html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Watching the margin.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Watching the margin.

My work has someone who clips every California newspaper story that says the word ‘water’ and sends them to us. I read them every day, that being my profession and all. Every month I see two or three stories like this one, about a small housing development up near Redding that is looking at new water bills of $3,000 per year. Or this one, where a pumping station at Lake Castaic will cost $600,000 per year more than expected to pipe water to the Santa Clarita Valley. Or this, where the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District is raising rates by about $20 per month to pass along increasing costs of electricity, imported water and operations.

I watch these stories with mixed feelings. I can’t help but worry for people who are about to see their cost of living go up. I simultaneously hope the price increases are enough to make people use less water. I wonder if prices are going up enough to convey to users the full costs of the resource use, and want all those externalities captured in the price they see. Mostly, though, I think that these stories are ones that show us what “unsustainable” will look like in the next few decades, as our standard of living contracts1.

The practice that I am calling unsustainable in these examples is development beyond the limits of local resources to sustain that human population, especially as we’re about to enter a period of increasing variability in weather, shifts in distribution of water, and mostly likely, less water overall2. People who grew up since World War II grew up in a time of extraordinary wealth, much of mined from low-entropy stocks like huge timber trees and easily accessible groundwater and easily accessible oil supplies. We’ve blown through those, scattered them in the form of plastic crap and things, but we’ve come to expect the lifestyle that wealth supported. It is a reasonable expectation, what we have always known. But “not sustainable” is coming due, and what they’ve always known is getting more expensive.

People bought those ranchettes up in Redding3 because they wanted a house on a few acres of land in a remote area. The Santa Clarita Valley is full of people who are willing to trade hours of commuting to LA for a big new house. Same with Riverside . They wanted this dream, lots of people do, but we have reached the end of the cheap supplies. This same dream that was available for the past couple generation will now cost more, especially for them, but for all of us. We are approaching the physical limits of our ecosystem, and we’re going to start to see it in small trickles of increased costs. Then large increased costs. I think this is the mechanism that will slowly constrict our standard of living to about what our grandparents had when they were young. If it is slow, it’ll take a while to notice, but I think stories like these are the leading edge of a very hard readjustment.

It is happening first in the places that were always resource poor. Antelope Valley? Santa Clarita? Both Southern California arid valleys; they have negligible local water supplies and they are last in line for the developed supplies we move around the state. They can get more. For lots of money, you can always get more water. But you’re buying the next increment of developed water, and you’re paying for pumping costs, which are steadily increasing. Maybe a household can absorb those new costs, a surprise extra few hundred dollars for water per year. But their own electricity bills are likely going up as well. And the gas to drive to LA and back every day isn’t getting any cheaper. And the cost of food is rising as well, ‘cause transporting food is getting more expensive. Those increasing costs will eat into standards of living, and places that require lots of external support will feel those costs first4.

That’s what I think climate change and unsustainable development will look like for the next couple decades: steadily increasing costs on all fronts. Water bill higher. Property taxes higher by a few hundred dollars for better levees. Property taxes higher for increased fire protection. State taxes higher to pay bond measures for protecting infrastructure. Electricity bill higher and more need for thermal regulation. Gas more expensive. Everything that is transported a little more expensive. Because of climate change, in twenty more years it will be considerably more expensive to maintain your current level of comfort. Climate change will cost us, but the bill won’t be a lump sum labeled CLIMATE CHANGE. It’ll look like those decisions to raise rates, a little at a time. If people’s budgets are fixed, they will have less of everything else. And that is before the occasional large-scale catastrophe.

There are some options. Perhaps price pressures now will force people to use less energy. I don’t see enough of that now, though. Maybe the magic cheap, non-carbon dioxide emitting energy source will show up soon. The magic free energy would solve a lot of this, once we convert our systems to use it. But, you know, I usually bet with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so I don’t want to count on the magic cheap energy. Maybe there will be a lot fewer people, and any gentle way to get to that should be strongly supported. Maybe, in a burst of thoughtful planning, our society will re-design our transportation systems to greatly reduce emissions and people will spontaneously want less crap and want to live in smaller, denser housing and consume and waste less. That would be great. Any amount of that would be cheaper than what is coming our way if we don’t.

1For several years I hated the word “unsustainable” because it didn’t seem to mean anything more than “something my hippie friends didn’t like”. Amongst ourselves we still use it to mean “most of the conventional practices of mainstream consumerist America that we last thought about in undergrad while we ate quinoa and made bodypaint out of turmeric”. Since lots and lots of conventional practices of mainstream America are, in fact, unsustainable, it works out OK. Still, I mostly try to describe exactly what I mean instead of using the “unsustainable” shorthand (depletion of stocks, exhaustion of sink capacity, accumulation of toxins until they reach dangerous thresholds, for example). But here, unsustainable – in the form of “can’t keep going like this” – is exactly what I mean. So I’m stuck with the word.

2The only story I can tell with confidence is the water story. But I’ll speculate about how it will show up other aspects of the environment later.

3There is simply not water enough under that Redding sub-division for two hundred households. They drank down what was there and now the water is below their wells. There is no more, yet people live there. What to do? I see this happening in lots of ways in lots of places and I can’t figure out how to avert it. Who is responsible for this situation? The homebuyer, who moved into what looked like a regular house? Should the homebuyer look up the rate of groundwater depletion under her new house? Whether her new house is in a natural river sink and doomed in the next big flood? Whether it is on soils with naturally occurring asbestos? On a faultline? There is simply too much information for a homebuyer to process, and truth told, most don’t know how or want to.

