Tag Archives: water transfers

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.”

Cap & trade and market design

Bob Sussman at Brookings writes favorably about the resurrection of cap and trade for GHG regulation as a viable policy option with the Chinese planning to implement a program and the US EPA Clean Power Plan encouraging market trading mechanisms in two forms of compliance. Yet as I read this (and also think about proposals to increase water trading to solve California’s ongoing drought), I can see an important missing element in these discussions–how can these markets be designed to gain success?

In 1996, I wrote “Environmental Commodities Markets: ‘Messy’ Versus ‘Ideal’ Worlds” that explored the issues of market design and political realities. As I’ve written recently, we are not always good at fully compensating the losers in environmental policy making, and these groups tend to oppose policies that are beneficial for society as a result. And market incentive proponents seem to always propose some variation on one of two market designs: 1) everyone for themselves in searching for and settling transactions or 2) a giant periodic auction.

In reality, carefully designing market institutions that work for participants is key to the success of those markets. Daniel Bromley wrote about how just “declaring markets” in Russia and Eastern Europe did not instantly transform those economies, much to our chagrin. The RECLAIM emissions market has woefully underperformed because SCAQMD didn’t think through how transactions could be facilitated (and that failure prompted my article.) Frank Wolak and Jonathan Kolstad confirmed my own FERC testimony that the disfunction of the RECLAIM market led to higher electricity prices in the California crisis of 2000-01.

For a presentation a few years ago, I prepared this typology of market structure that looks at the search and match mechanisms and the price revelation and settlement mechanisms. This presentation focused on water transfer markets in California, but it’s also applicable to emission markets. Markets range from brokered/negotiated real estate to dealer/posted-price groceries. Even the New York Stock Exchange, which is a dealer/auction probably works differently than how most people think. There are differences in efficiency and ease of use, often trading off. As we move forward, we need more discussion about these nuts and bolts issues if we want truly successful outcomes.

Market Typologies

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?