Edit 3 (23:15) Off to bed BUT leave more questions -- and vote them up! -- for me to answer tmrw (and then that's it). See you on twitter and Life + 2 Meters!

Edit 2 (20:50) Going to dinner. Back in an hour. Vote, THEN search THEN leave a new comment :)

Edit 1 (20:00 CET) Lots of Qs are coming in. Please upvote those that need replies and SeaRCH to see if your Q has been asked!

Hi Reddit!

I'm David Zetland, a water economist who works on understanding and improving water policies in all sectors (agriculture, drinking water, environmental flows) and all parts of the world.

Proof, via twitter

Here's a 6 min video explaining how to divide water among economic and social uses, why markets are better than politics for dividing economic water sues, and how to price urban for scarcity (without harming the poor those who use less water).

I grew up in California, got my PhD at UC Davis in 2008, and now live in Amsterdam. I've traveled in over 90 countries, so I'm always interested in understanding more about local water management (and problems). I joined reddit 7 years ago and LOVE this community.

When I am not doing stuff like this, I work as an assistant professor at Leiden University College in Den Haag -- the top ranked liberal arts school in the Netherlands. (If you're thinking lib arts, check us out. We have about 50% non-Dutch students and cost about half as much as liberal arts in the US. For EU students, tuition + living expenses total about €15k/year.) I really love this job because I work in an interdisciplinary environment with fun colleagues and really great students. I teach microeconomics, environmental economics, common pool resource management, growth and development, and "manage" our minor in social and business entrepreneurship.

I am currently working on a project called "Life Plus 2 Meters" (twitter facebook) that will help people understand the impacts of climate change (arriving primarily via the water cycle) as well as how humans will adapt to those impacts. I am looking for authors to contribute "visions" of 700-1,000 words. This is a multi-disciplinary, no-PhD required project, so check out the author page if you are interested or know someone who should contribute!

Protip: Before posting a new question, please search for keywords (e.g., desalination, bottled water, Nestle) and post into existing threads. I will be monitoring as many threads as possible!

More background information/FAQ:

Why am I here? I traveled a lot before going to grad school at 32 years old. I found that "academics" spend far too little time engaging with real people on real problems or explaining their work to non-academic audiences (YMMV). I started blogging in grad school because I wanted to deal with real problems. Most academics say "wait until you get tenure" (and then do nothing), but this move has worked out for me. I always learn from these conversations. Hopefully, you can learn more about the issues that matter to you.

Fun fact: My advisor once said that I was a "loose cannon" because I wasn't afraid to question authority or the conventional wisdom. I wear that badge with pride, as our civilization is built on discovery and innovation, not timid ignorance. (I'm a big fan of free speech.)

How do economics and politics apply differently to water? Economics, markets and prices are better at dealing with "commodity" water, i.e., "excludable" water that can be sold/kept for one user without fear of others using that water. Politics, cooperation and votes are better for dealing with "community" water, i.e., "non-excludable" water that must be shared among many. Most trouble in water management comes from failing to price/allocate commodity water in a way that balances supply and demand (e.g., no water service) OR failing to protect community water from overuse/pollution (e.g., environmental pollution). Both of my books are broken into Parts I and II to reflect these different management paradigms.

Comments: 352 • Responses: 97  • Date: 

driveonacid47 karma

Yesterday, there was a picture on r/pics of a California lake (almost empty) in 2014 and the same lake with much more water in it from this year. How are things going in California? (I realize you no longer live there.) Are conditions improving there? What needs to happen now to get them even better?

davidzet47 karma

Yes, I did too. I hope that some of the 5000+ people who upvoted it see your comment :)

"Things" are ok. The environment is really under stress due to drought and climate change (hard to separate), and El Niño didn't fix anything. The biggest problem in the State is groundwater, which is barely regulated and hardly measured (there are laws now, but it will take 5+ years to implement anything).

People in cities may say "nothings wrong" b/c their taps flow but they are missing the environmental and groundwater stress.

I'm not an optimist in terms of improvements, as the dominant perspective is growth of population, agriculture and urban landscapes. All of these are increasing demand in a system that's "managed" to the hilt, meaning there's very little space for safety if things go wrong. (The big nightmare is an earthquake that "disturbs" the Delta, thereby cutting off water to SF as well as half of SoCal. That could happen tomorrow.)

I've suggested for years that California needs to reduce water transfers, to get regions to focus more on local supplies (i.e., recycling wastewater, saving rainwater) rather than calling for more dams or transfers.

I moved to the Netherlands b/c I don't trust California's water management to do much more than get by, with a good chance it will fail (it already has for communities losing access to well water or facing polluted well water).

driveonacid5 karma

If I could be permitted a follow up question. I was an environmental studies major in college many, many years ago. Back then (early 2000's) the Ogalala Aquifer was the big buzz word (words?). What's going on with that now?

davidzet11 karma

Ogallala has been "mined" for decades intentionally as a means of boosting ag yield (successfully). It's now having "issues" b/c wells depths are variable due to different pumping volumes, i.e., farmers mad at each other for "taking" each others' water.

driveonacid6 karma

Ahhh, so I see things haven't changed. Good ol' tragedy of the commons.

davidzet6 karma

Yes, that's the twist. The "death of the Ogallala" was definitely expected/planned.

