Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON WATER....The mysterious Froude Reynolds, who "carried pipe in tomato fields, walked along canals, and studied water in California universities in preparation for current employment that makes a pseudonym a reasonable precaution," responds to David Zetland's suggestion that the price of water be determined by market forces here. Bottom line: many blog commenters, even on fine blogs like this one, are misinformed. Things are, in fact, "much less outrageous" than they used to be. I can't quite tell if that's damning with faint praise or not, but click the link if you want some up-to-date water info.

Kevin Drum 6:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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First, Kevin, all, as I’ve blogged before, Lake Mead could be DEAD in a dozen years or so. Along with that, the whole Colorado River could wind up looking like the Amu Darya or Syr Darya in Kazakhstan.

Second, I think O’Hare sets up a straw man version of “Cadillac Desert.”

Third, to combine No. 1 and No. 2, doesn’t matter WHO uses the most water if, er…

Lake Mead is dead!

Fourth, there’s this dam, called Hoover Dam, that produces electricity for SoCal and Vegas. Umm, if Lake Mead is dead, Kevin, you ain’t getting any electricity from Hoover Dam for OC.

Fifth, O’Hare is wrong on his “market-forces” idea of what drives water costs. As any nitwit in the West can tell you, who controls water/water rights/water access is a major determinant.

Sixth, on the enviro-costs of Big Ag, O’Hare undercuts himself in his own post.

Seventh, the only reason CD is less relevant is because Reisner died in his mid-50s before he could do a third edition. I have no doubt he would have factored global warming into that third edition.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 24, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

OK, so things have changed over the past 22 years. I'm not surprised. But the fact remains that market based schemes benefit those of us who are well off, at the expense of those who are less fortunate. Not only that, but we are already overtaxing our fragile ecosystems here in the arid West. I know it smacks of elitism, but I say it's time we let nature (and not the almighty dollar) determine the limits of population growth in the West.

Posted by: Dave Brown on July 24, 2008 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

I know it smacks of elitism, but I say it's time we let nature (and not the almighty dollar) determine the limits of population growth in the West. Posted by: Dave Brown

It's hardly an elitist attitude Dave. It's common sense.

About the only thing stupider in the world than how the U.S. isn't managing growth in the West is how the Gulf states are being over-built - artificial islands, all of which will be under water in a decade or so, and indoor ski areas are just beyond comprehension. I don't think they do much of anything with solar or wind in any of the oil producing nations, even though most of them get more than 250+ days of sunshine and the wind blows most of the time.

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080720/BUSINESS/870382056/1005

http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2005/nov/20/unitedarabemirates.wintersportsholidays.wintersports

Posted by: Jeff II on July 24, 2008 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

Overpopulation from illegal migration.

Posted by: Luther on July 24, 2008 at 7:10 PM | PERMALINK

SG: Mike O'Hare didn't write that post. Froude Reynolds did.

Hoover Dam, of course, wasn't something he even addressed, so I'm not sure what the relevance is. But Reynolds pretty clearly knows all about water rights and environmental costs. Read a few of his other posts if you're not sure of this.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 24, 2008 at 7:25 PM | PERMALINK

Hoover Dam, of course, wasn't something he even addressed, so I'm not sure what the relevance is.
Posted by: Kevin Drum

That's why the guys screed can be pretty much dismissed. The relevance is that the only reason Hoover (and Lake Mead behind it) exists is to provide electricity for pretty much the entire SW. Before the dam was finished, California was growing relatively few vegetables and the population of the entire SW was probably 4 million people.

But once the snow pack in the Rockies goes away, the Colorado ceases to exist and no water flows through Hoover's turbines.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 24, 2008 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff: I'm still confused. What does this have to do with what Reynolds was writing about? It seems like an entirely different subject.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 24, 2008 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not quite sure where the objection to Zetland is coming from. Froude's assertion that "things" are "far less outrageous"than they used to be is vague to the max. Give us more detail, Dood!

