Category Archives: water

Managing abundance

Matthew Yglesias debunks the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is an expert on America’s energy problems:

Alaska politicians never worry that energy may be getting too expensive and think about how to respond. They worry that energy might get too cheap! Alaska politicians don’t develop expertise in energy conservation measures or alternative fuels, they develop expertise in fighting with out-of-state executives about how to divide the profits that come from expensive energy. That’s the energy problem people think about in Alaska, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas and Louisiana but it’s not the energy problem people worry about in Michigan or Ohio or Virginia or Florida or New Mexico or Colorado or most anywhere else in the country.

It’s up there with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s assertion that Canada could lead the world in water-resources management, since we have so much water. No: we don’t have so much water because we’re so damned good at hoarding it, we have so much because we got a lucky deal. You want to see some people who are good at managing water, go to Saudi Arabia or someplace, where they don’t have any.

Learning from each other

Solar Panels used as Parking Shade

(Photo credit: "Solar Panels used as Parking Shade," Flickr/Great Valley Center Image Bank")

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging muses (after a conversation with Cory Doctorow) on just how suburbs and exurbs hard-hit by expensive energy could be rebuilt into (greater) self-reliance:

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Here’s the fledgling Outquisition website.

I share the optimism about human ingenuity that is WorldChanging’s bedrock premise, and my libertarian inclinations lead me to love the idea of individuals and communities learning to do for themselves, rather than relying on large-scale systems — governmental or corporate — to sort out the hard stuff for them. A talented society is a resilient society.

The preachiness is a bit of a put-off, though, the idea that the suburbs are a kingdom of the damned who need to be shown the light by people from “the comfy bright green cities.” Most people in cities don’t know how to grow anything much or wire solar panels or filter rainwater for drinking any more than your typical suburbanite does, and the suburbanites have the advantage, mixed though it is, of generally having more land.

I suspect city folk will need to hire more than a few experts from “climate-smacked farm communities” to show them how a few things are done.

When conservation doesn’t pay


This must be a bit awkward:

[O]ne thing is certain: Conservation is putting cash-strapped municipalities in a bit of a pickle.

Tougher … regulations, growing communities and a rising backlog of crumbling pipes needing to be fixed are driving up costs even while diligent consumers are lowering their consumption and the size of their bills.

Toronto alone is facing about $800 million worth of repair and replacement work, since half of the city’s water mains and 30 per cent of its sewer pipes are more than 50 years old. But last year, total revenue was only $604 million.

Other regions are hurting, too.

Peel Region treasurer Dan Labrecque estimates his region has lost $7 million to so-called “revenue or billable flows shortfall.” The need to make up for that lost money accounts for nearly half of Peel’s proposed 16 per cent water rate hike (expected to be phased in at 12.5 per cent).

Water and sewer systems bring with them extremely high fixed costs, which is one of the major arguments for conservation. If, for instance, you can get everyone in town to use a few gallons less each day, maybe your peak demand will stay low enough that you won’t have to replace one giant watermain with an even more gigantic one. That’s good for everybody.

But of course, the stuff you’ve already got in the ground needs regular fixing and, eventually, replacement because it’s worn out. If you’ve actually succeeded in making your peak demand not just stabilize, but actually retreat, then you’re going to have a shortfall in revenues and you’re going to have to jack up the prices for the use that remains. The result: people paying nearly the same amount for their water even if they’re using quite a lot less.

At least the balance isn’t getting any further out of whack, if they’re not having to install ever-larger and -longer pipes. But yeah, this is a kick in the slats for everybody involved and there’s not much to be done about it.

Sweet salty Moses…

Speaking of questionable uses of water

Well it’s seawater, so I guess it’s not the actual water that’s the problem. But the filtering and cleaning and heating demands, even if the developers (awkward Flash-based site here) say it uses “100 times less chemicals” than traditional swimming pools, must be spectacular.

How subsidizing water can go wrong

Easy: if the going market price ever goes up.

With water becoming increasingly precious in California, a rising number of farmers figure they can make more money by selling their water than by actually growing something.

Because farmers get their water at subsidized rates, some of them see financial opportunity this year in selling their allotments to Los Angeles and other desperately thirsty cities across Southern California, as well as to other farms.

“It just makes dollars and sense right now,” said Bruce Rolen, a third-generation farmer who grows rice, wheat and other crops in Northern California’s lush Sacramento Valley.

Instead of sowing in April, Rolen plans to let 100 of his 250 acres of white rice lie fallow and sell his irrigation water on the open market, where it could fetch up to three times the normal price.

Argh. So much for helping agriculture and keeping food prices low.

Shifting baselines

Sometimes, the fight for sensible environmental protection starts to seem abstract. Until you read a story like this one in the Guardian:

The Arctic ice cap has collapsed at an unprecedented rate this summer and levels of sea ice in the region now stand at a record low, scientists said last night. Experts said they were “stunned” by the loss of ice, with an area almost twice as big as Britain disappearing in the last week alone. So much ice has melted this summer that the north-west passage across the top of Canada is fully navigable, and observers say the north-east passage along Russia’s Arctic coast could open later this month. If the increased rate of melting continues, the summertime Arctic could be totally free of ice by 2030.

