Conservation and its discontents

My regional water agency, East Bay Municipal Utility District, is commendably anticipating shortages with a conservation program. Whether the program itself is commendable is not so clear; the story in the paper paper is headlined with the word rationing, and this always makes me reach for my revolver.

The proposals under consideration are a hodgepodge of tools, including across-the-board price increases (good), price increases only on use above some percentage of recent years’ levels, with the percentages different for different users (not so good), behavioral regulations like no car washing or sidewalk swooshing (probably symbolic, but maybe not ‘merely’ so).

The differential reduction schemes are the ones I’m most diffident about. EBMUD contemplates assigning (for example) targets of 30% reduction to golf courses and parks, 19% to single-family homes, and 5% to industrial users like refineries and manufacturers, each below the user’s average use over the last three years. If you go over the target, you pay super-high rates on the excess. The first thing that bothers me is the implicit moral judgment that the benefit of water use per gallon varies in this way, and the second is that EBMUD is equipped to discern the variation. I myself deplore golf courses and I hope they all turn brown, but I’m not authorized to implement judgments like that and neither is EBMUD; in any case, I think green public parks are an excellent use of precious water and nothing like golf courses both environmentally and sociologically; at least EBMUD could be more discriminating if they have to go down this route.

The second problem is the injustice across similarly categorized users, and the associated perverse incentives it puts in place ( I have carefully not looked at my water bills to see if I’m especially at risk here, so the following has the moral purity of ignorance.) Some people have been very careful about their water use for a long time, and others act as though moving to the desert of California entitles them to live as though they were still east of the 100th meridian. We have a front-loading washer, a dishwasher, a gallon jug in every toilet that’s not extra-low flow, drip irrigation all over the yard except a couple of very small patches of turf, and take only showers (no baths). But we have neighbors who have xeriscaped yards with cacti, gravel, and succulents, and some who collect grey water and use it for their gardens. Asking for the same percentage reduction from all of us punishes the early conservers, and signals everyone that being careless with water now (at least after this crisis) will protect us from future rationing hits, a result that is both unfair and unwise.

Price signals have a very spotty record – especially in the short run, and especially for things you pay for in one lump after a month or two of making a zillion little decisions to turn off the tap or shorten your shower – of getting individuals to serve their own interests, never mind being noble and communitarian, so I can understand EBMUD’s fear that putting water prices up to the right level won’t save enough. (I assume business and institutions are few enough and aware enough of their financial realities that they can be educated and will respond properly.)

What about invoking what the Mormons call ‘fellowship’: if water has some collective significance, shouldn’t every house be required to display a tasteful little sticker, visible from the street, indicating the total water consumption at that meter last month, and its zip code’s average for (as appropriate) apartments or houses? Big water user? feel free to point out your beautiful lawn and roses to your guests; perhaps one of them will hip you to the benefits of a drip system. Stingy user? feel free to bask in their appreciation of your ingenuity and good citizenship.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.