html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I can do a better job on your other questions.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I can do a better job on your other questions.

Short answer section:

OK, y’all. I’m going to have to give you short answers on these. This is a rough take, at best, ‘cause you’re asking me stuff I just don’t know well. These are my impressions. If you have more detailed questions, I hope you’ll be distracted by pictures of debris flows.

The book: I did a whole bunch of interviews over several months, and want to do more, ‘cause they’re the best part. Now I am trying to understand what story I want to tell. These things usually come to me as a whole, so I’m waiting for inspiration to strike. (This may be a crappy way to actually get a book done.) In the meantime, I’m following the story in the news and transcribing interviews and wondering why I don’t have the courage to approach a real agent-type person.

Sewage treatment: Not my field, dude. This is as good a place as any to warn new baby civils. If you are just going to college for civil engineering and you love the earth and want to do totally righteous coastal remediation engineering, using the powers of concrete and the forces of water for good, you will have to be very very careful. There is an excellent chance that what your civil department calls ‘Environmental Engineering’ is really wastewater treatment. That is totally fine if you like that stuff. But if you were thinking of an awesome job combining outdoors work and saving the earth, it is a distraction. You’ll be designing shitter plants for your career. Danger.

What happens to Nevada when the water runs out!!!: I seriously do not understand how Nevada is going to work if our society becomes poor. The imbalance between local resources, local lifestyles and population is too great. The question isn’t really ‘when will Las Vegas run out of water’. You can get water if you have to. If you must, you can stick a straw in some river in Canada. When water must get solved, it does. The question is, ‘when will it be too expensive to have water and everything else you need to live, and when will the cost of water crowd out so much other stuff that it isn’t worth living in a hot desert anymore?’ And that makes the next question, ‘what will make water that expensive’. The foreseeable answer to that is, ‘energy costs will make it impractical to move that kind of water’. I’m not completely up to date on energy stuff, so my guess would be -holy crap, look at the size of that boulder!

Seriously, my guess for all the desert towns is a vast depopulation as costs for everything energy dependent slowly rise. I’m thinking tumbleweeds blowing past empty subdivisions, with an eerie flute playing in the distance. This pisses me off, because I wish that we weren’t destroying useful things, like forests, to be empty houses in forty years, but I suppose the Mad Max scavengers will loot anything salvageable out of them. Las Vegas will see this last, because it is wealthy, and all water engineers know that water flows towards money.

Desal: Also not my field, although if I were an industrious blogger who loved my readers, I would walk up one whole flight of stairs and ask the desal section what the deal is. My rough take: desal is a race between costs for water and costs for energy. I think the technical problems are mostly solved, although salt disposal is a problem. For a while yet (couple decades?), in California there is still lower priced water to be had by buying it from growers. (Um, cheaper by two times? Five times? Truly a rough guess.) This could all change if water everywhere becomes more scarce, or energy suddenly cheap. Maybe the magical energy unicorns will burn salt water, or use wave pumps. That would be convenient for desal.

San Diego’s water, Toilet to Tap, the Colorado River: I would like to point out that these are all issues south of the Tehachapis. This is still California, so I could understand it if I tried, but I don’t want to, because that shit is complicated. The Colorado goes through, like, seven states! And they fight! With multiple endangered species! And water transfers from the Imperial Valley, where they are evidently nutso, because their irrigation district board has fights! and scandals! and is forever hiring or not hiring some general manager. It is too late for me to understand it all now. I don’t try.

My vague understanding is that San Diego gets some water from the Colorado, has tried to strike deals directly with growers in the Imperial or Coachella Valleys, and these dealings may or may not have been against the wishes of the Metropolitan Water District. MWD is a wholesaler, based in a lovely building in LA, that sells water from northern California to a couple dozen southern water districts, including San Diego. Your water is complicated, man.

