Assorted Links

Supreme Court sides with Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in dispute with local water agencies over groundwater supplies in the Coachella Valley.

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity:  Sandra Postel’s new book, on a creative initiative to save the Verde River in central Arizona.

Staving off ecological disaster at the Salton Sea.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to rule on legal liability for spills from fracking operations into state rivers and streams.  The ruling “could mean a difference of millions of dollars for companies facing pollution fines.”

The ongoing decline of the great lakes of the world

I recently posted about the steady decline over time in the waters of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah.  Since 1847, the Great Salt Lake has shrunk to about half its original volume, which some scientists have attributed to climate change.  As it turns out, the decline may be more attributable to human consumption as every year, humans divert some 870 billion gallons of water from freshwater streams that feed the lake.

In the decline of the Great Salt Lake, we see some parallels to another infamous event in world water history: the desiccation of the Aral Sea in central Asia.  The Aral Sea used to be one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.  Beginning shortly after World War II, however, an intensive Soviet effort to increase cotton production led to the diversion of the waters of the two main feeder rivers – the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – for irrigation in the current country of Uzbekistan.  The flow from the rivers that actually reached the Aral Sea slowed to a trickle, the lake shrank in size and became saltier than the ocean, and a thriving fishing industry was destroyed.  Not only that, the desiccation of the Sea dramatically worsened air quality in the western part of Uzbekistan, causing respiratory ailments and likely contributing significantly to increased infant mortality.

Today, the Aral Sea is a shadow of its former self.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, steps have been taken to partially restore the Sea.  By damming off part of the Sea and increasing water flows from the Syr Darya, fishing is coming back in the northern part of the Aral Sea.

There would seem to be no reason to expect something similar to happen to the Great Salt Lake.  Without a dramatic reduction in water consumption, even partial restoration seems unlikely.  In a few decades, the Great Salt Lake may be nothing but a memory.


“The more people read about the drought, the more water they conserved”

From News Deeply:

A new study of the recent California drought finds that people started cutting back on water use, even before state and local agencies imposed mandatory water conservation measures.  The reason:  Intense media coverage of the drought.

In the study, researchers at Stanford’s Water in the West program found a strong correlation between municipal water use and media coverage of the drought, as measured by the frequency of hits in a Google search.

They found that controlling for other factors, water use in single-family residences fell by about 11 – 18 percent for every extra 100 drought-related articles published over a two month period.

Said one of the researchers:

I have worked in this field for the past 15 or 20 years, and I have never seen as much interest in the topic as I saw in those years. In social situations, as soon as I would mention what I do, everyone would be very interested and try to engage, tell me what it is they are doing to help us deal with the drought. …  [It is] a demonstration of the power that the media holds …

Focus on Research: “Emerging Markets in Water”, by Carey and Sunding

Economists have much to contribute to current debates over water policy.  Unfortunately, some of our very good ideas can get lost in translation when laypersons try to make heads or tails of academic studies.  In this new feature of this blog, I summarize a well-done academic study in terms that laypersons can (hopefully!) understand.  My hope is that these occasional summaries will contribute to a better public understanding of economic research.

The inaugural academic study I have chosen for this new feature is Emerging Markets in Water, by economists Janis Carey and David Sunding, which appeared in the Natural Resources Journal in 2001.  This article is a comparative study of water markets in California and Colorado.  Water markets are a topic of keen interest to many water economists, because they seem to hold out the hope of dramatically improved water use efficiency.  The basic question addressed by Carey and Sunding is:  Why have water markets succeeded so well in Colorado and failed so miserably in California?

The short answer is historical happenstance.  The focus of the study is two water development projects: the Central Valley Project (CVP) in California, and the Colorado-Big Thompson (CBT) Project.  Both were Depression-era projects undertaken by the federal government to provide supplemental water supplies to areas that had previously been settled.  Both commenced delivery of water shortly after the end of World War II.  But from the very beginning, subtle differences were built into the operation of the projects, with the end result that the CVP has made it much more difficult to transfer water from one user to the next.

The analysis is rich and addresses a lot of different factors, so let me focus on one of the big differences between the two projects: the differential treatment of so-called return flows.

Consider Farmer Jones, who irrigates his fields using an allotment of water from one of these projects.  After being applied, the water must go somewhere; for example, into the local aquifer or as run-off into neighboring streams.  This left-over water is referred to as return flows, and it is water that is then available for others to use, such as Farmer Smith, who owns the farm downstream from Jones.

Now suppose Farmer Jones instead wants to take his allotment of project water and sell it to Farmer Brown, who lives in the next watershed.  If he does so, what happens to the return flows that Farmer Smith had previously enjoyed?  They disappear!  This means that a transfer from Jones to Brown would end up hurting Smith, if he had previously been relying on the return flows to irrigate his lands.

One big reason it is so difficult to transfer water under the CVP is the way that California treats return flows, from a legal standpoint.  California operates under the so-called no-injury rule, which prohibits changes in water rights that injure other legal users of the water.  This means that if a water transfer causes injury to downstream users, then it is not allowed.  Since return flows are extremely common, the no-injury rule may obstruct many water transfers in California.

By contrast, under the CBT, return flows are owned by the water district that receives water from the project.  This means that downstream users have no legal grounds to object to a transfer that might affect the return flows.  This seemingly small difference – who has the legal right to the return flows – has apparently made it much easier to transfer water in the CBT.

How did the CBT and CVP come to have these very different legal treatments of return flows?  Here is where history mattered a great deal.  The CBT involved sending water from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains to the eastern slope.  Because it was “new” water, it did not have to contend with pre-existing claims to the return flows from disgruntled eastern users, who were not deprived of anything they had enjoyed previously.  This made it politically easier for the water district to claim ownership of the return flows.