Kneesocks9318 karma

What little things can people do to help use less water ?

davidzet63 karma

Little: Turn off taps when not using water. Bigger: Don't have a lawn. Fix leaks. Biggest: Don't eat meat.

Mega: Get involved in regional water management, to help those who do not care as much change their habits (via changed incentives -- prices -- more than preaching).

izackl13 karma

does aquatic sourced meat count for water usage? i.e. fish, shrimp etc etc.... whether fresh water or salt?

davidzet30 karma

Good question! First, "green water meat" (i.e., cattle raised on rainfed pasture) is not really bad from a water perspective (carbon and land are usually a problem).

Fish are better on water, as you state, BUT the fishing industries have MAJORLY depleted many open ocean fisheries, which has led to collapsing food webs (tragedy of commons), so it's outa the frying pan, into the fire!

DriftingSkies5 karma

Are some meats more water-intensive than others?

As in, would it be at least somewhat beneficial to switch to chicken and turkey instead of beef and pork, if one isn't prepared to cut out meat altogether?

davidzet12 karma

(1) I'd worry about the quality of the meat, e.g., small traditional farmer vs industrial feedlot food. Industrial guys (in)directly deplete/pollute water, overuse antibotics, breed for speed, etc.

GIVEN that you've taken that massive thing into account, then you want to look at the meat/day ratio. Smaller animals, I think, produce faster, i.e., chicken>beef.

jjackson255 karma

Is the meat-water issue due more to what they drink, or what's used growing their feed?

davidzet8 karma

Food 99%

Mystik7383 karma

MySoCalledReddit2 karma

Why didn't you mention: have fewer children?

davidzet4 karma

I have, here and elsewhere

Thurgood_Marshall14 karma

Why do you think it's so hard to get people to understand how bad animal products are for the environment?

davidzet17 karma

They have an emotional tie to meat (Cowspiracy review). That's why economists like me talk about "full cost pricing" of meat, so that the environment is less damaged. (No people = no damage.)

wumbotarian2 karma

Are you suggesting a Pigouvian tax on meat?

davidzet2 karma

On meat, no. On all of the activities that "cause harm"? Yes, except when regulation is cheaper (transaction costs!)

A higher water price (=scarcity) wold hit meat harder than tofu, so it's an indirect way of taxing harms from meat production

window513 karma

Is progress being made on desalinization technology?

davidzet38 karma

Yes, every day practically. A few years ago, I read that the cost of desalination was about $500/af (1,234 m3) in the 1950s and STILL $500/af about 50 years later, except that $500 then is worth roughly $4500 today, so that's cool.

The pace is speeding up now for two reasons: (1) scarcity of clean water, i.e., need to desalt and/or clean other "dirty" water and (2) better materials/energy science.

Desal in Israel is already less than $1/m3, so it's great for drinking water. It's not the solution for agriculture, etc. due to massive volumes and relative cheapness of natural supplies (e.g., rain or rivers).

NB: recycling wastewater is always cheaper than desalination from the sea...

superkoolj9 karma

I love that you added an inflation joke in your response, classic econ humor

davidzet9 karma

gotta fight the good fight (but inflation is no joke!)

HowitzerIII3 karma

What is the main challenge in getting higher adoption of desalination? Can conventional desalination compete with the groundwater prices that governments charge? Is that even a major issue?

davidzet5 karma

Money. Desal can not usually compete with g/w that's less salty, even if it's 2000m deep.

RedErin11 karma

Is it possible that we've already reached the tipping point where climate change is eventually going to destabilize our environment in horrible ways?

davidzet18 karma

Yes. That's why I started my project. Read the science section if you want to ruin your day.

bourbonandacid11 karma

Hi David! Thanks for doing this AMA!

I've been very interested in the post-Soviet central Asian states ("the Stans" if you will) for a few years now and one thing that is talked about in their geopolitics is the eventual water shortage and what violence that would result in for an already extremely volatile area. How can the international community help these states avoid such disaster when their governments are pervasively corrupt and already distrustful of foreign (American, Euro, Russian, Chinese, etc) influence?

davidzet10 karma

I was just "on mission" in Kazakhstan, and I was not impressed by their water management. OTOH, they separated their part of the Aral Sea from the far worse Uzbeks. I think that Russia/China are fighting for influence, which makes it easy to encourage/condone stupid politics or policies. The issues between Tajik and others (dams, etc.) should not break into war, but they might. Depends if dictators think it's worth sacrificing bodies to get water vs allowing bodies to die without it. It's all about $$.

YouthInRevolt3 karma

Depends if dictators think it's worth sacrificing bodies to get water vs allowing bodies to die without it. It's all about $$.

Aaannndd now I'm depressed.

davidzet4 karma

Have some vodka!

GeorgePantsMcG8 karma

How fucked is Texas over the next 50 years?

davidzet6 karma

Lots if they don't get ground water management under control. Houston may get whacked by tropical storms.

Write a chapter for Life + 2m? ;)

C55H104O68 karma

A few years ago, I heard a story about a public water source in Canada (I believe it was a lake). It was available to anyone who wanted to extract water from it; which is where Nestle came in. Apparently, their "Pure Life" brand was taking massive amounts of this water for free, in order for them to bottle and sell. These seemed like a major injustice and misuse of the laws.