Toilet to Tap is a completely legitimate notion, and can be a substantial source of new water. One nice thing about it is that it is a fairly constant source over the year, no big peaks or valleys in supply. People are generally too squeamish to drink it, which I think is unjustified. But we could use it for urban landscaping, which is now mostly done with potable water. Every drop of potable water that Toilet to Tap offsets is one that doesn’t have to come from somewhere far.

How does water policy differ in California from more well-watered regions back East?
Aw man. Why you got to ask me stuff like that? I have only the vaguest, foggiest ideas what they do in the east (and by east, I mean Nevada). Like, in the East, ag engineering is about drainage, not about irrigation. And, um, you use a lot of center pivot systems. And, like, you water your freeway medians, to turn them green all the time. In California, we think that is wasteful. Don’t you have water moccasins or something? We don’t have poisonous water snakes. Um, in Californa, everything is about salmon, all the time. Everything always links back to salmon. Do you have those in the east? You don't, right? You have catfish or something. Oh yeah! Margie said that Midwestern fluvial geomorphology classes are about all about bedforms, but out here in the west, they teach about sediment transport, as every right-thinking person would expect. Bedforms! Ha! Who cares? Look!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Megan. I'm a pretty rational guy, and I get a little squeamish about Toilet-to-Tap. At the same time, if the tests say it's clean, why not? San Diego is the freakin' desert, people! I don't see huge lakes fulla water around here. You get it where you can.

-Kette. (Uh, Megan? How long to I have to do this? These pantyhose are itchy. ;)

5:18 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Oh, we're done. I can't maintain any sort of hatred for men.

Sorry I can't answer your SD questions better.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Francis (or Frances if necessary) said...

oh goody, back to water stuff.

sewage treatment: Instead of building a new ocean outfall, Orange County Sanitation District built a treatment plant that combines microfiltration, reverse osmosis and UV. The water at the far end of the UV treatment is about as clean as water ever gets. But because of toilet-to-tap issues, this water is recharged into the groundwater. San Diego, pay attention. You're running out of exemptions for your ocean discharge.

Nevada: There is both a supply problem and a rights problem. The rights problem can be solved with money. For example, Nevada could pay MWD (Metropolitan Water District of Southern Californa, a/k/a Met) to build a (or expand the existing) desal plant in Long Beach. Met takes the desal water "in lieu" of Colorado River water and leaves the River water in Lake Mead for use by the City of Las Vegas.

Supply problem: Lake Mead is getting very low, so low that the Nevada water authority is planning to build longer pipes to reach deeper into the lake. (Tech note: the portion of a reservoir that can't be accessed is called the "dead pool". Nevada is tapping into the Lake Mead dead pool.) One thing that can be done is to call on the Upper Colorado River states to release more water from Lake Powell. But Powell is getting very low too.

This is not really a solvable problem. If the Colorado River Basin is in fact heading into long-term drought -- which is consistent with global climate change models -- there simply isn't enough water to go around. As is being done in California (Water Code section 10910 for the true gear heads), developers in Nevada simply won't be able to get building permits if there isn't enough water. Growth will stop.

Desal: Environmental permitting is a pain in the patootie. The brine stream is a problem, even next to the ocean. But since the Bay-Delta has now become unreliable as a source of water, the California Coastal Commission is going to be under tremendous pressure to permit desal facilities to go forward.

San Diego: Met's largest member agency and its biggest enemy. Go figure. Almost all its water is imported, and most of that from the Colorado River. San Diego is known to underspend on its infrastructure, especially on developing recycled water supplies. (If you don't want to go through the hassle of what Orange County did, you can clean sewage water to so-called tertiary level, which is clean enough to drink as a practical matter but not actually certified as drinking water. You put this water into large industrial uses, like irrigating athletic fields, highway medians and cemeteries. It's sometimes known as "purple pipe" water because water agencies use distinctively colored purple PVC pipe to distribute it. This way they don't accidently hook up this water into a potable water system.)

Some years back, San Diego bought some Colorado River water rights from the Imperial Irrigation District. Imperial County is immediately to the east of San Diego county in the extreme southeast corner of California. That little deal set off a multi-year dispute over Colorado River rights which ended up with something called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA.