Posted by: Don on July 24, 2008 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

When it comes to water, the West isn't the only part of the country with problems. We're about to make some big ones for ourselves back East, thanks to the rush to sell out to gas drillers. The Albany, NY Times Union picks up the story here:

http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=705332

The latest from the TU? Governor Paterson sold out right on schedule.

http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=706129&category=STATE

Long story shorter: drill for natural gas trapped in shale using millions of gallons of water to fracture the rock - and end up with lots of water loaded with toxic chemicals. Government gets money up front, but lacks resources for regulating, monitoring, or clean up.

So what do you want? A quick hit of natural gas for money now - and water problems from here till forever, OR perotecting drinkable water while you move to sustainable energy policies?

Posted by: xaxnar on July 24, 2008 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

xaxnar: A quick hit of natural gas for money now - and water problems from here till forever

Oh come on, so it pollutes a watershed that feeds the 8 million people of NYC (and the 12 residents of the Catskills). What's the big deal?

What gets me is that the drillers are exempt from the regulations that require companies to disclose what chemicals they're using. Is it soap or cyanide?

To boot NYS is probably about the last place where anybody has the expertise to regulate drilling. When I found out less than a year ago that they were drilling for natural gas upstate I thought it was a typo. NY?

I'm not categorically opposed to the drilling, but they're jumping on this without having any idea what's going on. What's the rush? Natural gas will be short for years to come.

Ah, from the state that brought you the Love Canal.

All I can say is that I'm glad here on Long Island we get don't get our water from upstate, and that our only mineral resource is sand.

Posted by: alex on July 24, 2008 at 11:53 PM | PERMALINK

Try Googling "Froude number" and "Reynolds number".

Posted by: Ham on July 25, 2008 at 1:14 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I know who wrote the post. I'm critiquing O'Hare's own claims about how water is priced, not Reynolds. O'Hare claims that water pricing for urban use based on three simple facts and it's not.

In SoCal, your water comes from four different government entities, ultimately. The LA Aqueduct is city; the Colorado River stuff is Fed Bureau of Reclamation; the State Water Project is, of course, Sacto; some of the dams of rivers coming off the southern Sierra are federal, but Corps of Engineers, not Reclamation.

In the West, there's that issue of who controls the impounding of water, and its piping, Kevin. It's not nearly as simplistic as either Reynolds or O'Hare, in different ways, present.

As for why I brought in Hoover Dam, the whole blog at RBC has a paucity of water-supply based posts, so it's fair game to criticize O'Hare for a narrowness of vision. To talk about narrow-based water-pricing issues without talking about water-supply issues, Kevin, is like talking about someone throwing a lit cigarette out a car window in SoCal in August without talking about Santa Ana winds.

As for the "straw man" argument, Kevin, I've read Cadillac Desert three times, which I believe is three more times than you have. I stand by what I said about O'Hare making a straw man argument.

A lot of the book is about water impoundment and water rights; it's not about agriculture at all.

Beyond that, I don't think you get it, Kevin. Pardon me, or not, for sounding like Jim Kunstler, but, IMO and others, y'all in the Southland are living on Ed Abbey time, not Tulsa time, and the clock is ticking. You're living on borrowed water AND borrowed electricity.

Jeff II gets it.

At this time, I'm going to plug what I think is THE best magazine for understanding today's West. It's "High Country News." It covers environmental issues above all else, but covers sociology (multiple stores about drugs in the modern West' oil patch), and politics out West... all with a progressive POV.

www.hcn.org.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 25, 2008 at 1:34 AM | PERMALINK

Water from Lake Mead doesn't irrigate anything in California. Never did. Some power, sure, but relatively little of CA's power (3%) and even OR, WA (10%) currently come from hydro because of the lack of water.

Posted by: Crissa on July 25, 2008 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

Where has O'Hare written about water pricing for urban use? I don't actually recall ever seeing him write about water policy at all, but maybe I'm being forgetful.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 25, 2008 at 2:09 AM | PERMALINK

Right here, Kevin, from the post you linked:
What the cost of water represents is the economic resources needed to get it to where someone wants to use it, mostly pumping and for urban water, cleaning and purifying. To get it to agricultural land is much, much cheaper than to get it to your tap pure enough to drink.

Beyond that, part of the deal is that posts like this are straining at gnats.

You blog a fair amount about Peak Oil, but actually write little "big picture" stuff about water supply, specifically water supply in your own part of the country, on the loose analogy of Peak Oil.

