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Water for Community

David Zetland Part 3: But Whose Community? Who Should Decide Among Competing Needs, and How?

In his new book Living with Water Scarcity, David Zetland offers a brief yet astute description of what have become universal water allocation conflicts:

“Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find two opposing sides to a water allocation. A farmer complains about water going to the environment. An environmentalist complains about water going to the city. A businessman complains about water going to farms.” All of them are certain that they deserve the water more than others, Zetland says. They agree that politicians should allocate water for its highest and best use, but doubt the ability of water managers, government officials, and political leaders to decide what “highest and best” might be.

Notice that there are more than “two sides” here. There are multiple competing demands for water, not only a finite resource but one of few requirements of life on earth. Deciding who or what gets water can literally be a life or death issue.

As Zetland explained in the first part of this discussion, understanding the difference between scarcity and shortage—scarcity being a perception and shortage, actual limitation on supply—is essential to begin successfully living with water scarcity. Separating politics from economics, a process discussed at length in part two, is the next step, necessary for later arriving at a solid “social good.” Moving into the political sphere, the final step, allows “for policies that are simple enough to protect common goods but flexible enough to allow a variety of behaviors.”

Water allocations are inevitably controversial, given that the community can’t agree on how best to serve the community. There is no lack of data or facts to support good decisions. The problem is that we each bring our personal experience—our own subjective “lens”—to interpretations of fact. Even when we recognize our biases and try to include or accommodate others’ opinions, our views are skewed. As a result “an irrigation manager may neglect environmental water flows” and others “may ignore industry’s plea for [water supply] reliability.”

Yet according to Zetland, people can be “pragmatic, creative, and engaged” in updating policies and arriving at new solutions through mutual respect and compromise.

How do we achieve such enlightened compromise in water policy decisions?

All of us have to pretend we don’t already have the right answer or answers, Zetland says. We have to pretend we don’t already have all the answers.

“A community can move closer to common answers by asking people to ignore their personal role, costs and benefits. . . . If nobody has the answers, then everyone can participate in the solutions.”

Yep. This really is the hard part, and Zetland tackles it full on in the second half of his new book.

Regarding water monopolies, he suggests introducing competition as a way to create more effective, responsive, and responsible public service. To avoid disasters such the Tennessee Valley Authority’s toxic tailwater spills into rivers in 2008, destroying local homes, there must be some consequence for failure—something more effective than the blithe ability to pass the cost onto customers (in that case, $1.3 billion in fines and cleanup costs). Professionals provide good service, if there are consequences for failing to do so.

Assuming effective regulation or oversight, competition provides an incentive structure that rewards water managers for achieving customer goals. Having “skin in the game” makes a difference

When local performance benchmarks aren’t effective, as in large water monopolies, Zetland supports some form of “performance insurance” to be imposed by regulators, insurance that would be inexpensive for well-run and responsive organizations, quite expensive otherwise.

The community can participate by opting to run its local water monopoly as a cooperative, by “professionalizing” community oversight, or by making the utility more dependent on the goodwill of its customers.

A Human Right to Water?

Zetland doesn’t believe the global movement to recognize a human right to water is effective for solving the problem of inadequate water access for the poor: “A human right to water is worthless in a corrupt country and redundant in an honest one.”

“Rights only lead to results when governments are honest,” he says. “Dishonest governments, on the other hand, do not care about human rights, legal promises, or citizen complaints. An honest government will make sure that citizens get good quality water because people do not want to get sick or die. Good governance (a lack of corruption) separates civilized countries from their dysfunctional, struggling neighbors”.

A better way to overcome the indifference of leaders to the welfare of the poor is to put the focus instead on “governance and money,” which could include requirements (in exchange for aid, say) such as publicly registering or otherwise assigning communal property rights to water access.

“Other People’s Money” or Pay Your Own Way?

Who should pay for the dams, canals, pipes, and other water infrastructure that agriculture and other businesses require?

That’s an easy one for Zetland. If businesses pay the “full cost of water as a private good,” which means the current competitive price, then they are paying for infrastructure costs too.

Making those calculations can get complicated. In the case of “multi-functional” dam projects, for example, the value of public recreation and downriver flood protection can be hard to quantify, and “user” cost shares (for farmers and others) accrue to private benefit over very long periods of time.