Assuming this story is true, what greater implications does this speak to, and what are your general thoughts on the matter? It seems fishy (sorry about the eye roll-worthy pun).

davidzet5 karma

Those stories are somewhat true, usually b/c the local laws say "use as much as you want" and Nestle drives a truck through them. The solution is to change the laws more than blame Nestle (tho I think they're kinda dumb with PR sometimes.)

The big picture is to make SURE that the commons are protected before cutting some off for bottles, farmers (1000x higher water use), frackers, et al.

Santarini6 karma

If the planet is made up of mostly water, why are we concerned about the scarcity of water?

davidzet12 karma

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong quality.

Wettest place on earth has shortages

tehmlem6 karma

Would you say that it's time for readers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?

davidzet6 karma

May be hard to eat goo with a broken head. #continuetoinnovate

LongWater20306 karma


davidzet4 karma

Hey! I was REALLY pleased to see the increase in tariffs, as there's now an incentive to conserve water (as you've mentioned) AND an incentive for customers to demand 24/7 quality service. I worked in KSA for a month (May 2015) and was appalled at the waste of fossil groundwater, which Riyadh would really need if there was a disruption to the desal pipelines.

The multiple of bottled water over tap water is still 100-1000x, AFAIK, so it "pays" to bottle and transport bottled water. That's true everywhere. BUT, I think that businesses have (a) water meters and (b) a higher tariff. Check the website of your utility (they put some info in English if you don't read Arabic).

Here's a PDF of my paper on water and desal that includes KSA

elfconscious6 karma

Other than public ignorance and fear, what drawbacks does recirculation of wastewater on a massive scale have for solving our residential and agricultural needs in places like SoCal? Does the reverse osmosis filtration waste too much? Is it practical to get most of our water from treated waste water?

davidzet12 karma

There's not really a drawback GIVEN that you are going to clean the water (and thus spend energy to generate water and sludge). The physical/chemical cleaning process is the same as desalination (more or less) but more efficient.

If there's any drawback, it's to assume that "more supply" alleviates the need for less demand, as there's a limit to the number of times water can be recycled, mostly due to losses in that process.

One thing that Vegas does well is recycle its water about 2-3x, thereby magnifying its supply, but it loses heaps to evaporation.

Biscuits03 karma

I'm not allowed to post this as a top level comment as I don't have a question.. But I'd just like to say that this is really interesting (The whole topic).

davidzet3 karma


NOTcreative-3 karma

Hi David! Southern Nevada resident here, it's funny you mention us, I have a few questions relating to this!
As I'm sure you know, Clark County has managed to take advantage of the natural Las Vegas Wash to accumulate city run off and that plus recycling our waste water generates us about an extra 180,000 af/year to add to our meager cut of 300,000 af/year from the Colorado. As far as city run off goes, are major cities in California, particularly southern, set up in a way that accumulates most of the city run off together? How much usable water do you think could be recycled from waste and runoff? Have a lot of residential users been taking advantage of the California Turf initiative? The rebate incentive is much higher than we had in Nevada (more than twice I believe?) and you'd be hard pressed to find many real grass lawns around here.

Thank you for being a champion in the war against building more dams and finding more permanent solutions that also don't destroy the environment (RIP Glen Canyon) or put you know, thousands of lives at risk (looking at you Mulholland)! Thanks and stay hydrated!

davidzet4 karma

(1) So Cal can do a LOT more (and they are, e.g., restoring the LA river to allow g/w recharge) to save runoff and wastewater.

I think turf rebates are a TERRIBLE idea compared to higher prices.

You're welcome!

p0ttedplantz5 karma

Do you think we will ever have to use water as a currency? Do you collect rain water?

davidzet3 karma

No and no. I live in Amsterdam and the utility is better at storing water than I am. (That's not the case in poor countries, where people need to store in bathtubs, etc.)

Chilez5 karma

Are there any new technological breakthroughs that have occurred recently with regards to recycling waste water? I remember reading an article at some point that mentioned there were issues with the breakdown of prescription drugs in waste water. Is this still an issue? Or is my memory failing me?!

davidzet6 karma

Those drugs can be filtered out (anything can, for a price), and there's always newer better processes coming out. You need water managers to want to use them (not always true) to benefit tho.

mac1022505 karma

Seeing as you grew up in California and attended UC Davis, what are you thoughts about the "California Water Fix and Eco Restore" plan; ie the Delta Tunnel plan?

davidzet5 karma

failatquitingreddit4 karma

What is your go-to cold water recipe for that hot summer day?

davidzet9 karma


TheFriendlyYeti4 karma

I spent a bunch of my high school life discussing water scarcity so this is definitely an insightful AMA, thanks for doing this! A common solution that comes up is the use of desalination plants, especially for communities positioned around large areas of salt water. Do you think that this is practical long-term solution for such communities, or are newer technologies being used that offer far more benefits?

davidzet3 karma

You're welcome!