The onset of major melting in the Arctic is one of many points in the planetwide process of climate change where the graph doesn’t go in a straight line, where changes created by warmer climate start to reinforce one another. In this case, dark water retains more heat from the sun than reflecting white snow and ice do, meaning the place gets warmer faster, more ice melts, and so on till we’re all on the Hudson Bay beaches sipping drinks out of coconuts.

We don’t have forever. It’s not like putting on 20 pounds, which you can — in principle, anyway — reverse by eating less and exercising more in whatever proportion you failed to before, whenever you decide to hit the treadmill. If we let the carbon problem go, undoing it will be difficult out of proportion to the benefits we gain by waiting.

Photo credit: “Pentland Firth 1963,” Flickr/ PhillipC

I listened to a podcast recently of a talk by Scripps Institute marine biologist Jeremy Jackson, in which he talks about the problem of shifting baselines in human thinking. That is, we tend to go back one generation in our memories, particularly when it comes to the natural world — journalists like me, assigned to the environment file, go out and find the oldest fisherman we can and get him to tell us what the catch was like back when he started.

“The fish used to be this big,” he tells us, hold his hands three feet apart. Wow, we say. And now they’re only six inches long because we caught all the big ones and yanked them out of the gene pool and wrecked their food so they’d never grow that big anyway, and isn’t it awful.

But we forget that there were old fishermen when that guy started who remembered when the fish were four feet long, or five, or eight, and you’d catch the occasional ten-foot monster. We don’t have anyone left who remembers that, so except for some dusty historical records, there’s nothing pressing us to try to get back to the conditions that made such fish possible.

We should fear the shifting baselines in the climate-change debate.

Put the hose down and back away slowly

John Whitehead of Environmental Economics points out the folly of asking people to use less water in the midst of a water shortage, making an argument for spot pricing. Key quote:

Command and control regulatees usually can find a way around restrictions. If commercial fishermen are told to reduce the number of fishing trips then they get bigger boats so that they can catch more fish on each trip. In the same way, if households are asked to water their lawns on a limited number of days, then they’ll increase the amount of water they put on their lawn that day.

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Paying the real full cost for city water

waterfallThe Residential and Civil Construction Association of Ontario advocates spot-market pricing for water:

Harry Kitchen, economics professor at Trent University and author of the report on financing, noted that consumers pay far less for water than what it actually costs. “That’s because, historically, the municipalities have not included asset replacement costs in calculating their water rates. The impact has been an inability to maintain and upgrade these systems.”

Some of the key recommendations in the two reports are metering, full-cost pricing, and greater private-sector participation. With metering, consumers pay for the amount of water they use. This promotes conservation. As well, metering allows the application of variable rates in order to reflect the season of the year or time of day of water use.

Here’s a Toronto Star story on the idea, too.

They’re working from this study (PDF) by Professor Kitchen who’s one of a very few genuine academic experts on municipal finances and talks sense every time I hear him. At length and with due academic rigour, he makes the straightforward point that municipal infrastructure such as water pipes are falling apart because cities don’t charge what their services actually cost.

In Ontario, at least, they’re tantalizing close to doing so. They’re required to use what’s called “full-cost pricing,” but that just means cities have to figure out what their systems cost to run, and make sure those costs are reflected in the water and sewer rates. That sounds right, but in practice, they charge the exact same price 24/7/365, regardless of the capacity strain the system is under, and frequently leaving themselves nothing extra to repair or expand the water system with.

Furthermore, because there’s no discount for using water at off-peak times, people turn on the taps whenever they feel like it, meaning the demand spikes are atrocious. To accommodate them, the water system needs to be overbuilt.

Kitchen and the construction association call for close metering of water use, among other things, with rates that vary with demand and time of year. This is what Ontario’s electricity system is gradually being heaved toward, over quite a bit of opposition from people who don’t want to pay more for power. (They’re usually the ones who really should.)

Variably priced water would also make it a lot easier for municipalities to raise rates to reflect the damage that city water use does by draining local waterways.

Don’t expect anything to happen till it’s crisis time, though. That’s what it took with electricity.

Flush this ban

Another case of sending a ban to do work that price signals ought to. From the Toronto Star, which quite enjoys banning things:

In a remarkable display of environmental consciousness, the leaders of 29 municipalities around the Great Lakes have adopted the worthwhile goal of cutting their water consumption by at least 15 per cent.

That action is an encouraging sign that many cities are now committed to the principles of “reduce, reuse and recycle.” When it comes to water consumption, the key is to reduce the amount being drained from our lakes. The province could play an increased role by banning the sale of wasteful traditional toilets in favour of low-flow models.

Toronto Mayor David Miller called for such a ban at a recent meeting of officials from Great Lakes cities. Low-flow, quite simply, is the way to go. Some toilet models use as little as six litres of water per flush compared to more than 20 litres for some wasteful older brands. That is a lot of liquid. Low-flow toilets do a good job of removing waste and save consumers money by lowering their water costs. And they help the environment because cities don’t have to purify as much water.

If it’s so difficult for cities to purify water, charge more. In Ontario at least, cities are required to charge the full cost of water treatment — the real problem is that cities, like any other mass consumer of Great Lakes water, don’t pay to take water out, so the price is artificially low. Rather than deal with that problem, cities are going to police toilet capacities.