low-water-using households onto users in the higher blocks, to avoid having very high base service charges. But those higher-tier water users are generally the ones most able to conserve when prices increase – cut back on outdoor watering. Then, as the number of users in the higher blocks decrease, you can’t make up any shortfall by just raising rates on those folks – you have to spread it around. And the people who have been conserving and staying in the lower tiers get upset because their rates increase. It’s a lose-lose for a water utility.
Speaking of a perfect world:
Brrrrrowwwwwn laaaaaawn! Whadda we gone dew?
Oh, my – that’s an interesting text display with the bquote tag!
Chris, it’s easy enough to design an appropriate rate structure, but of course there will be resistance from people who love to waste water, in particular the golfing class.
@Steve – I’d be real interested to hear your ideas.