I'd put desal after pretty much everything, esp. wastewater recycling, but also higher prices (thus, smaller lawns). Desal doesn't solve "greed" (demand > supply) so you need to work on the psychology too :)

lasserith4 karma

You've talked a lot about how farms pollute water supplies with run off. Why isn't there a bigger push to remove the exemption for agricultural runoff from RCRA? The fact that this obviously hazardous waste is explicitly left off is why you can't do anything to stop it.

davidzet3 karma

My god, I know. Read Chapter 4, for my "community responsibility" solution. Note that ag exemptions are a real problem.

"Pig farmers "dump" huge costs on society that could be avoided at a cost of about 5 cents per kg" Source

cyclonewolf4 karma

Why is it illegal to collect rainwater in some cities, and does it really make a big enough difference? I feel like people drinking their own collected water cuts back on all the transportation and cleaning costs it would otherwise have to go through to be sold.

davidzet3 karma

It's a holdover from prior appropriation that is meant to keep folks from building dams to stop water from getting into streams that bring "claimed" water to its owners. The laws, I think, were written to prohibit ALL means of stopping water (lawyers can get creative), which is how you get the rainbarrel bans. From an enviro perspective, barrels are an obvious good idea, BUT I recommend only growing what can survive on precipitation, i.e., without watering.

linkankit4 karma

Thanks for the AMA. I'm a Finance major, so forgive me if this question seems out of place.

1) There's a lot going around in Financial Markets, that one commodity we should all invest in for the long term is Water. It's got huge promised returns in the long run. As a water economist, do you have any views on this?
2) Is this overly capitalist, trying to make money of off water, a basic commodity?

davidzet3 karma

Good (if common) question. (1) It's a terrible bet due to political risk, as far as I am concerned. Yes, it may be a good idea for a farmer to buy land with good water rights, but those rights may evaporate (climate change!) or be unilaterally reduced (Australia).

(2) No, say I, but lots of people think water should be free. I think they are mixing up lots of ideas (morals, drinking water, the environment, profits, etc.) to the point of being counterproductive -- esp. to the people they are "saving" from paying, e.g., "cheap water" policies in India that leave people without any water at all.

The safest place to make $ off water is in tech, i.e., "excludable water." For more, read Chapter 3 of Living

geezer1112 karma

Can you please explain what you mean by water tech and give a few examples?

davidzet2 karma

Low flush toilets. Industrial water recycling, etc.

WyomingNotTheState4 karma

I've always wondered - why not just price water according to its scarcity? Give the first x gallons cheap or free to residential customers, then charge against an accelerating price scale? That would dissuade large inefficient users, but still allow people to stay clean and healthy in their homes.

davidzet5 karma

You're right in principle, but the details should be implemented differently. More

linkns861 karma

I've always wondered - why not just price water according to its scarcity?

This is what markets do. Monopolies circumvent supply/demand and make it harder to determine the 'market value' of any good.

davidzet1 karma

Yes. And there are no "markets" for tap water, so you need higher prices from the monopolies.

DoFlips3 karma

I would like to know your thoughts on permaculture. Is this the future of farming?

davidzet1 karma

It's a great idea, esp when it comes to low inputs, but it doesn't fit the factory farm model. I don't support that, but USDA (US) and CAP (EU) do, so there's a problem.

dangerrmouse3 karma

What is your opinion on The Water Knife?

davidzet2 karma

gjolund3 karma

Do you view cities like LA and LV as unsustainable, or is there a way for large cities to exist in desert climates without robbing other regions?

davidzet7 karma

Good question. EVERY city is unsustainable in some way, due to the way they need to concentrate food, energy, water, etc. Those that are farther from those sources thus need to be smaller. LA was amazing back in the 30s, but grew off imported water (you can even go back earlier, to the 1913 LA Aqueduct if you want to pinpoint an issue).

The main idea is that ALL cities should pay the full cost of their resource use/environmental impact. Very few do, but it's FAR worse when politicians allow them to get away with stuff/subsidize their growth.

Hope that makes sense.

jtcmic3 karma

What is your general stance on dams? They provide energy and a water reserve for a large amount of peopel but damages the ecosystem in the process. There are usualy a lot of controversies when rich companies/countries build dams because they damage the communities around them besides the ecosystem.

davidzet4 karma

You're right on the issues. High altitude (think Alps or Rockies) dams are usually pretty good since they reproduce lake environments and the water is pretty clean. Low altitude ones (see Three gorges or the dams on the Mekong in Laos) are a disaster b/c they kill rivers (no oxygen) and ecosystems.

The big issue with dams is the "dam mafia" using Other People's Money to build dams everywhere... the plot in Reisner's Cadillac Desert and the reality in China today.

SlashStar3 karma

Assuming a global water shortage, am I ok since I live in the country off of well water?

davidzet2 karma

As long as it's not polluted and you can grow/buy food.

(Oh, and the environment?)

JBHedgehog3 karma

There was this article today in CNN suggesting that California is sitting on a large/huge pool of water.

However, similar to Beijing's proclivity to remove all water from an aquifer (hence slowly sinking the city), is not the same thing in the future for California?

Apparently CA is already sinking but will removal of this water not speed things up?

davidzet3 karma

Mexico city and Jakarta are also "sinking" cities, so it's a real problem.

Sadly, you can pretty much count on people "wasting" new supplies if they are tapped without any way of reducing demand. In my PhD work, I documented the second and third times that happened ("too much water, move here") in LA.