So who? The city or county? The water district? When Contra Costa County approved an 11,000 house subdivision, East Bay MUD told them that the water district didn’t have water for 11,000 new houses. EBMUD tried to refuse service to the new development, but were forced to take on the new houses by an act of the state legislature. (The state legislature also passed a law saying that subdivisions of 500 houses or more must get a will-serve letter from their water district, which led to a lot of 499 house subdivision.) So a water district cannot announce that they are at the limits of their water and prevent further growth. Cities and counties do have that authority, yet they have countervailing incentives (like new houses paying new property taxes) and they are demonstrably allowing building in places with foreseeable shortages or dangers. So it doesn’t seem like there is anyone to say NO. No. We don’t have water for them. No. They’ll be twenty feet under water within six hours of a levee breach. No. Their children will get sick from the soils. NO. No.

4The rest of the state won’t be coming to help them out, either. The rest of the state is going to have its hands full in the next few decades, what with the billions of dollars in levee repairs and the highway repairs and the costs of keeping the Bay Area above the new sea level and the new reservoirs for the new hydrology and the more severe floods and fires.


Anonymous bryn said...

Sounds like redding could be the new los osos

11:24 AM  
Blogger Carter said...

Are the water prices floating? It seems that as water becomes scarcer, the price would go up and people would move away from areas where water was too expensive. Or is something holding the price down?

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"EBMUD tried to refuse service to the new development, but were forced to take on the new houses by an act of the state legislature."

This is a classic argument for libertarianism. -K.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


No. There isn't a legislated ceiling on water prices. I predict people pulling in from resource scarce areas.


Or more thorough state government and better planning. (grinning, but I still mean it)

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mmm, yes much of this but also! I live at the other end of the straw in Colorado, where the water compacts that effects our out flows are up and down, and some of our farmer's wells are closed because the water is owed to another state. We too have the same problem with developers building houses with no local water, and assuming that they will be able to extend the municipal water to them, as if that water is infinite. I think the water compacts issue will become a real issue in the future, because it was negotiated years ago, in 1922. Heh, I'm sure they would be astounded at how this water is being used, and how much.

Interestingly in the ag world, farmers that have grown cantaloupe in Rocky Ford for many years, have started to sell their water rights to front range [Denver + colorado springs complex] a hundred miles away, because farming isn't profitable, and cantaloupes from chile are cheaper for supermarkets to buy...

everyone thinks you can grow forever, even though they know that can't possibly be true...


1:22 PM  
Anonymous ptm said...

Interestingly in the ag world, farmers that have grown cantaloupe in Rocky Ford for many years, have started to sell their water rights to front range [Denver + colorado springs complex] a hundred miles away, because farming isn't profitable, and cantaloupes from chile are cheaper for supermarkets to buy...

I've long wondered why that's not more common - I mean, developers always have more money than farmers, right?

I haven't wondered enough to actually learn anything, though.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous margie said...

Footnote 3: Should the homebuyer look into groundwater depletion at the property?

Yes! Yes, they should. Would someone buy ag land without knowing the water right is secure? No way! Also, I've a friend looking to retire to Oregon and she is looking at the global warming predictions about increases in severe weather to determine where to relocate along the coast.
I hate to sound like a libertarian, but some personal responsibility would be great, esp. for those who don't want to be elbow to elbow with their neighbors and want to live "off the grid".

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know. And the most practical side of me tends to agree with you. -K.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous YK said...

Megan, how far do you think we can get by "throwing money at the problem"? I mean, suppose we had a period of strong economic growth, so we could spend a *lot* of money to develop more efficient transportation, housing and so on. Would that be enough to allow people to continue living in the same way as today, or would it just smooth out the transition to a substantially lower standard of living?

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

But as those prices go incrementally upwards, won't people/businesses/farmers/etc. use less and less water, putting less strain on the systems? Meanwhile, higher prices mean it will become profitable to find new ways of providing water (shipping from Canada, desalinization, wearing body suits that recycle your body's sweat a la Dune).

Somebody said (Friedman?) the cure for high prices is high prices.

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But as those prices go incrementally upwards, won't people/businesses/farmers/etc. use less and less water, putting less strain on the systems?"

Doesn't this depend on keeping the overall number of users constant? If more people move into the area, it is handy if the current usage goe down to compensate for the new users, but in the macro scale, it often doesn't work that way. Seems to me the bottom line is that people have to take water and other comodities into account, and they just DON'T. Couple that with the variation in resources... some things you just can't buy, or can't buy at an affordable rate, and that pushes the equation around...

For eaxample if you build a nice subdiivision with locally supplied water... and then your wells go bad, and you have to double their depth. Suddenly everyone in that subdivision has to share the bill, and it can be high enough to be impossible. Can YOU afford your monthly water bill going from $30 to $400? or your local taxes doing the same? This makes your house unsaleable as well, because if the next supdivision over is on muni water, and their taxes don't increase, they have a competitive advantage. I have friends this happened to... they couldn't sell their house for years because of the differences with the houses across the street in HOA fees. Fees that were specifically related to having to dig new wells...

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This was such a brilliant post.

I've been trying to explain what global warming will be like. People cannot connect '+1, +2' degrees centigrade to their day to day lives.

Rest assured, where I am (British maritime climate), the changes we have seen already are more dramatic: big changes in flora and fauna, record high temperatures, record droughts and record rainstorms. All in the last 10 years.

A fantastic post, to which I will refer to again and again.


11:31 PM  

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