This is like writing about Peak Oil and just talking about oil in Oklahoma.

Per my last post, I still don't think you "get it." In addition to "Cadillac Desert," I suggest (re)reading "Desert Solitaire."

And, reading carefully Ed Abbey's comments that "the desert always wins."

More on the "straw man" of O'Hare while I'm at it and you're looking back here again, Kev:

A lot of the book is about water impoundment and water rights; another large chunk of it is about the politics of western water; a third chunk is about bureaucratic infighting between Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers; a fair amount of it is not about agriculture at all. O’Hare knows that too, if he’s actually read the book.

I would honestly say that less than half the book is strictly about agricultural uses of water.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 25, 2008 at 2:32 AM | PERMALINK

Crissa, you're already making my point. Lake Mead is an exemplar for impounded water in general, whether primarily for irrigation or not. Other Colorado River dams will follow suit, on both water and power.

As for the water, vs. hydro, side of the issue, I know that irrigation water for SoCal comes from further down the river. But, if Lake Mead is dry, there's not going to be a lot of irrigation, or urban, water behind either Parker or Imperial Dams, now, is there?

Coming up next?

Lawsuits between the seven states signatory to the Colorado River Compact.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 25, 2008 at 3:42 AM | PERMALINK

There's one other thing to keep in mind: ownership. Water ownership is immensely complicated. But in general, farmers (yes - those folks who allegedly own 80% of the water) own groundwater by virtue of their land holdings and canal water by virtue of the location of their land (near rivers or canals). As big a deal as Bureau of Reclamation (Central Valley Project) and State of California (State Water Project) water are, groundwater and local project water together are far, far bigger deals. This is the reason why it's laughable to suggest farmers can be stripped of most of their water. They can't -- they own it.

Posted by: ronc on July 25, 2008 at 4:15 AM | PERMALINK

Right here, Kevin, from the post you linked:

My impression is that everthing in the link from
"Froude Reynolds, obviously in an unusually grouchy mood, dropped off the following last week, clasting one of our favorite icons:"
to
"Posted at 11:09 PM | TrackBack (0) | "

was written by Reynolds.

Posted by: Philip on July 25, 2008 at 5:12 AM | PERMALINK

20% of the fresh water in the world is in Lake Superior - I'm glad I live close to it. Soon, many areas (China being most prominent) are going to face mass starvation and die-off, due to lack of fresh water. The Southwest United States (i.e. Southern California and Arizona) is a house of cards, with regard to water availability. Wars and regional conflicts will be fought in the near future over water. Some random musings....

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 25, 2008 at 6:38 AM | PERMALINK

I don't mind giving farmers cheap water to grow food. That's just a form of crop subsidy. I do mind that if farmers stop farming, they still own the cheap water and can sell that right. If they stop using the cheap water for what we subsdidized them for, then it should go back into the common pot of water.

Posted by: anandine on July 25, 2008 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks, Kevin. Excellent and helpful link.

Posted by: RM on July 25, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Since agriculture doesn’t necessarily need potable water, it seems Californa should be investing in salt removing on a massive scale and use sea water since they have an extensive coastline, so it just seems to me like all money is be invested in the wrong direction, they'll never get enough water from rivers flowing from other states and problem is getting worse.

Posted by: Me_again on July 25, 2008 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

1) I am misquoted (or abstracted) in this: 'In the abstract, Dr. Zetland’s suggestion that urban water rates be "set by the market instead of by water districts"' -- I never said that water districts would not said rates.

2) Jeff II is right about Hoover Dam -- it was all about power. Interestingly, MWD of SoCal (wholesale water supplier) was set up to make it easier for LA to get that power. See chapter 3 of my dissertation for this story: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1129046

3) Giving cheap water to farmers and expecting cheap food is bad economics. Farmers grow the wrong stuff, export it, and use too much water. Better to charge the right price for water (and food) and give block $ transfers to the poor.

4) I've never advocated taking farmers water rights.

5) The OP says "What the cost of water represents is the economic resources needed to get it" -- that's true, but the cost is sometime subsidized AND depends on water rights, i.e., SoCal could have cheaper water if if could get more from the Colorado River (instead of NorCal), so costs depend on where the water is from.