Carey and Sunding provide other reasons for why it is now so much easier to transfer water in the CBT than in the CVP.  These include: different water rights structures, different numbers of users contracting with the government agencies, and different policies regarding the size of farms eligible to receive water.  If you are interested in knowing more, I strongly encourage you to read the article itself.  But bottom line:  this article is an excellent illustration of how economists can meld economic analysis with historical and legal context in order to gain insights into important policy issues.  And for water economists, it is hard to think of policies that have attracted more recent attention than water markets.

Groundwater management plans in California may not be adequately accounting for climate change

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed by the California legislature in 2014, requires local agencies to create plans for sustainable management of local groundwater basins.

A new white paper published by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Water in the West program at Stanford University finds that, of two dozen local management plans submitted to the state earlier this year, nearly half did not include a quantitative analysis of climate change, even though required to by law.

The authors found that many agencies were not using appropriate climate data in their plans.  They wrote the white paper in order to provide guidance to local agencies to help them better incorporate climate change into their planning efforts.   This includes a four-step process to incorporate climate projections into their groundwater sustainability plans.

Click here to download the white paper.

New study on the impact of climate change on groundwater in the western U.S.

Researchers at the University of Arizona have published a study in Geophysical Research Letters that uses climate models to examine the effect of climate change on groundwater recharge in the western United States.  The study projects changes for both the near future (to roughly the middle of the century) and the far future (roughly the end of the century).  Bottom Line:  Under most of the models used, groundwater recharge will increase in the northern Rockies and Plains regions, while it will decrease in the West and Southwest regions.

“The portions of the West that are already stretched in terms of water resources — Arizona, New Mexico, the High Plains of Texas, the southern Central Valley — for those places that are already having problems, climate change is going to tighten the screws,” Meixner said.

Gated version here.

Assorted links, Cape Town edition

The water shortage is now officially a disaster.

Could “good water savings” by Cape Town residents result in them paying more for water?

The tough sell when you may have no choice: consuming treated wastewater.

Seven myths about the Cape Town water crisis.  These myths include: the City of Cape Town officials saw the drought coming and did nothing; the city did not enforce restrictions on water waste; lots of water is being lost to leaky pipes; and desalination is the answer.

The Oroville Dam crisis, 9 months later

Last winter was one of the wettest winters in California in nearly a century.  The record rains caused significant damage to the spillway at Oroville Dam, leading to the mass ordered evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from communities downstream from the dam.  The damage to the dam prompted the first-ever use of an emergency spillway to release water from Lake Oroville.

As the start of the rainy season in California looms, here is an update on the present status of the Oroville Dam situation.

The Department of Water Resources has announced the spillway is ready for winterTotal costs of repair ended up exceeding half a billion dollars, nearly double the original estimate.  This figure only includes work done by the main contractor, Kiewit Corp., to repair the spillways.  It does not include the costs of other contractors, nor the costs of the emergency response, including the evacuation.  Furthermore, farms and residents living downstream from the Dam have filed over $1 billion in claims for damages that they blame on the deliberate releases of water to deal with the crisis.

A team of forensic experts has concluded that water entering through cracks or repair seams in the main spillway may have triggered crumbling of the spillway.  However, they have also concluded that there were a number of problems in the original construction of the dam, including thin concrete, poorly placed drains and inadequate foundations.   Their report faulted dam inspectors for relying too heavily on visual inspections of the dam, ignoring other evidence that could have warned them that the damage to the spillway was imminent.

[The leader of the forensic panel said that] Oroville was a wakeup call for dam inspectors everywhere, and urged them to go beyond the visual inspections that are typical for the industry.

Stay tuned.




Testing water for lead in Portland

I recently posted about an 11-year-old girl from Colorado who just invented a quick and easy way to test for lead in drinking water at home.  One reason this may be an important advance is that existing lead-testing methods are either inaccurate or extremely time-consuming.  Just to elaborate on this point, here are the on-line instructions for lead-testing that are provided by one city – the city of Portland – to its residents.  These instructions come with a lead sampling kit.  Not to pick on Portland, which is only one example of a municipality with a potential problem of lead contamination in its drinking water (see my last post).

With some paraphrasing:

(1)Plan a time when you let water sit in your plumbing system for 6-18 hours before collecting your sample.

(2)Stop using the water for 6-18 hours.

(3)On an information card, record time and date you stopped using your water.

(4)Collect your sample by running water into a large sports bottle until it is full, shake well, pour water from the large sports bottle into a small sports bottle, screw lid on tightly.

(5)Place small sports bottle inside a 4″ x 6″ clear bubble-lined resealable bag; seal.

(6)Complete information card, filling out time and date of collection.

(7)Place sealed bubble-lined bag and information card inside 6″ X 9″ , postage-paid envelope; seal.

(8)Return sample to the Portland Water Bureau within 7 days of collecting sample.

(9)”You should receive the analysis results within 6 weeks.”  Call the Portland Water Bureau if you have not received your results after 6 weeks.

SO:  under the prescribed official procedures, you could be using lead-contaminated water for up to 6 weeks (or more?) while waiting for your test results.

Assorted Links

Lead in Portland’s drinking water.

Rising temperatures reducing the flow of the Colorado River.

A new study by the US Geological Survey finds the river’s flow has shrunk by about seven percent over the past 30 years. As air temperature rises due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, more water is sucked into the atmosphere from the snowpack and the river itself instead of flowing downstream. The amount that has evaporated is equal to approximately 24 percent of the total amount of California’s annual Colorado River allocation.

Misery in slow motion: The deep and long lasting effects of drought.  New World Bank study.