9392126514_a77fe505ac_z 35895806_1a72e64e66_zFarmers and other private business interests “work hard to direct public spending to their benefit,” Zetland points out. But reducing public subsidies for private benefits is the only way to assure rational infrastructure decisions, given that those “decisions will affect our choices, wallets, and behavior for a very long time.”

Zetland first heard the term “other people’s money,” or OPM, in reference to California’s Central Valley Project, a vast network of Northern California dams and delivery canals started in the 1930s by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—an immensely ambitious project and also an immense boondoggle, considering that the farmers who benefit from this massive publicly funded infrastructure have never repaid the construction debt. Not even the interest:

“The Other People who paid for this project in the 1930s never saw their money again. Their great-grandchildren have only seen 20 cents on the (depreciated) dollar returned.

Farmers, meanwhile, have “profited from cheap water for 75 years and counting,” he says, before adding, tongue firmly in cheek: “Not all those profits go to selfish ends. Many farmers ‘give back’ to their political friends.”

As for the arguments that California’s position as the country’s chief agricultural producer and its contribution to the California economy justify such massive public subsidies, Zetland says no.

The ecosystems that have been sacrificed for California’s water engineering benefited far more people than farms do, even now. Second, he says, agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water supply to produce only 3 percent of the state’s economic output and 5 percent of its jobs. Finally, current subsidies benefit corporate farmers—farmers with political connections—more than they benefit small family farms, or farmers with real skill.

Worse, such massive public subsidies prevent good local farmers from replacing bad corporate farmers—resulting in “wasted water, expensive food, abused labor, and dying communities.”

Worse yet, the environmental costs of such a skewed supply-sided equation have never been factored in, at least not by decision-makers. Which is a shame, given that new, “green” approaches could make a different at every level of water management and use.

The Urgent Need to Protect Environmental Flows

“Less means more” when it comes to protecting the water that our shared environment requires for ecosystem health, according to Zetland—because we all benefit. We need to use less so there is more for ecosystem use.

Yet it’s no easy task to come to general agreement about precisely how much we should extract from the environment for human use and how much we should leave.

“The question is tricky because the environment is a public good that we all enjoy, regardless of how much we have contributed to its health or deterioration. The answer to ‘how much should we take?’ can be very different from the answer to ‘how much should I take and you leave?’”

So great is the human impact on the environment in general that scientists have declared the beginning of a new era, the Anthropocene, which could be considered the shadow side of the Age of Aquarius. Apart from biodiversity loss, the most important fact in this new, human-centered epoch is the impact of rapid climate change caused by converting fossil carbon sources into carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

And climate change will disrupt the natural water cycle globally, increasing water scarcity and also demand while lowering water quality.

“Our past neglect has damaged the local and global environment. Now we must protect our local, water-dependent ecosystems and restore their flows,” he says. “A healthy environment with functioning ecosystems delivers clean air and water, gives us food and pleasure, and protects us from variations in temperature, water flow, and weather.” The reality of climate change makes these benefits even more valuable.


The challenge, he says, is to use our human cleverness to do much more with less, with water as with other resources. We can use less—in some cases, substantially less—with little ill effect.

“We cannot take as much water from the environment, so we must cope with less. Less personal water doesn’t automatically harm our quality of life. People in Amsterdam use one-fourth the water of people in San Francisco, but they aren’t any less happy.

Lobbyists and some editorialists may declare the end of civilization as we know it, Zetland says, but people doing business won’t, or at least not for long. They’ll respond to market forces, as they always do. “Business people—farmers, water managers, and industrialists—love free water, but they can find ways to work with less. Water scarcity in Texas has led oil and gas companies to recycle their production water.”

This writer has attempted to explain economist David Zetland’s views, in this and the two previous articles, but he probably does the job better than anyone–so download a free (PDF) copy of his book (see below) and dig in to get the authoritative word. David Zetland is assistant professor of economics at Leiden University College in Den Haag, the Netherlands. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. His blog, Aquanomics (that’s a “g,” as in the Spanish word for water, “agua”) and his first book, The End of Abundance, address these and other topics in more detail—and with more citations—than the new book. Yet Living with Water Scarcity, which like Abundance is for sale in both Kindle and paperback editions, is available for free if you’ll be satisfied with the PDF version.

Up the Road Editor Kim Weir holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Analysis and also a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She has been a journalist for an impressive number of years. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers since 1991, she specializes in California and the West. Weir wrote most of Moon Publications’ original California travel guides, including the best-selling Northern California Handbook.

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