Creative Water Management
Water Resources Management, Inc.
Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be here and to share the same podium with Gilbert White. I believe you'll find that most of what I am about to present has already been stated by Gilbert White in one form or another.
At the outset, I want to make clear my support for global climate change research and my belief in the importance of this topic. However, I think that for water management—and only water management, not the broader issues—global climate change is not an issue. This is for three reasons:
Uncertainty. In my opinion, there is simply not enough certainty in any of the climate change information we have at this time to make any quantitative use of it in water management.
Rate of Change. Global climate changes are occurring much more slowly than weather changes due to normal climate variability. Therefore, if we are able to respond adequately to changes produced by normal climate variability, we should be able to cope with global climate change.
Other Variables. Other variables that affect the need for water management are changing much more rapidly than the climate. These variables will impact water demands regardless of how global climate change affects water supply. Therefore, let's address these other variables. Why worry about the tail—let's worry about the dog first.
The topic of my talk is creative water management as a response to climate variability. I'll begin by answering the question ''What is water management?''
WHAT IS WATER MANAGEMENT?
In its simplest terms, managing water is no more than exercising whatever control measures are available to direct the utilization of water. Management implies an objective. Typically, the objective of water management is to achieve "the best possible mix of benefits" from the resource, which sounds quite reasonable and simple. So if defining water management is so simple, why is managing water so difficult?
The initial difficulty actually involves the end of the process—defining the objective "best possible mix of benefits." I know of no place in the water resources field where there exists general agreement as to what constitutes the best possible mix of benefits. In fact, it is extremely rare to find a comprehensive listing of all the benefits that might be achieved in a particular water management program. At Water Resources Management, whenever we begin a new project, the first item of business is to provide the client with a comprehensive list of exactly what we are trying to achieve. We find this list extremely valuable. Developing the list of objectives is not easy—it may take several months—but it is very worthwhile. An attempt to make a comprehensive list of benefits here would be impractical. Instead, I will list a few that are critical.
OBJECTIVES OF WATER MANAGEMENT
First of all, it should be recognized that most existing water law is aimed at preventing individuals from resorting to violence to resolve water disputes. Water law has nothing to do with economics or preserving people's property rights. It is my opinion that in relatively humid regions of England and the eastern United States, where water is plentiful, the riparian doctrine survives because water disputes are few. Further, disputes that do occur are rarely life-and-death situations; society can afford to allow the courts to take their time resolving fairly broad social issues on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, in the water-short West the appropriative doctrine was developed because it could provide the administrative simplicity required to resolve quickly a relatively large number of life-and-death disputes over water.
A second kind of objective is those that are deeply rooted in our culture. As an example, a few years ago I was in Calcutta speaking to water suppliers. I was listening to a water manager who was complaining bitterly of the destruction of standpipe
valves that had been installed to eliminate waste caused by freely running water. Apparently the people in the poorer sections of Calcutta were deliberately destroying the valves. When I asked him why, as this made no sense to me, he responded that freely running water had an important religious significance for Hindus. I pointed out to him that most of the homes in Calcutta had open water reservoirs in their basements, and that these were fed by pipes without valves. The overflow went into the streets and sewers. There were many more of these pipe connections than there were free-flowing standpipes in the poorer sections. It seemed to me that water metering, or a regulation requiring float valves in toilets, would save a good deal more water and energy costs (his actual objective) than would installing valves on a few standpipes. He responded that meters were too expensive and that some of the valves would break. And besides, the people living in these homes had a deep conviction that they had the right to all the water they wanted. How interesting—another religious objective, perhaps an expansion of the one he had already mentioned.
The only other religious objectives I have ever run across involved instream water rights for Native Americans. (You might also add to the religious objectives category the goals of a curious band of religious zealots who hold that Adam Smith is the only true prophet!) Nonetheless, I have noticed that the legacy of Frederick Law Olmstead has survived right here in Phoenix—a whole lot of lawn. The point is that many management objectives for water can have cultural or societal roots.
A third objective is an often forgotten one. Ask the typical water user, "What's the worst thing that can happen when there's no water at the tap?" and almost invariably the answer is, "I won't be able to flush my toilet, I'll get sick, and it's going to smell." While that may be accurate, there's a more important consequence that I worry about: if there's no pressure at the tap, there's no water at the fire plug, and if there's no water at the fire plug what happens when there's a fire? That question has some serious social consequences. We forget that fire protection was the real reason for developing of many of the early water systems in this country, and we particularly forget to include this factor when we look at the impact of climatic variation and drought. I get very upset when people talk about having shortages in urban water supply systems that they do not address fire protection in their future planning. When these shortages do occur, there will be no fire protection, and that's serious business, even over the short term.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in developing objectives for water management lies not in the lack of consensus, but in the
that there exists no effective forum for resolving our differences. Most resource allocations take place in the market, while allocations of publicly held resources such as public lands or taxes take place in the political arena. Although it may be difficult to establish a water market, it is not impossible and in fact is highly desirable. Nonetheless, I don't believe that water marketing has been tried in anything but very limited circumstances. And, with the exception of "water quality" legislation (which does, in some ways, address the allocation of water resources), political bodies have usually stayed way from the individual allocation of water rights, leaving these issues to the courts and the existing structure for resolving disputes I mentioned earlier. But enough about objectives.