The reason for the purchase, and the fight, is that IID held very senior rights to a staggering amount of Colorado River water. (essentially first priority to 3.3 MILLION acre-feet per year.) One key rule of river water rights is that you have a right only to what you can use, then the next guy takes. By buying IID's rights, San Diego was, in essence, jumping to the head of the line for Colorado River water. Other users, like the State of Arizona, weren't amused. They said that if IID had so much extra water that they could afford to sell it to San Diego, then they were wasting it and that water belonged to the next person in line.

To solve this problem, the Colorado River users essentially abandoned the old rule -- use what you need up to the amount of your rights, then pass it on to the next guy -- and quantified everyone's rights. (Hence, the Quantification Settlement Agreement.)

Unfortunately, it appears that the QSA's underlying assumptions about the amount of water annually available from the River are not correct.

One final note on Toilet to Tap. There's no new water being made. That cup of coffee you had this morning probably contained a few molecules that traveled through Napolean's kidneys. But Americans can be difficult to educate and easy to scare. Very annoying.

cheers, and happy weekend everyone.


5:48 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline said...

Thank you for taking my question.

"I wish that we weren’t destroying useful things, like forests, to be empty houses in forty years"

Fortunately, I think we're just destroying useless (to humans) desert in Las Vegas. Also, there is a movement to "desert landscaping" (read: sand and rocks) instead of lawns, so that might delay the shortage a while.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Megan. You too, Francis. Both of you water people rock.

Francis -- I don't think it's the NapoleonH2O people are worried about. I think it's the JohnSmithUrea and the JaneDoeBilirubin that have people squicked out. But, still, desert.


6:07 PM  
Anonymous swissarmyd said...

so, I for one am glad you are friend of men again...

The thing with water is... kinda simple. When the Colorado River Compact was negotiated in 1921, it was a very wet time. So their averages were WAY off... They were thinkin 16M acre feet per year from the Colorado R. It seems that 13M a/ft/yr is more likely, and that is not taking any global warming affect into account whatever that will be.

That was when Las Vegas was only 15 years old, and barely a city. When Phoenix was a sleepy hamlet, When LA was actually small...

and they were 3 million acre feet short, out of the gate. That is the amount of water that Arizona gets per year, 3/4 the amount of water CA. gets...

Meanwhile Nevada only EVER got 300,000 acrefeet per year.

The basic reason that this juggling act EVER worked is that the upper division [CO, WY, UT, NM] doesn't have any large reservoirs to keep all the water they are alotted. Likely we never will, simply because the population of CO, especially, is on the other side of the continental divide, so getting the water over here is economically difficult.

The bottom line is that there is NO upward change in the amount of water there is, while there IS a likelyhood the amount will fall. Meanwhile Vegas, Phx and SoCal have continued growing as if the water would simply be found somewhere.

From there? as Megan would say, it gets seriously complicated... Still, it astounds me everywhere when people in general and politicians in particular act as though the water is there when it is not. You tell a builder that they cannot build houses because there is no water, and they try to figure out who to sue for it. The politicians tell you that without building more houses you can't grow the taxbase, and so forth.

As I told a friend from back east, [even though they say Chicago is midwest, it's east] The desert blooms when it rains. It just doesn't rain very often. Waiting with anticipation for the blooms is better than forcing them. Once you force them, you begin to take it for granted...

Wiki is pretty complete on this:

Colorado River Compact

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fdl (sorry to cut you out of the loop, Megan),

Follow up question about the toilet to tap cleanliness: How clean? I'm particularly interested in endocrine distrupters, which seem to largely consist of estrogen from tinkled-out birth control pills.

I'm not squeamish, but I don't want to take chances with my manly manliness, now that it is ok to mention that here again.


10:43 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

"[W]ater flows towards money." Excellent.

11:21 PM  
Anonymous the gender said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:09 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

Wow. I'm figuring the immediately preceding comment will get cleared away as soon as Megan sees it. I would just like to note that the use of 'nihilist' is particularly fascinating. I now picture Megan crouched darkly over a stove, muttering imprecations against the Tsar and his cossacks.

