What to think about (western) water?

April 6th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Wednesday’s NYT had a long article about western water by Randal Archibold and Kirk Johnson. The issue is nothing to new to us out here, but holds important lessons for the rest of the country as well.

First read the article. Then realize the most important lesson not discussed in the article: this is not just a western issue. I and colleagues at Eastern Kentucky University and Columbia University are conducting research which I’ll describe here over the next few months on New York City and drought (part of our project is developing the paleoclimatology of Hudson River precip, the other is the policy implications). NYC has declared drought emergency after emergency over the past twenty years in what has been a relatively wet two decades compared to the previous five centuries. This has happened not amid increasing use, but decreasing use. New York City isn’t the only example of a perhumid region experiencing drought or water availability crises, as areas of the southeast and Pacific Northwest battle over water.

Second, perhaps inadvertently the article perfectly illustrates the shortsighted response to water supply issues under future climate. Many communities over the past decades have put strong focus on consumption reductions (see that NYC water page again, which shows a steady decline in total consumption and per capita consumption). But when water supply issues come out and politicians start getting asked about the response, one keyword is thrown like a ninja star at the reporter: concrete. More steel, more infrastructure, more technology. In other words, more serial engineering.

If you’ve flown into Los Angeles or Las Vegas with a window seat you know the real problem. Every backyard in LA has a large turquoise rectangle and the number of golf courses in Las Vegas seems to equal the number of slot machines. But these are just small manifestations of the real problem: mentality. It would be hard to dispute the west’s unlimited consumption mentality, starting from the grass roots of lawn watering at single family homes and spreading all the way up to the top:

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has sounded alarm bells by pushing for a ballot measure in 2008 that would allocate $4.5 billion in bonds for new water storage in the state. The water content in the Sierra Nevada snowpack has reached the lowest level in about two decades, state hydrologists have reported, putting additional pressure on the nation’s most populous state to find and store more water.

That paragraph neatly sums up the engineering response mentality for western water. The keywords are alarm bells, pressure, and store. Alarm bells are appropriate and it’s good to see water/climate change risk translated into political concern. Pressure is also appropriate, but only if responded to intelligently. But store should be replaced with leadership, creativity and management. Four point five billion dollars in concrete will create a lot of jobs, but will not solve California’s water issues.

The curious left-right fight on these issues always seems to slide back to growth, with clear anti- and pro-growth lines. In this context water supply issues are taken as a proxy on growth; if you’re for limiting water consumption you must be anti-development (and thus a dirty Communist?). But beyond the rhetoric are two clear realities: we will continue to grow, sometimes even where there appears to be too little water; we’re running toward a brick wall of water supply and continuing to live a no-questions-asked consumptive lifestyle that is at best shortsighted. In the future political leadership must raise and address the consumptive issues first as the primary challenge to tackle, and then see extra concrete only as a consequence of policy failure.

7 Responses to “What to think about (western) water?”

  1. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    Isn’t the concrete-and-steel approach to “adaptation” just what Al Gore has in mind when he criticizes adaptation as a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins?”

    When Pielke, Sarewitz, and others call for enormous investments in adaptation to climate change, they clearly don’t intend simplistic engineering fixes. But I’d like to see them grapple more directly with the political reality that in the United States, calls for adaptation will be interpreted by state and federal government as calls to build more levees and desalination plants, not to making more more judicious use of land, water, and other natural resources.

    A great challenge in discussing adaptation will be to present it accurately as an essential part of responding to climatic threats without making it seem a panacea (see Pielke’s response to Henry Miller’s mistake along those lines: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/climate_change/001149unpublished_letter_t.html) and in a way that makes clear that adaptation means behavior change, not technological magic beans.

    Indeed, in their Nature paper, Pielke et al. identify this problem: “defining adaptation in terms of sustainable development does not fit comfortably into the current political framework of the climate-change problem,” but don’t address how we’re to introduce sustainable environmental practices into a political system that can’t keep deficits below the rate of GDP growth and which can’t even bring itself to maintain our current physical infrastructure (see Bob Herbert’s column in Thursday’s Times: http://select.nytimes.com/2007/04/05/opinion/05herbert.html).