6) "The split between urban, ag and environmental water averages 20:40:40" -- I've seen this figure many many times from pro-ag people. The 40% for enviro uses is basically water held behind dams and released down streams. It's also water that is off the table in terms of reallocation. That's why I ignore it and say that ag has 75-80% of the "developed" water.

Posted by: David Zetland on July 25, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

SG: The Colorado River still has about 15 million acre-feet of flows every year. Yes, it's badly over-allocated. But 15 MAF is still a lot of water, and even if average yearly flows drop to 12 MAF you can still support a lot of life in the West. Shortages suck, but they can be dealt with.

DavidZ: Your points 3 & 4 contradict. Either farmers' rights are recognized, in which case there's no basis to accuse them of making "wrong" choices, or their rights are re-defined. "Taking" is a cute word choice; it implies (for lawyers) that just compensation is owed under the 5th Amendment. Instead, you've proposed completely re-defining what water rights are under the California Constitution. Also, your early blog posts talk a lot about a "market" for water until I and others kept badgering you that the legal, environmental, political and infrastructure limitations on the transfer of water rights means that the word "market" simply doesn't apply.

Reynolds is pretty much right on.

(The author of this comment practices water law in California.)

Posted by: Francis on July 25, 2008 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand why Reisner's Cadillac Desert is always taken as the reference point for these discussions. Isn't Worster's Rivers of Empire earlier and analytically deeper?

Posted by: aretino on July 25, 2008 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Francis, I've disagreed with you on previous water-related posts, and I'm not changing now.

You're ignoring the likely increasing amount of these shortages and the permanence of them as the new normal.

Keep practicing, Francis. Maybe you'll get it right.

Deflator, like Jeff II, already gets it right.

Philip: O'Hare actually made the post; don't blame me for him not using blockquotes or quotemarks, even if every single word was Reynolds' submission. The actual comment on pricing was 2/3 the way down the post.

In any case, then Reynolds is wrong.

Aretino: No. "Cadillac Desert" is the better book. Among other things, CD has broader scope for tackling the High Plains/Ogallala as well as the trans-Rockies West.

That said, Worster's "A River Running West" is a better bio of John Wesley Powell than is Wallace Stegner's "Beyond the 100th Meridian," which borders on hagiographic.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 25, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

...And the Colorado River doesn't irrigate the Central Valley or LA or anything major, so that argument is really specious.

Posted by: Crissa on July 25, 2008 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

And the Colorado River doesn't irrigate even a percent of California cropland, doesn't give water to the central Valley or LA, so the comment about it is specious.

Now, if by pointing out that even Mead is declining that adding more reservoir capacity won't help the problem - which some people are advocating - and that is a decent argument.

But how to get farmers to conserve water? I don't know. They're pretty resistant to any change.

Posted by: Crissa on July 25, 2008 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Crissa: you are completely wrong. The single largest use of Colorado River water is in Imperial County, which is in California due east of San Diego County, north of Mexico. Another major recipient of Colorado River water is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is the water wholesaler for large portions of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

but i'll agree that farmers are pretty resistant to change.

Posted by: Francis on July 25, 2008 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

@Francis: I will continue to work with your misunderstanding:

Your points 3 & 4 contradict. Either farmers' rights are recognized, in which case there's no basis to accuse them of making "wrong" choices, or their rights are re-defined. No - I am being consistent in saying that a cheap food/cheap water policy is a bad idea. The price of water can be completely separate from the rights to water.

Why are you discussing taking?

you've proposed completely re-defining what water rights are under the California Constitution. Where and when?

Also, your early blog posts talk a lot about a "market" for water until I and others kept badgering you that the legal, environmental, political and infrastructure limitations on the transfer of water rights means that the word "market" simply doesn't apply. You clearly are not reading my blog enough. I was discussing those issues long before you arrived. I suggest a keyword search on those topics before you accuse me of saying things (or not saying things) without foundation.

It's here: http://aguanomics.com/

Gee, Francis, you sound more and more like a lawyer using selective "facts" (often opinions) to argue the conclusion you've already decided upon.

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