Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Op Ed in Durham Herald

A policy piece / op ed I wrote for the Durham Herald Sun yesterday. Hasn't shown up on-line yet....

Here it is, in text, tho:

The Drought is Over; Long Live the Drought

Michael Munger

The drought is over; let's move on to some other policy problem.

No feeling could be more natural. We're all sick of dry lawns, and dry lectures about wasting water. Now, there are puddles everywhere. Hey, tree-hugger: splash THIS!

But no feeling could be more wrong. There are two droughts in North Carolina: a shortage of water, and the lack of any coherent vision of how we can solve the problem of water allocation. Rain has solved the first, temporarily. We can't expect the vision to come from the clouds, though. It has to come from us.

We live in a climate where droughts happen, but only rarely, because most years we get more than forty-five inches of rain. Water "management" has always meant handling runoff, and even that is managed locally. In cities, water is captured in storm drains; in rural watersheds, runoff drains into creeks and rivers. Until now, the focus has been on erosion, contamination by farm chemicals, and flooding of riverbanks. Even for our reservoirs, the key question has been about release rates, not sufficiency.

No more. The "only runoff, only local" approach has ended, probably forever. The drought of the past two years may have eased, but the next one is only a matter of time. There are two reasons: population growth and increased variance in weather patterns.

The population of North Carolina's cities has doubled since 1980. By 2030, our state may well have a population of 12.5 million or more, if current trends continue. And the variability in rainfall totals over the last two decades is the highest we have ever measured. These climate changes may or may not have been humanly caused; it hardly matters. My point is that we must somehow connect the steady population increase with the wild gyrations of drought and deluge.

What does this mean, in practical terms? Three things, none of them easy or cheap. But if we wait, the problems will grow worse, and the solutions will cost even more. The answer is reservoirs, metering/pricing, and regional integration.

The reservoir systems for many of our cities (but particularly for Durham and Raleigh) were never adequate and have recently fallen far short of our needs. But expansion of reservoirs means buying lots of land, and building new dams for containment. The costs would be immediate, and enormous; the benefits decades away and hard to measure. Only a really clear-eyed leader is going to be able to persuade our legislature to defer short-term electoral goals for the good of the state. At this point, no one is even trying.

Mention metering and pricing, and everyone's eyes glaze over. But property rights are at the heart of the problem. The current system is based on riparian rights, and antiquated meters that do not allow taxpayers even to learn, much less change, their consumption choices. The problem with the way we define rights is that they are nearly always "use or lose." If a riparian owner lets water flow downstream, he gives up all rights to that water, without compensation. A decision by a homeowner to forego watering his lawn may be complimented by neighbors, but the impact on the water bill is negligible. In fact, given the way that many utilities meter and bill, the homeowner may not even be able to tell the difference.

The solution is, once again, much more easily described than implemented. We need to create a system of tradable rights, capturing water's true costs. We need to replace hundreds of thousands of antique meters, with immediate feedback on efforts to conserve. And we need to adopt a tiered pricing structure, with sharply increasing costs for heavy users. The current practice of keeping prices low but shaming violators, and closing down small businesses such as car washes or landscapers, makes no sense. Charging more means that most people will conserve, while preserving the possibility of continued use for high-value users who have no alternative.

Finally, we will need top-down facilitation of bottom-up cooperation across regions of the state. What I mean is that North Carolina, as every schoolchild knows, has three distinct regions: coastal plain, piedmont, and mountains. It is possible that drought will afflict all three, but conditions are different enough that solutions need to be adaptable. Further, redundancy in water supply systems, including pipelines, means that excess reservoir capacity anywhere can ensure water adequacy everywhere.

I'm skeptical of the idea of a state-wide plan, created by state agencies. Local variations in supply, need, and conditions are just too pervasive. But the state is the logical place to start. The 2001 Water Supply Plan, created by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, is a good start. But it is only a start. Our population has increased by more than 10% since 2000, and the now-dead drought got everyone's attention. Let's not look back from a dry future, ten years from now, and think about what we might have done.


al said...

Durham's solution:
raise rates by tacking on an incomprehensible "service charge"
don't change services at all
don't improve anything (maybe claim intent to improve the pipelines)


Tiger said...

A difficult question. The article is well balanced though

Butler T. Reynolds said...

During Georgia's drought last year the governor, Sonny Perdue, after implementing a handful of rationing measures that did not do much good, stood on the steps of the capitol in Atlanta and prayed to God for rain.

This year has been much better. Perhaps North Carolina should try the same.

A couple of weeks ago Sonny Perdue imposed price controls on gasoline. In what can only be described as an unpredictable surprise, metro Atlanta gas stations either have long lines or have run out of gas.

I sure hope Sonny prays for gasoline soon.