JBHedgehog2 karma

Has there been any study/documentation on working with "the powers that be" (politicians, city planners, etc.) to mitigate the human impact on this resource?

Or are we, to use a common phrase" screwing ourselves again by thinking of the now instead of the future?

davidzet3 karma

Many! Look into Elinor Ostrom's work on communities managing their commons.

bruckout3 karma

will wars be fought over water in the future?

davidzet3 karma

Maybe. Read Chapter 9 (it's 8 pages) in my book :)

DriftingSkies3 karma

How would you propose to solve the issue in California where pre-1912 (may be off slightly on the year) water rights are considered all-but-absolute and not subject to any restriction the way later water rights are?

Also, one of the big issues in Arizona is water scarcity, and one of the issues is that large amounts of water are used by the copper mining industry, which both uses lots of water, and dumps large amounts of toxins and acids into the groundwater and aquifers. Do you believe command and control regulation is more appropriate, or would you favor a mining tax or other price-based approach to tackle this question?

(My expertise, sadly, is more in carbon economics than water economics...)

davidzet5 karma

(1) Read my book (chapters 4 & 5) on pollution and water rights.

(2) I'd reform California water rights (this is kinda happening) to cut permits down to supply, with preference for the older guys (not to totally screw them).

(3) I'm HUGE on polluter pays when it comes to industry. Far too many mines have been allowed to get away with murder (literally, too, of course) in the name of "jobs" -- but really bribes to politicians.

SiderealCereal2 karma

What are your thoughts on water use by NorCal almond growers? Do you consider their water use excessive, economocally?

davidzet6 karma

throwawaycape2 karma

Sort of related. I'm an economics student about to graduate, I'm really interested in pursuing a masters in agricultural economics or natural resource economics. What kind of jobs are available with a specialization like that? Is it too specific to get a good job in natural resource economics? Thanks!

davidzet2 karma

There are HEAPS of jobs in govt and industry (even for academics). I REALLY recommend that you work 2-3 years before going to a masters, to see who/what/where you like...

RonaldHH2 karma

Hey David! I'm working on a project in South Africa, where we work to restore the Baviaanskloof catchment area. By restoring vegetation we increase water capture and retainment of the area. The catchment provides about 70% of the water to Port Elizabeth and its neighbouring cities. Farmers in the catchment area however, are not very relient on the capture/retainment, as there is enough water there. I think this can be a large issue, getting (and keeping) the water from where it is to where it is needed. Luckily, we don't have to devise an economic incentive as we are sponsored (yay Coca-Cola!). What's your take on water transportation, skewed needs and the like?

davidzet3 karma

Interesting project! (Coke has an interesting biz model there, on its "Zero net water" program). I'd guess that there may be issues down the road if farmers lose access to their water and "see" the water you're saving as something they should get (and thereby lobby for it to be transferred to them).

The simple solution is to clarify either the absolute or (my suggestion) relative % shares to city/ag (e.g., 70/30%) now, so that future increases/decreases are shared equally. (The Colorado River in the US is really messed up with management due to its allocation of rights by absolute volumes, which falls apart in drought.)

My general take on transport is that (1) it should be funded by users (not subsidized from the center) and (2) stay within the catchment, as there are HUGE problems with moving it across hydro-boundaries...

_IAMAMESS_2 karma

Is it just me, or is water economics relatively simple, but making people care enough to act prudently is impossible until it gets scarse - i.e. too late?

davidzet2 karma

It's simple (to me), but people don't think about water in that way. The complexity of water (my book tries to explain the "threads") also hinders understanding. "Care" will not solve anything, so I talk more about incentives.

I called my first book "End of abundance" to get people to think about new paradigms.

infomebaby2 karma

I understand your disagreeing, and I like the theoretical idea of giving "each citizen a property right in his nations water wealth" [Water Rights and Human Rights, pg.7-too lazy to APA right now], but IMHO, seems like naive idea because it would actually solve the issue and grant sustainable free rights to people which probably will never make it to the world's $ system.

I am not sure which idea would be better to protect and actually deliver the access to clean water to people who need it most, if whether to "private property" or "community asset" at this point. I am sure you have better thoughts on this. As that article had previously implied, the problem, such as the right to food didn't save "1.02 billion people or prevent 6 million children from starvation" [FAO,2009]. The issue is in fact the point I believe you are trying to make to point out to us, is the actual lack of a system to back up the protection of human rights in a global arena versus how we plot the issue itself? Please guide me in the right direction if that is not accurate...

I see property rights makes corporations viably responsible from a law of land ruling versus giving people free clean water from their own naturally available resources. I am not well read on cases of people suing their governments for not providing them of their alienable rights to food and water as there probably have not been many works in the legal frame scope other than the corporate contamination issues, but I really am grateful for your sharing the proper reading articles to help us think better and be more educated on the issues. Thank you for this thread.

davidzet2 karma

Well, you've hit on the issue: property rights as imagined vs enacted vs enforced. If I had to push for one thing, it would be more community management of water. When it comes to money and inquality, I tend to suggest income transfers over "free water" since income is much easier to manage (e.g., Basic Income) and water systems NEED revenues to run. If those revenues come from customers, then they are more likely to get service. The paper was pretty far out in terms of suggesting a source of wealth (vs., say tax/transfer), but there's a justice in it. As you can see in this paper on UK metering, there's a problem getting the government to just do what it even promises (or should) in terms of basic justice.

