Monthly Archives: April 2009

Low and high entropy water sources.

From Aquafornia, a commentary on recent bond measures:

As in the past, the current set of bonds are dedicated to numerous objectives, such as habitat, levees and ecosystem projects to include ocean protection, protection against invasive species, and fuel reduction in fire damaged areas. But nowhere is there truly “new water.”

Advertising of these initiatives dupe the general public into believing that the funding will insure safe and ample water but a closer look at the bond allocations clearly reveals that proportionally few funds are indeed being allocated to long term solutions for the drought, whether natural or regulatory.

Voters do not want more of the same, misleading water bonds and morphed environmental programs. Bonds must include language and line items that guarantee the completion of new high yielding storage projects.

On Emerson’s recommendation, I read Cobb and Daly’s For the Common Good, which was fucking amazing. Nearly every page had a well constructed argument for some passing objection I’d had to my resource economics classes. Again and again I wished I’d had the book to hand when I knew the answers couldn’t be as simple as my econ professors were telling me. I need to re-read it; For the Common Good was too dense for me to keep most of it. But one concept from that book has been amazingly useful to me. I think about low-entropy and high-entropy goods all the time.

Low entropy goods, either stocks or flows, contain tons of energy and are well ordered. Think of old growth timber stands that yield wide boards. Or high quality oil wells, close to surface and under pressure. Or fisheries of abundant huge fish that swam close together. Or of pure snowmelt flowing into narrow-mouthed canyons above a waterfall, so you can get some hydropower too. All the old rich sources, so easy to gather, so low-entropy. Those are low-entropy goods.

You can tell when people haven’t accepted that the world has changed, because they are still wishing for low-entropy sources. Those are gone. If they were stocks, they’re used up. Big trees, big fish, artesian water, artesian oil, all gone. If they were flows, they’re tapped already. Ms. Sutton calls for Sites Reservoir, but the concept of building dams is played out because all the good options are already in use. She mentions Sites, but it is more interesting that there is no other dam on the table. Besides Sites, I couldn’t name another proposed dam project in the state. (The San Joaquin River Restoration project was the end of Temperance Flats.)

The next water available to the state is from high entropy sources, widely distributed dribs and drabs, or mixed with something, or requiring lots of energy to extract. That’s what urban water conservation is, at essence, going around and collecting all the small streams that run from leaky taps, or small ponds that we put in our old toilets. Water recycling is putting energy back in, to separate water from human waste. Digging thousand foot wells is another form of collecting a low entropy source. So is, it turns out, protecting habitat at the top of watersheds, so that restored forest meadows boost infiltration and your springs feed your rivers for longer into the summer. And pollution prevention programs, so that if you collect your stormwater, it takes less energy to clean it again. Most of the strategies that people will use to scrounge more water in the future are some variant on working with high entropy sources.

That’s what the new bond measures are doing. Ms. Sutton objects that they are a hodge-podge, but that isn’t because it is all feel-good stuff for urban voters. The stuff in recent bonds (tons of conservation money, some habitat protection, some urban re-use stuff) is getting at the next sources on the low-to-high entropy spectrum. I sympathize with Ms. Sutton’s desire, because who doesn’t want the return of easy pickings, but that era is done. Water managers are now measuring high entropy sources against each other and starting in on the next most valuable ones*.








*You can tell Sites is a medium entropy source because it was left for dead last. It is an off-stream storage project in the Sac Valley; the idea is that it would hold flood flows off the Sacramento. So, look. It is collecting intermittent flows, distributed in time and unpredictable. It is far and requires a pipeline to put water in and out of it. It’d take Sacramento River water nearer to the bottom than the top, full of flood flow sediment. A medium entropy source like this has to be compared to other medium entropy sources like water recycling, and Sites isn’t necessarily the next best choice.


Filed under Surface storage

What does the drought cost?

