Tag Archives: urban water use

Is the NASDAQ water futures market transparent enough?

Futures markets are settled either physically with actual delivery of the contracted product, or via cash based on the difference in the futures contract price and the actual purchase price. The NASDAQ Veles California Water Index future market is a cash settled market. In this case, the “actual” price is constructed by a consulting firm based on a survey of water transactions. Unfortunately this method may not be full reflective of the true market prices and, as we found in the natural gas markets 20 years ago, these can be easily manipulated.

Most commodity futures markets, such at the crude oil or pork bellies, have a specific delivery point, such as Brent North Sea Crude or West Texas Intermediate at Cushing, Oklahoma or Chicago for some livestock products. There is also an agreed upon set of standards for the commodities such as quality and delivery conditions. The problem with the California Water Index is that these various attributes are opaque or even unknown.

Two decades ago I compiled the most extensive water transfer database to date in the state. I understand the difficulty of collecting this information and properly classifying it. The bottom line is that there is not a simple way to clearly identify what is the “water transfer price” at any given time.

Water supplied for agricultural and urban water uses in California has many different attributes. First is where the water is delivered and how it is conveyed. While water pumped from the Delta gets the most attention, surface water comes from many other sources in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, as well as from the Colorado River. The cost to move this water greatly varies by location ranging from gravity fed to a 4,000 foot lift over the Tehachapis.

Second is the reliability and timing of availability. California has the most complex set of water rights in the U.S. and most watersheds are oversubscribed. A water with a senior right delivered during the summer is more valuable than a junior right delivered in the winter.

Third is the quality of the water. Urban districts will compete for higher quality sources, and certain agricultural users can use higher salinity sources than others.

A fourth dimension is that water transfers are signed for different periods and delivery conditions as well as other terms that directly impact prices.

All of these factors lead to a spread in prices that are not well represented by a single price “index”. This becomes even more problematic when a single entity such as the Metropolitan Water District enters the market and purchases one type of water which they skews the “average.” Bart Thompson at Stanford has asked whether this index will reflect local variations sufficiently.

Finally, many of these transactions are private deals between public agencies who do not reveal key attributes these transfers, particularly price, because there is not an open market reporting requirement. A subsequent study of the market by the Public Policy Institute of California required explicit cooperation from these agencies and months of research. Whether a “real time” index is feasible in this setting is a key question.

The index managers have not been transparent about how the index is constructed. The delivery points are not identified, nor are the sources. Whether transfers are segmented by water right and term is not listed. Whether certain short term transfers such as the State Water Project Turnback Pool are included is not listed. Without this information, it is difficult to measure the veracity of the reported index, and equally difficult to forecast the direction of the index.

The housing market has many of these same attributes, which is one reason why you can’t buy a house from a central auction house or from a dealer. There are just too many different dimensions to be considered. There is housing futures market, but housing has one key difference from the water transfer market–the price and terms are publicly reported to a government agency (usually a county assessor). Companies such as CoreLogic collect and publish this data (that is distributed by Zillow and Redfin.)

In 2000, natural gas prices into California were summarized in a price index reported by Natural Gas Intelligence. The index was based a phone survey that did not require verification of actual terms. As part of the electricity crisis that broke that summer, gas traders found that they could manipulate gas prices for sales to electricity generators higher by simply misreporting those prices or by making multiple sequential deals that ratcheted up the price. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission were forced to step in and establish standards for price reporting.

The NASDAQ Veles index has many of the same attributes as the gas market had then but perhaps with even less regulatory protections. It is not clear how a federal agency could compel public agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to report and document prices. Oversight of transactions by water districts is widely dispersed and usually assigned to the local governing board.

Trying to introduce a useful mechanism to this market sounds like an attractive option, but the barriers that have impeded other market innovations may be too much.

Building Drought Resilience in California’s Cities and Suburbs from PPIC

Then And Now: California's Drought Officially Declared To Be Over

M.Cubed partner David Mitchell is the lead author on this PPIC report that reviews the responses by urban agencies to the California’s recent drought and looks at the lessons learned. He’s speaking during a webinar on June 16 at noon. In addition, he co-authored an opinion article for the Sacramento Bee.

Maven’s Notebook: Fishing groups win lawsuit to overturn Delta water delivery contracts

This could have far reaching implications about how CVP contracts are renewed.

From the law offices of Stephan C. Volker: On July 25, 2016 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (“PCFFA”) and the San Fra…

Source: MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK – Water news

Why ag “savings” might not be the solution to urban water woes

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come across several examples of how increased agricultural irrigation efficiency hasn’t led to water savings. When interviewing a farmer in San Joaquin County about managing agricultural pumping loads, he described how he had invested $2,000/acre in a microdrip system for his tomato and melon fields. To avoid his subterranean systems, his farm has a GPS repeater that guides his tractors within a few inches. Another consultant described how they couldn’t find any flood irrigated tomato fields, a standard method in 2007, for a comparison survey for drip effectiveness. Fresno County tomato yields increased more than 25% from 2007 to 2012, and individual field yields have increased 50%.

The result is that growers are using the water they have to increase productivity. They also have moved into more permanent crops which deliver higher revenues per acre-foot. For example, almond acreage has more than doubled since 1995. And little additional water has been freed up for urban or environmental uses.

With the increased value of water to agriculture, urban agencies have lost much of their competitive edge in pursuing water transfers. In 2014, Westlands Water District paid Placer County Water Agency an unheard of $325/AF, and there were reports of some transfers costing several thousand dollars per AF to protect orchard investments. The urban agencies use to largely have this playing field to themselves, but that era looks to be ending.

