An op-ed in today’s N.Y. Times claims that massively improving water data would “unleash an era of water innovation unlike anything in a century”. On Twitter, people respond that instead of gathering data to “fix water”, we’d do better to directly address the emotions of water users. dezaraye points out that “many who manage water don’t want “water visibility” OR accessible data”. frkearns suggests directly addressing people’s conception that cheap water should be limitless (my paraphrase). I agree with both of those, and raise two other objections to the op-ed.
First, I find calls for data to be feelgood crowdpleasers. Yes. Sure. Let’s get good data. Let’s even spend some real money gathering and managing it. I myself love good data. I think we should have accurate and timely knowledge of where water is being used, in some real nice display tools. Great. But that’s a pretty shallow recommendation. Who is going to oppose “good data”? This is the type of thing the State allows itself to recommend: good data. (Right after “good data” comes “agency alignment”.) Calls for “good data” push difficult policy discussions down the road.
My more serious objection to the notion that data will unleash creativity to solve water problems is that I don’t think addressing the major policy problems will be changed by fine resolution data. Coarse resolution data makes the policy problems pretty clear. Here’s an example, from my mind:
In this last drought, the overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley has been 5-10MAF/year for three or four years. My rule of thumb is that with a well managed irrigation system, a grower can finish a crop with 3AF/acre-year. This tells me that 2 to 3 million acres were watered with groundwater overdraft in these drought years. Now, this is astoundingly coarse. I will happily agree with an adjustment of 25% on either the crop water use or the overdraft. But that doesn’t change the policy problem: millions of acres were irrigated with groundwater overdraft.
How would making that data a lot more precise help? We could change our predictions by 25,000 acres and one big farm would retract their opposition to the local GSA? How long should we wait for data that precise before saying we need a plan for retiring a noticeable chunk of our 9ish million acres of irrigated agriculture? Five more years? What major water policy decisions are different based on coarse resolution data and fine resolution data?
Look, yeah, sure. I support the calls for data. Now that my water is metered, I look very carefully at our gppd. But talk about data sparking innovation and behavior changes is cheap. I’d be far more impressed by an op-ed showing how good new data would influence an existing policy discussion and drawing conclusions based on explicit values.