    Although sustainable adaptation is necessary, I fear that the concept will be so distorted in practice that putting a lot of political emphasis on adaptation would cause more harm than good. On the other hand, the enthusiasm we see for ethanol and hydrogen demonstrates that mitigation runs similar risks.

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  3. jfleck Says:

    It was a terrific story, but I was left fascinated by the relative lack of discussion of the 12,000 kg elephant in the corner of the room.

    In much the same way engineering is used in flood control to avoid talking about the unpleasant political realities of flood plain management, engineering is being used here to avoid a discussion of the unpleasant reality of agricultural water usage. As the story notes, 90 percent of the Colorado River’s water is used in agriculture. You’ll find similar ag-nonag splits around the west. You have two *very* different pricing structures – cheap ag water and very expensive urban water. But while there are individual cases of ag-urban transfers, there is very little high-level discussion of this larger issue.

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  5. Harry Haymuss Says:

    This illustrates typical shallowness of thought when it comes to global warming. Supposedly this global warming episode is driven by increased CO2, yet never before in the paleorecord has CO2 (nor apparently any other ghg) led warming, so it has never then caused warming. Obviously then historical attributes of warming periods are irrelevent compared to this phase. Nonetheless, alarmism reigns when massive increases in research (including realistic models) should instead be the result. Changes in the lapse rate are the clue.

    P.S. Ag water will convert to urban water when the price is right.

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  7. kevin v Says:

    John — thanks for the reminder of what I forgot to raise. The ag issue is not disconnected from the unintended consequences arising from ag subsidies across the board. Michael Pollan does a great job highlighting them, most recently about corn.

    Harry — just because a long-term independent CO2 change in the past hasn’t led temperature (from what can be read in the paleo record, at least) doesn’t mean that a change in CO2 now will not force a temperature change. The science is solid enough to surmise a very high certainty that CO2 can lead temperature and I have yet to see any serious, credible dispute to that. The real question is about feedbacks and amplification. Changes in the lapse rate are one small piece of the larger puzzle — feedbacks and processes abound. You don’t need to lecture us about the science around here….that’s what RC and CA are for.

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  9. TokyoTom Says:

    Kevin, at least in this discussion you are missing several key analytical points:

    - water shortages are a function of both supply and demand, and conflicts are guaranteed where allocation is made politically rather than through private market transactions;

    - water shortages are a function of both supply and demand, if prices to users are kept low then demand will be relatively high and incentives to conserve relatively low;

    - politicians and various special interests may naturally favor “technology” solutions that do not improve markets (which may increase water prices), but require continuing government involvement. This way the politicians have a continuing role to play in doling out constructions projects, which benefit both construction firms and users that are able to shift costs to general taxpayers.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Tom- Just FYI, our SPARC project held a workshop on the supply of and demand for water in central Arizona, see:




    Jonathan- I am sensitive your your concerns, but the fact is that any policy can be warped and twisted. In my view this is not a reason for avoiding particular areas of policy or policy research, but rather a reminder of the challenges of real-world policymaking.


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  13. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Kevin – you say:
    “The science is solid enough to surmise a very high certainty that CO2 can lead temperature and I have yet to see any serious, credible dispute to that” -

    Well, it’s not the job of people to dispute it. It’s the job of those claiming it to back it up in terms of reality. Don’t you think there would be some correlation somewhere in the recent past if it were real? Right now, they have no backup in the real world to be crying wolf.

    There will be losers and there will be winners with climate change – all we know is that there are usually more losers with cooling. If only 10% of western water is for urban purposes, then dropping rural uses by 10% will allow a doubling of the population. The same orders of magnitude goes for a decrease in water supply.

    Then, you completely dismiss the fact that if in fact we end up with warming from CO2, the increase in convection which has never happened with warming before anyway is a wild card that needs to be addressed by realistic models, the computing power for which is within reach but is not being adequately focused on.

    Who will win and who will lose, and how many of each will there be compared with who will win and who will lose with the status quo is what needs to be addressed – it’s all relative. ZPG may be addressing the real, and only, problem here.

    Without this knowledge you are effectively just tilting at windmills.

    But hey, those who would profit from carbon trading schemes are in your corner…