The evolution of California’s water transfer market (albeit a bit dated)

Eric Cutter and I wrote a paper in 2002 that extended my dissertation chapter exploring how the state’s agricultural water management institutions, i.e., special districts like irrigation and California water districts, affected water transfer participation. We had built the first extensive transfer database in 2000 (On-Tap) for USBR and CDWR, using secondary sources, and used that analysis for the paper. Ellen Hanak of PPIC reconstructed a data set from primary sources a couple of years later, and updated it in 2012, so this data has been superseded. (Her 2012 coauthor Liz Stryjewski is now a consulting associate with M.Cubed.)

The paper discusses two important aspects not often touched upon: 1) the search and transaction settlement mechanisms are important to market success, and 2) the nature of the institutions managing agricultural water can affect willingness to participate. Another important aspect is that California already has about 10 MAF in long-term permanent water transfers embedded in the CVP and SWP contracts. The 2 MAF in short-term and more recent long-term transfers are on top of those already occurring. So California has already has a viable market contrary to ill-informed observations by others; the question is whether that market can and should be expanded further.

UCLA professor’s comments not helping California’s drought problem

An environmental horticulturalist for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles, Don Hodel, has been getting a lot of press recently criticizing the State Water Board’s urban water restrictions. He advises that the Water Board should have advised targeting changes in watering practices rather than limiting supplies, and claims that urban restrictions were unneeded, implying that agriculture should bear the entire brunt. Unfortunately, he’s made at least two grievous errors in his assessment.

First, Hodel fails to understand that the actual implementation of the reductions is to be done by the local water utilities, not the Water Board. The Board only provided the targets, and the stick if the targets aren’t met. Hodel needs to complain to the utilities if he thinks they aren’t doing their job.

But of course, he’s equally naive about the huge problem of communicating about changing irrigation practices to millions of urban customers across hundreds (yes) of distinct water utilities. Of course, these utilities have been trying to get their customers to improve outdoor watering, but just getting their attention is a big enough problem.

Second, his real agenda is to imply that urban horticulture is more valuable the state’s agricultural industry. Urban agencies have only so much contractual and physical access to water supplies. To not cutback deliveries would require transferring water from farmers. But there’s at least two problems with that, the first being that agricultural water is much more valuable than Hodel imagines and second is that it’s not easy getting the water from northern to southern California.

It turns out that those farmers have been doing an exceptional job at improving their irrigation practices; the problem is that they’ve used that efficiency to increase output rather than to save water. The original proponents of agricultural water efficiency didn’t anticipate this response and the surplus didn’t materialize for urban users or the environment.

And even so, moving water from farm areas and treating it for domestic uses adds substantially to the cost of water. It’s the primary reason why urban water costs well in excess of $2,000 per acre-foot while agricultural water is much less than $500 per acre-foot. Water isn’t a particularly fungible good, and proponents of water transfers as the “solution” ignore this issue (along with the problems of market design and function.)

These types of moments are when I wished that journalists were better informed and able to filter out the uninformed “experts.”

Looking to the Aussies to solve California’s water problems

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article how Australia changed its water infrastructure and usage in the face of the 12-year “Big Dry.” Earlier the Chronicle ran “5 fixes for California’s age-old water rights system” that drew on Australia’s experience. M.Cubed’s analysis of the state’s urban drought regulations included a synopsis of Australia’s experience. An interesting question is whether anyone has assessed the political-economic process that facilitated Australia’s transformation. What were the trade-offs made? How were key interest groups satisfied?

MWDSC looking to add recycled water to their portfolio

Metropolitan Water District is looking at spending up to $1 billion on recycled water supplies. MWD is considering a $15 million pilot in Carson to start. When I talked to the California Association of Sanitation Districts last month on the impacts of the drought, I highlighted that recycled water now may be a cost-effective supply source as the water market changes. In 2008, M.Cubed prepared with AECOM/EDAW and RMC East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Water Supply Management Program 2040. At that time, other resources such as water transfers were more attractive, but the economics are changing for a variety of reasons.  I’ll blog in the near future about how agriculture may no longer be an attractive source for urban supplies.

Far Reaching Impacts of the California Drought

I talked to the California Association of  Sanitation Agencies in San Diego on the drought situation, its economic impacts and available resources including recycled or “recovered” water. My presentation is here.

Assessing the economic impacts of drought regulations

M.Cubed was asked by the State Water Resources Control Board to prepare an economic assessment of the emergency regulations ordered by the Governor to reduce municipal water use by 25%. We gathered a team that included Roger Mann of RMann Economics, Tom Wegge of TCW Economics, Richard Howitt and Duncan MacEwan of ERA Economics, and prepared the report in about two weeks. The SWRCB included a summary of those findings in its regulatory digest.

The innovative aspect of our study is to steer away from a single point probabilistic estimate of the benefits of the regulations and instead to focus on the potential vulnerability and consequences of the risk of continued drought in the future.

The EO is intended to address potentially significant economic vulnerabilities – risks – rather than statistical or probabilistic expectations. If the drought and high temperatures continue in California, water saved as a result of the order will become increasingly valuable. Under these circumstances, costs estimated to be associated with the EO this year could be more than exceeded by greater adverse impacts next year if the EO had not been issued.

Australia had an extended drought that lasted 10 years before ending in 2012 that cut 1.6% off its GDP. For California that would be $35 billion in a single year which is multiples of the range of costs we estimated for the regulations. In other words, the probability of continued drought would have to be less than 4% to make this option uneconomic.

We also pointed out that while the water utilities will lose revenues this year, as mostly public agencies, they will have to make up those losses in the future. For this reason, those revenue losses should be treated as eventual economic costs.