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

LB, that's how I make oatmeal, every single morning. Fucking Cossacks.

I make particularly good oatmeal, iidssm.

Andrew, come 'on. We made such good progress yesterday. (You seem inclined to stay engaged and comments, which is great. But I'm going to keep deleting comments that aren't kind.)

-K, I know this is the absolute roughest part, but I need my other commenters to return Andrew's comments with kindness. (Or nothing.) It is the only way to convince him that we're not hypocrites. I'm sorry. Lovingkindness is a really demanding practice. And thank you so much for your indignation on my (our) part.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

No, Francis, that doesn't help. Then, in addition to being kind on my own, I have to be extra kind to counteract the defenses of me.

Since everything else you wrote was great, could I ask you to delete your comment and re-post it without slamming anyone? That'd be awesome, if you would. Thanks...

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

swissarmyd: I respectfully disagree with the point about the Upper river states. Lake Powell is a very large reservoir. One key problem that the upper states have is that the lower states get to call on 7.5 MAF per year if available and not less than 75 MAF per decade.

A4: Endocrine molecules are too large to get through the RO process. Viruses are destroyed by the UV process. Given the amount of pollution in the air, the water that exits the 3-step process is, quite literally, cleaner than the rain as it falls from the sky.

Megan: please delete the earlier post that contained extraneous commentary.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

I posted a comment asking about desalinization, but it doesn't seem to appear. It wasn't deleted, was it? Unlike another deleted one it was totally innocuous.

I know I've been banned from commenting at Bobvis, hope that's not the case here.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Francis, thank you so much.

Peter, no I have no idea what happened to that comment. Wrong thread, maybe? You're in good standing here.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

It must've gotten lost in cyberspace. Anyway, my question is whether desalinization can be accomplished with filters, or if requires that the seawater be boiled and condensed.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How 'bout a 200-word review of this as long as we're on the subject...

2:53 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline said...

Dangit, I hate it when I miss the juicy soon-to-be-deleted comments. I guess this is the price I pay for sleeping in on Saturdays.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

so Francis...

I thought lake powell was considered to be in the lower basin, since it's in Arizona. In any case I was speaking specifically about the water being kept in Colorado... BUT as you point out the lower legally can call on a lot...

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


New York Times on looming water shortages in the West.

I think it spells the doom of agriculture in the western states, but it make take a few decades for that to play out.

I believe the Anansi Civilisation is thought to have collapsed due to a water shortage around 1100 AD? leading to civil disorder and eventually mass migration/ death?

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


To interpret Megan, houses are built mostly of wood. Even brick houses are built mostly of wood, these days: the brick is just a facade to a wood frame (this massively accelerates the rate of construction and lowers costs).

So houses are made of dead forests. Even in Nevada.

Howard Kunstler has called America's post war homes (not inaccurately) as 'a mess of plywood and vinyl, stuck together with glue'.

You could build a house of something else, but it might take longer, and cost more. But as Star Wars (shot in Tunisia) showed you, the American home, which was created for New England and Virginia, and has been ported across the country by immigrants from those parts, isn't necessarily the optimum design.

In particular in the desert you want 2-3' thick walls (eg filling a gap with rubble). These will help the house stay cool in the day, and warm at night.

Grey water recycling systems would cost a few thousand dollars a home.

Unfortunately considerations of short term economics outweigh long term sustainability.

Green lawns, and golf courses, are of course something of an obscenity in a water poor climate. Let alone grass in front of City Hall. Americans use over 20 times as much water per capita as Palestinians, for example. And golf courses are also massive polluters of water due to pesticides and fertilizers (so are lawns). Another import from the East, and in particular from Scotland (about the only place in the world where golf is a working class hobby), which doesn't translate well into the western US climate. Don't talk to me about Dubai.

