[env-trinity] Smart Planet 10 28 2010

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Fri Oct 29 14:10:49 PDT 2010

Lengthy, but of interest and significance.


Who owns water? Experts debate pricing, infrastructure investment

Smart Planet, 10/28/10

By Andrew Nusca 


Does the public own it? Does the federal government? How about private
entities, such as farmers and manufacturers?


Who gets to foot the bill when something goes wrong - or when it's all gone?


Those were the questions debated this morning at The Atlantic's Green
Intelligence Forum 2010, where water experts weighed in on the difficulties
in framing a global water crisis.


According to the experts, water is certainly not free - but establishing
ownership gets tricky once you try to price it to curb excessive usage.


"On the one hand, one can be agnostic about it, simply because it's either a
public monopoly or private monopoly, and both of those are regulated," said
economist and Resources for the Future fellow Sheila Olmstead. "We can't, on
the whole, say that in many developing countries. Where we've had strongly
negative experiences is where the regulatory structure is simply not
[robust] enough to support that. There's this really important regulatory


Former Arizona governor and World Wildlife Fund trustee Bruce Babbitt said
the question of who owns water isn't nearly as important as who distributes


"I think you start off by saying, 'Water is a public resource,' " he said.
"That is the American tradition. You can deal out the management and use
through regulations, which have an economic aspect to them. To move toward
privatization as you go down stream. It's not about owning the water, it's
about how you're allocating the water, providing the resources and providing
a return."


Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick said the costs incurred by
distributing water requires a set of laws to protect both the resource and
the business.


"The important distinction is ownership versus service," Gleick said. "In
Islam, water is supposed to be free. But some very smart Islamic scholars
are saying, 'Well, who's paying for the service?' Water should be public.
Public or private, it's a monopoly. You need efficient, smart, non-predatory
services. There are badly-run examples on both the public and the private


The other issue is water rights, Gleick said.


"I don't think water rights are property rights. I think they're use
rights," Gleick said. "In the West, this is a big debate. There are use
rights - you have the right to use based on where you are. In the
constitution of the state of California, that use is based on it being
reasonable and beneficial. If you don't have that reason, you can't use it.


"So take a farmer growing four acres. If they can grow it in three, that
last acre is not reasonable. [The issue of] rights is unresolved, and it's
wrapped up in this public-private question."


ITT senior vice president Gretchen McClain said different business models
and partnerships between industry and government are the way to tackle the
real goal - reducing water usage.


"Today, we have leakage and good [money] going down the drain," she said.
"There's got to be incentives."




To address quality and scarcity from an economic perspective, water should
have a price, Olmstead said.


"The price of water is artificially low," she said. "If it reflected the
opportunity cost of not leaving it in-stream and the price of getting it to
your house, it would make everything look better. And it would provide
investors with incentive for more developed technologies to improve


Babbitt called the argument a "false dichotomy" and advocated for a price on


"Water is a human right," he said. "Everyone should pay something. There
should be that step toward the market - it's a concept called 'block rates.'
People should understand the system and pay a small amount, and it should
scale up with consumption."


Is water ready to be bought and sold on the market? Gleick said anything
deemed a resource essential to human well-being isn't by its very nature.


"If water were truly a private commodity - there were markets for it -
ecosystems would be, pardon the technical term, screwed," he said. "They
have no money. They have no standing rights. We have to figure out how to
protect these systems. It's a public good."


McClain said the ownership question complicates accountability, especially
with regard to federal oversight.


"There is different accountability - the EPA makes decisions, the Interior
makes decisions - [and] it's very fragmented," she said."If we can't get it
to where we can get alignment on that, do we ever get to the solution we
need? Look at the national infrastructure debate today - water is not on the
agenda. That to me is a huge, glaring oversight."


Public awareness is key, McClain said.


"I still think there's a lot to be done to stop taking water for granted,
she said. "It's the lifeblood of our lives, of industry - without water
there's no growth, no economic development. It's a global issue, but it
really has a local face. Technology is out there to address the issues.
Given the market is very fragmented, we need to work together. To make sure
that the public understands the value.of water."




So what's the solution to using water more efficiently? McClain said the
technology's already available - it's just a matter of inserting it into
existing infrastructure.


"The infrastructure in the U.S. is aging and it's failing us," she said.
"There is technology today to go into the leaks and close up the leaks, or
you can do a complete dig-up. But with technology that's out there, you can
make the system more efficient. It's not a lack of technology. It's about
addressing something before it fails."


Efficient water use "doesn't require rocket science technology," Gleick


"There is remarkable technology that involves replacing pipes without
digging up the streets, that involves inserting pipes into pipes," he said.
"There's wastewater treatment technology. There's innovative monitoring and
metering technology to understand where we have these leaks."


There are remarkable changes already underway, Gleick said.