That's why I go back to communities, as laws don't push politicians to "do their jobs." UN laws are even less likely to...

Check out my book, for an economic/incentives attempt to address these issues. It's free to download :)

mwrs932 karma

Hi there David, how's about a question from a recent bachelor in Economics? Well, a few actually.

First off just to open the argument, is water a commodity?

If it indeed is, because I mean we do in this global economy buy and sell it, what does that imply ethically?

When do I need to start worrying about tragedy of the commons?

How would a free-market help move us towards a more Pareto optima outcome for our consumption of (welfare of humanity, too) water?

davidzet2 karma

(1) Yes and no. Read Chapter 1 :) (2) Too heavy to buy/sell directly. We trade "virtual water" (3) Ethics apply at the "do we commodify" phase. Read Chapter 6 (4) It would if total water in the market was set AFTER setting aside "social" water (Intro)

The book is short -- 100 pages :)

themodder6662 karma

Wouldn't privatization of water remove all externalities (no more pollution) and clear up disputes regarding water? Would this be a good way to go?

davidzet2 karma

No. It's not possible, due to non-excl characteristics. Read pp 7-8 in my book. The commons will always be with us, so we need to manage them too!

Emperor_of_Cats2 karma

From what I understand, water for agricultural use costs the same as water for people, which is often below the actual value.

Is this correct or was I misled? Do you believe water for agricultural use should be charged at a true market value?

davidzet2 karma

Two different markets in location and quality. That said, there are MISSING markets that would let farmers sell water to cities, thereby reducing scarcity issues in cities.

The tap water you drink -- like water used for irrigation -- is FREE. People are paying for delivery/treatment systems.

From my book: Water supply works the same way. The cost of supply depends on water’s origin, quality, distance, and so on. Cost falls when pumps get more ecient, but it rises when raw water is dirtier. Taking technology as given, higher prices can pay for deeper pumping, worker overtime, and other means of increasing supply. Can we supply our way out of scarcity? We can spend money on new supply, but that supply will be overwhelmed by additional demand if consumers do not pay the full cost of delivering their water.

steezeesmith1 karma

Hello, first off thanks for your research, you obviously have invested many hours into this field.

I'm an Environmental Science student, and I'm curious to know what your ideas are for freshwater preservation and cleaning. I've seen many opinions on cleaning up ocean waters, but how can we keep our lakes, rivers, and aquifers clean so that we assuredly have access to safe fresh water, and reverse the damage done by hydrocarbons to replenish the ecosystems dependent on those waterways?

davidzet3 karma

ps/Much of the eastern US has problems with polluted groundwater ... due to agricultural chemicals and fertilizers...

davidzet3 karma

Big question (and one that you're probably more qualified to answer :).

The main issue will be volume/exchange rates. Rivers are fast flowing and thus faster to dilute or carry away pollutants (classic "solution to pollution is dilution"). Lakes can be very fragile as they are usually terminal for flows and it's hard to move their sediments. Groundwater is by far the worst because their flows are are 10-1000x slower than lakes (which are slower than rivers).

So... (1) Stop new pollution. (2) Move sources out of the drainage area if possible (big issue for oil/fracking/mining industries, esp. when the regulators trust them (!) or allow them to escape liability). (3) Monitor and hope. Lots of ecosystems are surprisingly resilient, esp when you consider how bacteria and other species can adapt to the new (even if crappy) environment.

I've written on the "moral hazard" of polluters, after the big spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority (pdf), as well as criticizing Alberta's regulators for laxity.

goalslammer3 karma

/u/steezeesmith may be more qualified, but only /u/davidzet is framed in blue on this thread. :)

davidzet2 karma

Bring on the steezee!

StrangeCaptain1 karma

I live an hour south of Flint, MI


Question mark to avoid autodeletion?

StrangeCaptain1 karma

You are missing a little bit of info.

they didn't switch from Lake Huron to The Flint River exactly.


the project was a cash grab sold as an Economic Improvement "wouldn't you rather buy water locally from that Lake right over there?, and then we wouldn't have to pay as much as we pay the City of Detroit 100 Miles away (technically I think water came from Huron but the City of Detroit owned it) We can create our own Water authority and you'll pay less!"


They (voted and) switched from the City of Detroit Municipal (and State taken over (not a real term)) Water system 3 years before the Lake Huron project was scheduled to be completed.

The City of Detroit gave Flint 1 year notice that they would shutoff the supply

As a temporary plan the City of Flint Switches to the Flint River (which was abandoned as a water supply decades ago because of contamination by the auto industry)

all hell breaks loose...

Detailed Timeline from the Detroit Free Press


davidzet3 karma

Totally agree with that timeline. My post was a proposal of what to do about it, i.e., leaving the now ruined system for Detroit. There's too much "fight to restore" mentality in the US, sometimes (New Orleans being a huge example).

StrangeCaptain5 karma

yeah, I wasn't trying to correct you, I think the you point you make is valid if purposely absurd.

