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Is Water Too Cheap?

I was shopping at Lowe's last weekend and overheard this conversation in the washer and dryer department:

Lowe's salesperson: "Another benefit of the front-load washers is that they use dramatically less water than traditional top loaders do."

Shopper: "Yes, but water is cheap.  These washers are expensive."

But it's true, right?  For the most part, the money we pay to the water company covers treatment and conveyance costs - the cost of the actual resource is, depending on where you're getting it from, relatively small.

Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, has often said that the era of cheap water in Arizona is over.  It's a wise sentiment, and I think that it's high time the era of cheap water in Arizona was over, but is it really?  Have Arizonan water companies really changed the way they price their water for retail consumption?  Have consumers really changed the way they use it?  We're beginning to make some progress by implementing more increasing block rate structures.  With these rates, as usage hits a specified threshold, the per unit price of water rises for the next block of water usage. 

California's Governor Schwarzenegger declared a water emergency in June 2008.  In LA, residents can water their yards only on Mondays and Thursdays between 4pm and 9am.  They're forbidden to use water to wash down paths and pavement, or to use a hose without an automatic shut-off valve.  Not terribly draconian, I know; Californians aren't going thirsty (though you won't get a glass of water at a restaurant unless you ask for it), but it left me wondering: Will it take a crisis in Arizona to wake us up to the fact that water is a finite resource, one which we cannot live without?

An article the week before last in The Economist explained that water shortages - exacerbated by warmer weather which means less snow to melt and fill reservoirs - are also made worse by water policies themselves:

  1. "Your correspondent pays $3.90 per hundred cubic feet of water. That works out at just half a cent a gallon. Silly prices like that send the wrong signal to the market. With people having little incentive to conserve, the authorities then have to resort to rationing when droughts occur."
  2. "The constant pursuit of additional supplies of water has never been strictly about satisfying a demand from communities that were supposedly running dry. It has always been more about creating demand for real estate in places where water was scarce or non-existent."

In Arizona the focus has traditionally been on increasing water supplies with only a little attention paid to reducing demand.  SRP's Water Use It Wisely program is a good example of demand-reduction efforts, but water is still cheap (less than half a cent per gallon on average), which still sends the message to consumers (even those who know better) that water is not valuable.

Arizona's history has been about making the desert livable by bending the water to our will.  Arizona's water infrastructure dates back to a system of canals built by the Hohokam in the Valley area as early as A.D. 50. The Salt River Project has taken water management and delivery in the desert to new heights by creating a world-class water system to serve Central Arizona.  Today, there is huge demand for real estate in Central Arizona, which could further strain our water supplies. 

Interestingly, though, by transitioning away from agricultural use of the land, we can actually realize net gains in the water supply.  An acre of farmland could use 5-15 times more water (depending on the crop) than the houses and businesses that would be built on that same acre of land.  Overall, agriculture uses 74% of Arizona's total water.

There's been some back-and-forth recently about the water use associated with solar power generating facilities.  In a May report Senator Jon Kyl wrote that "Arizona lawmakers have an obligation to protect the state's limited water supply and put its water resources to their highest and best use. Using Arizona's water supplies to produce conventional CSP [concentrated solar power] that will most likely be exported out of state does neither."

In June, the Arizona Republic published an editorial by Corporation Commission Chairwoman Kris Mayes, who pointed out, first, that "utility-scale solar projects moving forward in Arizona have principally adopted photovoltaic technology, which has minimal water requirements." 

Second, she said that "each CSP plant so far approved by the commission will actually use less water than the prior usage of the land on which the plants will sit.  This is because the project developer in every case has chosen to site the project on former agricultural lands, which used more water for such crops as melons and cotton than a CSP project would require."

And perhaps that's why I still hear people talking about cheap water in Arizona - why it hasn't yet come to an emergency.  Because as long as growth in Arizona goes outward - onto land that was previously used for agriculture, and not upward (into tall residential buildings) there will be a net water gain from transitioning farm land to residential or commercial, or even industrial, use.

But then what?  After we've transitioned all the agricultural land, where will our next bucket of water come from?

There are some members of my family (you know who you are!) who like to wait until the last minute to take care of important tasks or get ready for important events.  But then they're running around like chickens with their heads cut off to make the deadline.  I prefer to plan ahead.  That's what the Department of Water Resources is for.  Oh, yeah. . . /blog/235-arizona-department-water-resources-cuts

What's your take?  Write a comment below - no registration required.

Written on Friday, 09 July 2010 14:51 by Gary Yaquinto

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