Monday, April 02, 2007

Ridiculously Cheap

A report on water quality and availability has reached a startling conclusion:

The root of the problem is that water is ridiculously cheap....
The report also notes that worldwide water “is contaminated with thousands of chemicals—whether they be from industrial processes, fertilizers and pesticides from farms, or from "xenobiotic" contaminants—human excretions of birth control pills, antibiotics or the remnants of chemotherapy.”

Oddly enough, the “ridiculously” low price of this contaminated water is preventing it from being decontaminated:
"How can an investor place capital in a company that's developed an advanced membrane to remove 'xenobiotic' contaminants if no utility can afford to pay for it? Where's the return on investment for the $300 billion dollars needed to prevent the infrastructure from literally collapsing under our feet?" asks Rona Fried, CEO of Progressive Investor.
I'm naive enough to imagine that the return on this investment would be drinking water without xenobiotic contaminants, and infrastructure that wouldn’t literally collapse under our feet.

Self-preservation, in other words.

Anyway, the problem isn’t that water is too cheap; the problem is that it’s priced beyond the reach of the poorest communities worldwide, while subsidies and other sweetheart deals keep it artificially cheap for agribusiness and developers. A horrifying new article on Las Vegas makes this point perfectly:
The 1990s were a relatively wet decade: above-average snow melts in the Sierra Nevadas kept Lake Mead, the reservoir supplying 90 percent of Las Vegas’s water, filled to the brim....[I]n 1994, [SNWA chief Pat] Mulroy told the High Country News, a Western environmental magazine, that piping water to Vegas from the rural north was the “singularly most stupid idea anyone’s ever had.” But by 2002, a severe drought had singed the Sun Belt for a third consecutive year. Lake Mead had sunk 60 feet in three years, to its lowest level since 1972....

“Computer models in the 1990s predicted a zero percent chance of anything like that happening,” Mulroy says with annoyance. “So a project that I easily called ‘stupid’ in 1994 is far from stupid in 2006.”
I’ve never seen a computer model that said there was "a zero percent chance” of catastrophic drought in the desert West, though I’m sure there are people who'd be happy to produce one if you paid them enough money.

But according to Mulroy, money didn't enter into it. Everyone simply accepted that the laws of nature had been overthrown for the greater glory of Las Vegas:
“We believed, as everyone did, that because of the vastness of the Colorado River System, we had managed to engineer our way around the whimsical nature of the climate in the west,” Pat Mulroy said in an interview this summer. “And guess what? We hadn’t. It doesn’t work. And so, you have to diversify where this water comes from.”
Well, sure. If there’s not enough local water to support the rate of growth to which Las Vegas has become accustomed, you have to get it from someplace else. I mean, what other possibility is there, given the West's "whimsical" (i.e., reliably hot and dry) climate?

If you answered “conservation,” or “restrictions on growth,” guess again.
Mulroy says raising water rates and pushing aggressive conservation is politically impossible in Vegas, partly due to the ingrained culture of waste. “We’ve had the luxury to let water run down the streets, and quite frankly, it’s created a mindset that it’s something you take for granted,” she says.
They never had that luxury, of course; they merely pretended to. But now, the cornucopian squandering of water that helped to justify overdevelopment is itself justified by the fact of overdevelopment. Wasting water has created "an ingrained culture of waste," and only an unhinged anti-capitalist radical would dream of arguing with that.

Mulroy claims that there's no way to predict the effect of draining rural aquifers to fuel growth in Las Vegas, short of actually doing it:
“Until there are test wells drilled and the system is stressed, there’s no way to know for sure what the impact will be,” she says.
In other news, Korea is being smothered by clouds of toxic yellow dust. As I've mentioned elsewhere, this is becoming one of China’s chief exports, thanks to a sustained drought, reckless development, and overpumped aquifers.

Fortunately, my computer model shows a zero percent chance of a similar disaster happening here.


Thers said...

Remind me again why we evolved as a species.

Phila said...

Remind me again why we evolved as a species.

In order to produce Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien LP, of course.

Well, that and Jello shots....

Unknown said...

I recall reading an article in National Geo (early 90's) that took the Colorado river drainage apart by water right decree, then compareed it to actual flow and estimated evaporation rates. My dim recollection is 24 million acre feet of decreed water rights, 4 to 5 million acre feet of new evaporation from miles of flumes and the 4 major dams. Thats what we expect to take out. Actual flow is estimated at 17 million acre feet.

juniper pearl said...

i do think that it would make sense to price water according to its actual worth (i.e., higher than anything else we pay for), at least in the united states, precisely because of the "ingrained culture of waste." people think of water as an entitlement because it's so essential, but because they have to do so little to obtain it they frequently don't recognize its value. i'll be stoned to death by some political group or other for saying it, but pricing water higher seems like the most efficient way to force the people who are wasting it so carelessly to recognize it as a finite resource.

Anonymous said...

We evolved as a species to suck the water out of the SW aquifer to see what happens. 'Cause we too dumb to do the arithmetic.
Where I live, it's fish. We kept building bigger, faster boats because we had to go further offshore to catch all the fish to see what would happen. 'Cause we were too dumb to do the arithmetic.
Thank you, I'll be here at "The End of the Human Race" 'til Friday. Try the manna.

Phila said...

i'll be stoned to death by some political group or other for saying it, but pricing water higher seems like the most efficient way to force the people who are wasting it so carelessly to recognize it as a finite resource.

In theory, I think it ought to be free at a certain level of use (i.e., what's necessary for basic needs), and insanely expensive above that.

In practice, though, I don't think it's that simple. Nevada's casinos might still pull in enough money to pay for their obscene misuse of water, so I think those uses would have to be outlawed, period, along with certain types of development.

The situation with agribusiness is a lot more complex, and it's hard to see how they can be brought to heel by anything short of "socialist tyranny," both to prevent water misuse and to keep food affordable. Which is fine with me, natch, but unpopular generally.