That said, households rank far behind farms and even behind industry, as consumers of water. Even in places like California.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

Rather than de-sal sea water, or treat toilet water, why not build plants to treat agricultural runoff and drain water, just to the point where they can be used again for ag purposes. If cities paid for this, their recompense could be in gaining access to more water now going to agriculture. Ag would gain by having a problem addressed at little or no cost to them. And the "delta" that the cleanup plants would have to handle is far narrower: ag runoff is not nearly as salty as seawater, and irrigation water does not have to be a pure as drinking water.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

Anon: The NY Times article is very good. It captures pretty much everything that I've tried to talk about on comments here.

Some minor quibbles: The article could have discussed further the amount of water used by Western ag. It's staggering, and often for products available on the world market, like cotton.

So one easy way to start saving large volumes of water is for the states to start declaring that certain farming practices, like growing cotton, constitute a "waste".

(Remember, though, that ag. lobbies are tremendously powerful at local, state and federal levels. Farm Bill, anyone?)

Muncipal users use much more water per acre than ag, but cities are much smaller in total than farms. A tremendous amount of muni. use is for landscaping, and overwatering is a huge problem. One answer there is to have much more aggressive rate structures where basic use is cheap and excessive use is penalized.

Also, the remainder of muni use goes into a sewer where it can be treated and reused. The amount of water that can be found per dollar of investment in infrastructure is, I bet, far higher for recycled sewer water than just about any other source.

Ag. water is nasty. Google Kesterson Drain or Salton Sea to discover why I'd much rather invest in sewer infrastructure than ag. water reclamation.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Ennis said...

Are the LA fires related to water issues?

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


On cotton, the average US cotton farmer receives a federal government subsidy of $860,000. US cotton subsidies are considerably larger than US aid to Africa.

To add insult to injury, some of the poorest nations in the world are priced out of world cotton markets by US cotton subsidies to its own farmers. Other cotton producers include some of the world's most oppressive and impoverished states in Central Asia. And cotton farming has led to the Aral Sea almost drying up.

And of course cotton is a major source of water pollution due to the pesticides that the crop requires. And for this crop, of course, America had the slave trade (the Virginia tobacco trade was actually indentured servants: 7 years and they were free, it was king cotton that fed the slave trade-- if we could go back in time and kill Eli Whitney...).

I knew about cotton farming in Mississippi and Texas, but not further west. I wonder how big it is relative to US production?

California also grows *rice* which is another water hungry crop.

There is enough water in the West, maybe (not if there is the 150 year drought, but in less extreme circumstances). But the US is going to have to start thinking like the desert climate it is, rather than its Anglo-Saxon/ Celtic roots in countries where it rains all the time.

(odd fact: rainfall in southern England is now lower than rainfall in Portugal. But we insist on green lawns. Who knew?

The government is just tightening up our 'hosepipe ban' rules so that in an emergency the water companies can stop us refilling our jacuzzis, spraying down our patios and washing our cars. The stated reason is the threat of global warming).

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The LA fires are certainly related to the climate change issue. Record dryness means no water in the soil, and the vegetation is bone dry.

The real danger on the water front is lower winter precipitation. This makes the whole LA Basin water system quite dicey (over to our local experts!). Because snowmelt is what fills the reservoirs.

But winter is lasting for less time, and with less precipitation.

Greece had horrible wild fires this summer: perhaps as much as 40% of all forest cover in the country lost. Part of a general warming of the Mediterranean climate: if you look, California is, I believe, on roughly the same latitude.

The world is heating up, and it is coming faster than we thought.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


PS I should add, that with the reversal of the El Nino effect, the outlook for the next 3-4 years is lower temperatures.

After that, things will get really interesting.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say you guys really, truly rock, with your insights on this topic.

The history of water-based civilisations and climate change is not a happy one: the loss of rainfall and the Anansi, the Maya, and the first city (in Northern Syria) all have a giant drought at or around the time of their collapse.

