Monday, October 25, 2004

Water, Water Everywhere, and Nowhere

While I was in Phoenix last week, I got the chance to see how much the metro area has grown since I lived there back in 1985. Areas that were farms or desert back then are now covered with sprawling subdivisions and retail corridors. I recall that when I bought a house in Mesa in 1984, desert landscaping was encouraged over grass lawns and their thirsty ways. I couldn't imagine then that the area could sustain much more development because of the limited water supply offered by the Colorado river. So I was shocked as I strolled around my wife's apartment complex in Peoria to see grass landscaping being drenched by automatic sprinklers. Was there some breakthrough of hydrologic engineering behind this accelerated consumption?

Apparently not. The Colorado river is running a deficit:

Drought is already doing what environmentalists could only dream about: It's draining Lake Powell, the reservoir just upriver from the Grand Canyon that submerged hundreds of miles of scenic canyons and countless archaeological sites.
Powell is so low that hikers are beginning to explore glorious sandstone canyons once submerged under 100 feet of water. The lake has fallen to 42 percent of capacity, its lowest since it was filled in 1970. At the downstream end of the Grand Canyon is Lake Mead, the huge lake formed by Hoover Dam. It is at 59 percent of capacity and could reach the same state as Powell as early as 2008.

So what gives? The archaic set of federal laws and quotas that restrict any kind of free market solutions is what gives. It's time to get the Federal government out of the water business. Western farmers, settlers and businesses have benefitted from subsidized water since the go-go days of big water projects chronicled by Marc Reisner in his book Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Phoenix and other Southwestern communities will be in for a rude awakening in the near future if this insane relic of 20th Century Central Planning is allowed to continue until it collapses of its own weight.


Blogger redhairblueface said...

I give things away on my blog.

October 25, 2004 8:55 PM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...


Phoenix will certainly face a bit of sticker shock someday, but really, humans don't need that much water to live. At $ 100/mo per household, there'd be plenty of water piped in, trucked in, recycled from sewage, etc.

Those lawns will die, though.

October 26, 2004 4:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


You are correct, but the problem is that by artificially supressing the price of water, Phoenix and other southwestern cities are allowed to develop to a level where, when shortages force them to establish a free market for water, the price will be higher than the majority of consumers can bear. If the southwest had developed under a free market system for water, then the price mechanisms would have guided development along a more sustainable path and would have funded the development of alternative sources long before shortages reached a crisis stage.

October 27, 2004 11:52 PM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

I think that you're vastly overestimating how much it'll cost to supply water to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, Albuquerque, and other desert communities.

Sea water can be desalinized for .002 per gallon, when done in vast quantities.
Transportation costs will be the highest factor.

Even most poor people can afford another $ 600/yr in utility costs.

October 31, 2004 1:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Perhaps we are both seeing the same future through different lenses. You are the eternal optimist, I am the pessimist. There is a sustainable future out there for water in the Southwest. The only question is - how much pain will it take to get there.

First, the existing government agreements and controls have to be dismantled, and a true interstate, or even international, free market in water established. If desalinization is the route, then water has to be piped in from California over the mountains, or from the Gulf of California via Mexico. But don't underestimate the appetite of state legislators to hold onto their government water guarantees - and don't underestimate the resistance of individuals to resist free market prices for something that they have always considered an entitlement.

Also, don't overlook the fact that other resources will becoming more expensive, particularly energy. The same poor people will see their air conditioning bills and gas prices add at least another $600/year to their budget, if not more. The 21st century will be a "resource century", as existing sources and technologies for extracting and producing basic resources will hit the wall, and new sources and technologies will need to be developed. It will be a transitional century, and I am optimistic that we will make it into the 22nd century with sustainable methods to meet our resource needs. But there will be a lot of pain during the transition.

October 31, 2004 7:27 AM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

Your last sentence is one that we can both agree on, whole-heartedly.

I am an optimist, but only based on the fact that humans have always managed to muddle through before, and I expect that trend to hold true.

However, there is always a cost, and at least in America, we aren't taking the wisest steps to get through what we know to be coming, whether it's running out of clean water, running out of oil, or reforming Social Security.

We have to be forced to change.

Those that are individually wise, (and lucky), such as you and me, will do well, perhaps very well, but although I fully expect America to continue to dominate the world through the coming turmoil, I acknowledge that it will cost dearly.

November 02, 2004 10:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael, agreed. I can get very incensed at times because I feel that we as a nation should be able to foresee these problems coming and collectively act proactively to adjust before the pain gets overwhelming. But at other times I have to accept that it is not in people's nature, collectively, to act that way. Pain avoidance is a strong instinct, which, paradoxically, leads to more pain in the end. It is like a toothache. People will avoid going to the dentist because they fear the dental chair and drill. So they put it off, until the pain is so overwhelming that they are forced to go, and by this time the tooth is so bad that they need a root canal.

Which is another way of saying that people cannot anticipate the market, which may be good in the long run. Market prices are pain indicators. At any moment in time the relative distribution of prices for various resources reflects an optimized distribution of pleasure vs pain. As oil or water prices rise, the market will adjust based on the collective tradeoffs people will see at that point between what they feel they need and how much pain they are willing to endure. They may tear up their lawns and landscape with lava rocks and cactus, or they may pay the higher price to keep watering their lawn and cancel their cable service. Or they may move to Oregon. Government planners cannot possibly determine what the proper cost/benefit ratios will be, only the market can.

November 04, 2004 3:18 AM  

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