DIFFICULTIES IN CONTROLLING WATER
Difficulties in control also make water management particularly problematic for the following reasons:
Because of its weight and volume, the large quantity of water required by our society is both difficult and expensive to control.
Although water is a renewable resource, unlike wood or grain it arrives in extremely variable quantities with little or no notice by processes that effectively cannot be controlled or even influenced by man.
Water is an elusive substance—it won't stay in one place. It evaporates, runs downhill by itself, runs uphill to money (but that's management). This "elusiveness" creates all kinds of what economists call "externalities." Any water management action directly, and often tangibly, affects either "downhill'' users or those lacking money. I believe that the appropriative doctrine has succeeded admirably in preventing people in the West from killing each other over water. This has led to a tremendous increase in the number of people downhill of proposed water management changes in the West. The increase in population, coupled with the technical difficulty of quantifying the economic externalities, has destroyed the administrative simplicity that was the driving force behind the appropriative doctrine in the first place. And that, in my opinion, is why western water lawyers do so well.
Finally, because it is so bulky, heavy, unpredictable and elusive, physical control of water is often best accomplished by
coordinated, cooperative actions of separate and distinct groups of people. It is my observation that coordinated actions by separate and distinct groups of people run counter to human nature. Therefore, effective water management is not only difficult, it is by its very definition unnatural. I find further support for this concept that effective water management is unnatural in Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics, which says that entropy is increasing—but that is another matter altogether.
Now that I've shown that water management is unnatural and difficult, what can be done to manage water and how does this relate to climate variability and climate change? Actions to manage water can be placed into four categories: structural measures, operational measures, allocations measures, and measures that increase the efficiency of use.
Structural measures are the easiest to define and discuss. Dams, canals, pipes, wells, water treatment plants, desalting plants, and hydropower facilities are all examples of structural measures used to manage water. They all control the movement and the elusiveness of water. Because we have no control without structures, these structures—limited though they may be—become very important. We've built a lot of structures. We need to build more.
But structures themselves do not respond to climate variability or climate change—operational measures do. If you want to know what you need to build in the water business, you should know exactly how you intend to operate it. Yet, most of the time little attention is paid to operations relative to the cost of construction.
The basic operating questions in water management today are, "How does one best defy gravity?" and, "Where and how much water should be left in storage at any given time?" Excellent operating policies for individual facilities are usually self-evident. But good joint operating policies for multiple facilities must be based on estimates of climate variability, and these are often quite uncertain. Moreover, implementation of joint operating policies requires coordination among groups. Still, the benefits of good coordinated operations of municipal supplies can be enormous. For example, joint operations of four large reservoirs along the Kansas River increased the reliable supplies by as much as an additional large reservoir. This additional reservoir would have cost a billion dollars. Clearly, operational measures can be critical.
Allocation policies and laws are enormously important in coping with climate variability. We need to develop allocation policies that address explicitly the temporal variability of water supply. I disagree strongly with the remark made yesterday that "We need to learn how to waste water wisely." Rather, we need to think about how we can best allocate whatever water is available at any given time—very different from wasting water wisely. To allocate rationally, we must expand our objectives beyond those that prevent people from killing each other over water disputes. There's one way of rationalizing water allocation without addressing the problem directly and that is to develop a water market. For many objectives a market is an effective means of allocation, although for other objectives it is not.
To have a water market, two conditions must be satisfied. First, the seller must be able to transfer the goods to the buyer. Second, the cost of the transaction cannot be prohibitive. Under eastern water law, establishing a water market is impossible, because you cannot market the goods—you don't own them. Under western water law, establishing water markets is not quite—but almost—impossible. Where no externalities (such as transfers between similar users in nearby locations) are involved, transfers can occur. But where externalities are involved, as in the majority of cases, western water law makes it very difficult to determine just what the seller can sell. Appeals to the court make the transfer costs enormous. To develop a water market in the West, water law must be modified to provide for an administrative procedure, not a court procedure, for defining which externalities are allowable and which are not. Systems analysis tools could be used for making decisions about externalities on a real-time administrative basis. In some cases, provisions for the sale also must be made.
Of course, many allocations shouldn't be left to the market. Examples of nonmarket types of allocations include allocations measures for water quality, instream flow, social welfare, and fire fighting.
Finally, creative water management involves devising ways to promote efficiency of use. Perhaps creative is not the right word—effective and nontraditional might be better terms. The answer to the question of how to be creative is short and sweet. If you want to be creative, provide a method to review and obtain the benefits of joint operations, with demands dependent on water availability. My experience is that, in the long run, people will thank you for it.