The good news is that Americans are resourceful and pragmatic. The bad news is that legal rights can become an entrenched barrier to change.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some random facts about sewage treatment in case anyone wants to read:
Treated sewage is not THAT clean. Unless you're using RO (which is expensive, so it's not being used prevalently, at least, not yet), you are still left with whatever makes it through tertiary treatment.
Tertiary treatment can mean several things: 1) a filter of some sort (cloth or a combination of different sizes of sands) or 2) a membrane system (better than the above filtration systems, but more expensive). With any of these systems, you are NOT removing pharmaceuticals or anything smaller than 0.2 um (this includes SALT and some pesticides). If a plant has a hit for a pesticide, the answer is source control, NOT removal through treatment (unless you want to put in RO, which as mentioned before, is not currently economically feasible in MOST cases).
ALSO, treatment standards are different if you are discharging to land than if you're discharging to a water body. If you're going to land (ag land perhaps, dependent upon crop), you treat to a lesser standard than you would if you were going to a surface water (you aren't held to the CTR). However, if you're going to put in purple pipe and the water is coming into contact with the general public, your treatment standards increase, but please note what I said above about removal of certain substances.
Ok, I've run out of steam and I'm not sure how many people wanted the technical details anyway. :)

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mel said "Ok, I've run out of steam and I'm not sure how many people wanted the technical details anyway."

I'll raise my hand here for more. For example, does filtration through wetlands count as tertiary treatment?

Anon3:13, your numbers seem a bit on the high side. Using the Environmental Working Group database, I calculate about $24,000 in government payments per recipient in 2005. The EWG database is great, except for their tendency to present their numbers as ten year *totals*, rather than averages. Even over the ten years, I get about 80,000 per recipient. Note: that is still shockingly high. Also note that rice subsidies are right up there, too.

You asked about cotton farming out west. It's big out west, too. Arizona and California grow high value extra-long staple cotton. If I remember right, those states are 5 - 10% of total acreage, but higher yields and higher value mean they produce something like 15 - 20% of the value of the crop nationally. Those are recollections from a couple years back, and the numbers could be different now, since cotton plantings fell by 4 million acres this year, and corn plantings increased by something like 25%. If anything, I would expect the CA acreage and value share to increase, but that's a guess.


9:52 AM  
Blogger matt said...

That is indeed an extremely large boulder.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I finally read it. The New York Times magazine article is brilliant.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll try to answer your question. :)
I don't think wetlands can be considered tertiary treatment. Tertiary treatment is a kind of polishing process. I'm not sure that that is what wetlands are used for. I've only seen one before and that was at the city of Davis' WWTP. That being said, I don't really know THAT much about them except they're being phased out. They don't remove heavy metals (copper, silver, aluminum, etc.). In more conventional treatment, heavy metals are often partially removed in sludge (secondary treatment) and it used to be you didn't bother removing dissolved metals at all (although you have to now).
Dissolved metals can be removed to some extent through coagulation with alum or a polymer and then filtration. More often than not, we use permitting tricks on paper to prove the discharge isn't toxic to aquatic life and so don't you don't have to remove it at all. Source control is another method of controlling metals such as silver. Copper is difficult because the pipes in a lot of houses are copper and with a slightly corrosive water supply, bam, you get dissolved copper. You can't go around making everyone replace their pipes. :)
Well anyway, hope that helped!

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mel, thanks. The Davis WWTP was what I was thinking about, because they used to have trouble with particulates in the outflow. I was thinking tertiary, because it was the last step in the process. I thought the metals would be removed earlier in the process. I've only toured one water treatment plant, and their alum treatment was before filtration.

Now that I think of it, however, that was a drinking water treatment, not wastewater. It was a water treatment plant in Cleveland built in the 30s; one of the most beautiful examples of industrial design I have ever seen.


2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're right my numbers are too high (but I have seen that number published).

Oxfam says US cotton subsidies are $4bn, and there are 25,000 US cotton subsidies ie $160,000/head.

interestingly 3/4 of those subsidies go to the largest 10% of farms.

3:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

on cotton subsidies, and water rights, the above blog (by a diplomatic historian at the US Naval War college) may shed some light.