I got to wondering whether the drought will necessarily cost us money.  The numbers for ag are clear:

Richard Howitt, professor of resource economics at UC Davis, last week offered sobering numbers to the state Board of Food and Agriculture.

Using computer economic models and DWR water data, Howitt estimates 40,000 jobs will be lost, along with $1.15 billion in income.

But this is just the first splash of trouble, because Howitt’s estimate applies only to areas of the Central Valley south of the Delta, and only in the farm sector.

They get quoted all the time, but I can tell you for sure that the reason they get cited so much is that his study is quite literally the only study we have. People want to quantify the effects of the drought, so they give the only numerical data we have. That’s understandable, although people confuse “the only thing we know” with “the whole story”.

However, this drought has also been a huge spur for urban conservation. If the premise behind conservation is true, that measures like fixing leaks and lawn removal and fixture replacement are pure efficiency gains, then presumably most of the urban drought measures will have some payback rate. Districts could have gotten those returns at any point, but it took a drought and someone else’s money to get them moving. I’m also seeing stuff like this, where the drought has brought enough pressure to get institutional realignments. I don’t know anything about that one in particular, but presumably the participants think there are gains from it. If so, and if the infrastructure and behavior changes stick around after the drought, racheting down inefficiencies in urban use could plausibly have a positive payback within a few years.

I don’t know that to be the case, and I don’t know how it will compare to ag losses. But it that is the kind of contrarianism that drives traffic to blogs and gets an econ grad student big press. So I’m hoping that some econ grad student takes it up. I’m sure Howitt’s study is fine for what it is, but I’d like to see more of the picture.

1 Comment

Filed under Drought

What drought means to most Californian urban users.

The people I’m generalizing about in this post are residential water users who grew up in a modern urban water system, with a district providing them with flawless water reliability.  I know that’s not the case for most of the world, but I want to make a point about my peers.)

Drought, for most urban users in California, is not about water. Furthermore, residential users in California do not care how much water they use.  People in California are not emotionally attached to using a certain number of gallons per day; no one wakes up and ponders, ‘do I want to use 135 or 145 gpd today?  I need a little pick-me-up.  145 it is!’.  People can be trained, through their water bill, to start thinking of gallons per day, but no one feels better just for using any amount of water.  Rather, residential users want a number of aesthetic experiences for which they need some water.  My guess is that they appreciate, from most utils to least utils, a shower with water pressure*, drinking water, washing dishes with the water running, growing some houseplants, having a green landscape, washing driveways.  They also use water in ways that they derive no satisfaction from.  Carrying human waste away, leaking from faucets, overwatering plants, washing clothes in it.   The results of those things are nice, neutral or annoying, but if the nice things could be achieved with something besides water, it would make no difference to people.

Because most urban Californians will never experience an interruption of water service, nor rations small enough to threaten their bodily uses of water, what drought really means to most people is that they have to pay attention.   What they really want is a few daily experiences (that don’t have to take much actual wet water) and that they don’t have to think about it.  In a society as rich as ours, a drought starts the moment casual users have to think about it.  The marker of the start of a drought is completely independent of snowpack or precip.  For most people, a drought starts when they get a bill insert or see something about it in the news. At that point, the privilege of living in such a wealthy society that you don’t have to fix your broken sprinkler is gone**.  That is what drought will mean to most people.

Water managers focus on meteorology and absolute amounts of water, but the way to alleviate the experience of drought for most Californians is to reassure them that they can keep the water experiences they value and to make giving up the other ones trivially easy.

This is not a particularly focused prescription, and it is the real effect of most of the conservation measures that cities and districts are employing.  (Put a nozzle on your hose when you wash your car, don’t serve water unless it is requested.)  It also suggests that scaring people about drought is itself the drought for most people, but I don’t mean to argue that they shouldn’t be aware of it***.  My point here is that what is important to people is their subjective experience.  That is as true for their uses of water as it is for their perception of drought.  We have to manage water, but it might be more important to manage the casual user’s experience of drought****.

Continue reading


Filed under Drought