You are inherently indicating that the Detroit system is:

A. Also not ruined

B. Capable of supporting whatever % of people accept the plan

These are huge (and likely incorrect) assumptions, also the obvious fallacy that Economics operates in for argument purposes where populations are fluid.

it's once thing to say "Pay everyone to move" but it's another to actually make it happen, New Orleans didn't have any choice, you can't "rebuilt" a ghetto, without a physical removal of the neighborhoods of Flint it's not the same thing.

additionally you are leaving out the obvious monetary implications of the project, people are pocketing 100's of Millions of Dollars to "fix" the water system

davidzet2 karma

Fun to chat...

(A) Detroit's system is better than Flint's at the moment. (B) Detroit is at 40% of max population, even with decayed infra.

The $$ to fix mafia is truly sad, as "payment to leave" might help people out. Some folks were better off without NOLA

StrangeCaptain2 karma

great article!

For "System" I was referring more to the City of Detroit's ability to serve it's population, not just their Water (Which I use everyday).

and as far as 40% of the max population, that's fantastically out of context. the "Max" population was 70 years ago, the idea that the City itself could support even half of that is dubious at best.

There is a reason that the City of Detroit lost population, and much like Flint it's not Natural Disaster Related.

Also sending people from the Ghetto of Flint to (one of) the Ghetto's of Detroit isn't really the same as the fluidity of the New Orleans population leaving for other Cities.

VERY few cities rank as poor with respect to opportunity etc. as Detroit and Flint just happens to be one of them, this is a very unique part for the country with respect to post-industrial poverty.

I would guess that we have several of the top 50 worst cities (in various categories) in the US right here in Michigan, and it doesn't take a lot of searaching to figure out why.





basically anywhere there was an automotive assembly plant that employed a HUGE chunk of the population and made up a significant chuck of the local economy before closing up and moving away.

but now we're talking about more than water, whcih was kind of my point in the first place. The Flint Water crisis exists in context that I suspect is difficult for many outside of the Rust Belt to fully comprehend, yet it's crucial to understanding what went wrong, which is really just one example of the challenges this region of the world faces.

davidzet2 karma

I'm totally onboard with your point. Company towns can be madly useful or destructive (theory of monopolies). The question, to me, is whether it's not a good idea to think about relocation. Maybe, perhaps, use some of the rescue $ to let people make choices. Some would love to leave. That's why I'm a fan of Basic Income, e.g., rather than various rescues and bailouts.

123full1 karma

What is going to happen, if, the water reservoir in Nebraska, and other states, runs out?

davidzet1 karma

Cities will prob get water over farmers, but farmers might "take" it from groundwater (if that's not measured), thereby screwing "the environment and the future."

rstonex1 karma

Hello from California. I've read multiple arguments from the ag lobby here that makes the case that water that runs into the ocean is wasted water. What would be the ecological consequences if we captured all water from the Sacramento or San Joaquin rivers, rather than letting it run into the delta?

edit: example: http://joeforamerica.com/2015/04/california-dumps-trillion-gallons-fresh-water-ocean-declares-water-shortage/

davidzet3 karma

Those folks are ignoring the function of water flows in wetlands that will collapse if they are dried out. Read this to see how that's played out in the past.

two_off1 karma

How big of a concern is it that water is now going to be drawn from the Great Lakes?

davidzet2 karma

Not a concern as long as the Great Lakes Compact is enforced.

tuscabam1 karma

What is a no bullshit assessment in regards to the timeframe that a major fresh water crisis could happen? I don't mean a regional drought, I'm talking widespread affect. Multiple countries/continents in peril.

davidzet1 karma

Well, I tend to say that's not going to happen, as local water management is much more important, BUT there's a non trivial chance that climate change will wreck a LOT of exiting "institutions" for managing water, by bringing "new" floods, drought, etc. to areas unprepared for it. That's why, e.g., Sao Paulo almost ran outa water -- "unexpected drought".

The Life plus 2 meters project is ALL ABOUT those scenarios, so add it to FB if you want to read the visions when they start coming out in Sep.

pumpkin_pasties1 karma

I live in California, and I keep seeing posts claiming that the draught will be "fixed" by 2019. I was under the impression that the draught was more-or-less permanent, and that California would be in a constant position of water deficiency. Will there ever be an "end" or is draught the new normal?

davidzet4 karma

There's big difference between drought and shortage. I summarize this as "nature makes a drought, man makes a shortage" so CA has to adapt its water management systems for less, rather than mode demand.

forensiceagle1 karma

I believe that as the climate changes and the world continues to heat, we can expect an alteration of the water cycle where more water is evaporated and therefore precipitates too. So in the long-term, we can probably expect more precipitation.

davidzet2 karma

Except in the wrong places and intensities. S California is likely to dry out more with less rain and higher temps.

Atropine11381 karma

If you had a big magic marker and could add or cross anything you wanted out, what would you do to the Colorado River Compact?

davidzet1 karma

Replace X AF per state with X % per state.

Bonus: I'd leave more water for the CO R Delta and let water rights holders trade across state lines (a la Australia).

Curiosity131 karma

What legally do think should be done by our legislatures to ensure fair access to water for everyone in the future?

davidzet1 karma

Allow the price of water to reflect the cost of delivery (fiscal stability) and water scarcity (enviro sustainability), THEN help poor people with THAT cost. "Free" water is often abused/taken by the rich, e.g., in cities where the free water services go to formal buildings but slums are left to hang. Chile has pursued the model I described with success (99% urban water supply).