What he's really talking about is the Mancur Olsen thesis, that as empires age, their interest groups deadlock and prevent adaptation and change.

(it's one of my favourite blogs, for any number of reasons, mostly the informed historical perspective on current events)

This, I suspect, is what is happening in the American West. You have a series of interest groups (farmers, municipal water boards) that have traditionally owned the rights to water.

And now you have changed conditions (just as the US is now a major energy importer, so the US West is now struggling to deal with its needs for water, in a potentially dryer climate). The system can no longer, potentially, adjust, because of deadlock between, for example, cotton farmer lobbies in Washington.

It should come as no surprise to readers of ancient Greek history (Thucydides: The Peloponesian War)
or students of the fall of the Roman Republic, that the Executive Branch solution to this is to get involved in messy, complex foreign wars. Every Consul wants to have his Triumph (his victory parade through Rome).

Of course, the Romans hired a man (the Lichtor) to run alongside the triumph, whispering 'you are mortal'.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A3:28, It will be interesting to see why your numbers are different than mine. One thing that leaps out is the difference in years. I was looking up 2005, and the second Oxfam link was using 2000/2001 for the gross subsidies. The year matters because a portion of the subsidy is determined by the difference between the price cotton is actually sold for, and the price the policy targets. Sorry, you may know this already. By the way, I couldn't find the first document.

Other likely differences are what counts as a subsidy. The cotton program has many elements, and other programs matter. Sometimes folks include, say, water subsidies in their calculations. The big one is the number of growers receiving payments. I'll poke around the USDA data for those numbers, and see what turns up. $160,000 per year still seems high, but the big guys get so much, they could pull the mean up. The data in the first Oxfam link is also from the EWG (where I got my numbers), so they should be consistent.

Looking at the EWG summary, in 2005 they report 139,374 subsidy recipients. For 1995- 2005, they report 239,133 with total subsidies of about $3.3 billion. Maybe Oxfam accidently divided 239k by 10 to get an annual number?

Quibbling over numbers doesn't mask your larger point about who the recipients are. The nice thing about the EWG database is that you can look them up individually, for your own amusement. In 2005, #1 was Balmoral Farming Partnership, with $3.2 million. In one year.

As an aside, it is quite difficult to figure out exactly how much growers in West Africa, say, are hurt by US subsidies. They have to be, of course, but people I know who work on this very issue find it difficult.


4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My guess is the hurt to world cotton farmers is about proportional to the subsidy.

The subsidy lowers the cost of cotton, and hence the revenue received, by about the gross amount of the subsidy.

(the only other place the subsidy would go would be higher input prices in America ie farm land costs. But then there is the lost opportunity cost of raising other crops on that land.

A big ignored cost in this is the environmental externality in terms of water use, pesticide use etc)

Now we can take out Africa's share of world cotton production and multiply by the gross subsidy, and get a number. But of course African cotton production would be higher, if there were no US subsidies. However there would also be a consumption adjustment, if our t-shirts cost $4, say, rather than $3.

I think you can come pretty close by taking the gross subsidy X market share, though. Because cotton is a (nearly) purely competitive industry, the gains from subsidies accrue to:

- landowners(the only scarce resource in the process, besides water which is not market-sensitive as to price, and the environment, which is 'free')

- consumers of cotton downstream

Note you have to include *all* subsidies in the calculation.

I don't know if the Wall Street Journal archive is available online anywhere (without paying for it) but they did have some good articles about this.

One of the reasons the US has an obesity problem is trade barriers which protect the Florida sugar industry (owned by 2 Cuban American families with strong ties to both political parties), and raise the price of raw sugar to 4 times world levels. Besides killing water supply to the Everglades. This makes HFCS economic, and food scientists have shown HCFS is a much more effective way of getting calories into the body, than raw sugar (something to do with the way the liver processes it).

(disappearing for a few days after this post-- will revisit it to read your (very interesting) thoughts, but not until mid November, likely)


4:36 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home