"This summer, Los Angeles used less water for everything than it used 40
years ago, despite the growth in its population and economy," he said. "We
are changing the dynamics already. Sometimes there's not enough water for
everything we want to do as inefficiently as we're using that water."




But it was Babbitt who shook the foundations of the topic of discussion by
saying that the phrase "global water crisis" was merely "Leninist history."
Calling himself a skeptic, Babbitt said the "relentless talk" of a crisis
was, in effect, scaremongering.


"There is no lack of water on this globe," he said. "There is not a water
supply crisis. Water is a renewable resource. There are some distributional
issues, yes. But we're not going to make any progress into buying into this


The real issue? Sanitation and accessibility in the developing world, he
said. Gleick agreed, but said Babbitt's argument was based on semantics.


"Water is a huge issue. It's connected to everything we care about," he
said. "I believe there is a global water crisis, in different places in
different times. My issue: the failure to ensure that people have access to
clean drinking water. But there are other problems [like] climate change.
Water is connected to climate change - that's a new challenge for the 21st
century that we're just beginning to wrap our minds around."


Water distribution and efficiency also impacts food production, for which 80
percent of the world's water is used, Gleick said.


"Water is a political issue - it crosses borders. We share water with Canada
and Mexico. In many parts of the world, it's a security issue. There are
political issues with water that are not well resolved."


Citing a survey conducted by her company, McClain said that 95 percent of
voters believe water is the most valued resource they receive - more
important than electricity. It's why people will pay for water and the costs
incurred to distribute it, she said.


"Any economy doesn't grow unless you have power and water," she said. "The
issue is really around clean water. We spend an awful amount of money to
make water clean. I don't think people realize the cost of taking water,
cleaning it and delivering it to the home.


"We lose 1.7 trillion gallons of water each year because of our aging
infrastructure, just leaking away after it's been cleaned. That's a huge
cost to each of us. When someone turns on the tap and they don't have water,
that's when we feel it."




And what of climate change? Babbitt said that "solid scientific consensus"
on the topic means that a one meter rise in sea levels is "baked in" over
the next 100 years. The problem? The nation's infrastructure isn't ready for
it, he said.


"Sea levels in this coming century are going to rise at least one meter,
which is going to make obsolete the water and infrastructure systems of
every coastal city in this country," he said, adding that unpredictable
weather will only magnify the lack of flexibility in existing
infrastructure. "These coastal systems are going to be useless. We must have
a national policy and we must get started soon."


Gleick said we're not doing enough to manage our water systems for climate


"In the Bay Area alone, there are 29 wastewater treatment plants that are at
risk of flooding from a one-foot increase," he said. "We need to mitigate
the aspects that we can't adapt to. That means greenhouse gases. Three
feet's going to be tough enough. Twenty feet is inconceivable."




The panelists also discussed the issue of groundwater, a hidden water
resource that's quickly being depleted by developing communities with no


Babbitt called the issue "important" and "complex."


"It's out of sight," he said. "We don't fish in groundwater or sail our boat
on groundwater or watch a sun set into groundwater. We must recognize the
connection between groundwater and its role and generating surface water.
The connection is an important issue. You've got to manage that thoughtfully
and carefully."


In most parts of the world, groundwater is a non-renewable resource, Babbitt


"It has accumulated since the Ice Ages," he said. "It must be treated as a
finite resource. It will not be refilled in less than geological time."


>From a legal standpoint, groundwater is difficult to resolve, and is the
"Wild West" from a rights perspective, Olmstead said.


"On one hand, it's take as much as you can," she said. "On the other hand,
it's a critical resource in many areas of the world where we have large
populations who need access to water, in part because surface sources are so


Gleick said the issue calls for a technological solution.


"We don't monitor it, meter it, manage it," he said. "It's often
over-pumped. That's unsustainable. As much as 30 or 40 percent of the
world's food production comes from groundwater."




So how will we conserve water - through economic, environmental or
sociological means? It starts with education, Gleick said.


"Public awareness is a critical piece to this," he said. "The more we know
about water, the more we understand where it comes from."


Gleick said the United Nations' recent declaration of a binding human right
to water and sanitation was an example of how minds can be changed.


"We haven't had this for a lot of reasons. But we do now," he said. "It's
very explicit. It doesn't say it has to be free, or that it's unlimited, but
it does say that there's a basic human right to water and sanitation."


McClain agreed, saying that a recent visit to Singapore revealed that young
children are taught about their water system from a young age.


"We do need to think about the cycle of water," she said. "It has to be
addressed in a closed-loop cycle."


McClain said it's time to start thinking about water the way space-bound
astronauts do - as a limited, finite resource that requires demand


"Having been in the space business, astronauts recycle water," she said. "Do
we have the appetite for it [on Earth]? "


Babbitt said he had a foolproof solution to whet America's appetite.


"Pricing," he said. "I rest my case."



Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land

415 519 4810 mobile

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