WeRinAfghan4Heroin1 karma

How do you feel about land-based aquaculture?

davidzet1 karma

Meh. Maybe better than oceans based, in terms of pollution, but LOTS of energy used.

realged131 karma

After what happened at the White Water Center in in Charlotte, should there be a bigger concern about how they filter and use water or just a freak occurrence?

davidzet1 karma

Yes, there should. Sadly "more regulations" don't mean anything when the staff is unwilling/unable to do whatever it takes to ensure safety.

gangslang1 karma

What are your thoughts on commoditization of air? Being sold to China and India?

davidzet1 karma

Not gonna happen as long as it's cheaper to filter there. (Same is true with sending water from Alaska to California. Cheaper to desalinate in CA.)

chijourno1 karma

Hi, do you know of a map that shows where people should and should not move to inside the US to maintain access to fresh water? I have a friend who is planning to retire in Arizona, and that strikes me as a stupid idea given climate realities.

davidzet1 karma

Look at annual rainfall. There's a line that excludes the SW and includes, e.g., the Great Lakes.

theduderina1 karma

How often would you guess water that we drink has been recycled? Not including natural evaporation and rain.

davidzet1 karma

Someone answered that in an ELI5, saying "statistically" that we drink the same water molecules all the time...

michugana1 karma

Have you ever looked at the recent severe water shortages in Puerto Rico? If so, what are your impressions on the causes and possible solutions?

davidzet3 karma

No. My generic advice is that someone is NOT paying the full cost of their water use/pollution. Politicians might be their friends.

PureRandomness5291 karma

If I wanted to invest in a publicly traded company in the business of water, who would you recommend?

Edit: also, would you recommend investing in companies that trade in commodity water?

davidzet1 karma

No and no :)

lostpatrol1 karma

Would you say that water associated stocks are a good investment? Do you own any?

davidzet1 karma

No and no. Too much political risk

Cat-of-damehood1 karma

How does it feel to live below the sealevel? :)

And did you know the Hydrology master at the VU? It uses to be really focused on the physical side of water (calculating, experiments with water) - do you do any of those things or are you more a bookskind of researcher?

davidzet1 karma

Not bad, as long as the pumps are working :)

I don't know that master, but it's a good idea. (Those students should read my book, to get a little economics :). I don't do science, but I do do applied policy.

SeryaphFR1 karma

I've heard before that the ongoing process of desertification will leave approx. the lower third of Spain as a desert similar to the Sahara.

Is this true?

As beautiful as southern Spain is, I would find this to be an enormous tragedy.

davidzet1 karma

No idea. Climate change will determine what happens.

pandabush1 karma

I hope this isn't too technical, but does Arrow's impossibility theorem ever pose any issues with the allocation of non-excludable water resources?

I know that, classically, the Pareto efficient allocation of public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous) require some form of Lindahl pricing or other mechanism. But would the issues that arise from voter interaction make it such that the mechanism is not implementable?

davidzet2 karma

Hahahaha... Not my strong suit, but... I've suggested an (incentive compatible) Lindahl system for water allocation here, but my fall back is that politics -- as the Dutch, Singaporeans have shown -- can work for good water management. (Israel and Chile have complications with the Palestinians and nature, respectively.)

BitterJD1 karma

Has anyone thought to adapt the logic of the negawatt market to the water crisis? Think "anti-acre-feet," or something similar? Seems like there's room for a middle man to profit so long as the cost of the hypothetical savings would be less than the cost of -- say -- building or repairing existing desalination plants.

davidzet2 karma

You're right, but it's tough to get those ideas adopted when "just build more supply" is the competition.

PrymeTyme311 karma


davidzet2 karma

It is case by case. In the midwest, wells are getting dangerous due to agricultural pollution (unlike 50 years ago), so "city water' should be safer. Bu then there are places like Flint (I think there are more out there, but tests are not looking for all dangers).

Im_homer_simpson1 karma

California exported around 60 billion dollars worth of articulation around the world in 20014/15. About 6 billion in almonds alone. My question is don't you think that's a lot of "water" that we are sending overseas?

davidzet1 karma

"articulation"? Look up CA Ag facts and refine this Q?

cryarbrough1 karma

Hello /u/davidzet, thanks for doing this AMA! My wife and I are looking to move to a new state, and one of the cons is that the state is in a desert, and is running out of water. Much of the area we're looking to go uses well water, so my question is what happens when a (U.S.) state runs out of water? Is that issue offset by well water, or is that part of the whole?

davidzet1 karma

You should have a LONG HARD talk with your neighbors and the community water managers. Some places will make it while others do not (e.g., Tucson vs Phoenix)

That said, there's nothing that beats rain :)

pipsdontsqueak1 karma

Hi David, thanks for doing this. To what degree is water scarcity in certain regions a distribution problem rather than a scarcity problem? Are there measures that are being taken to ensure equitable distribution of clean water globally?

davidzet3 karma

Globally is too large. Within basin is a challenge. You're RIGHT that "the poor" do not get water while the rich do, but it's usually the result of corruption more than poverty. Read about Phnom Penh

034440091 karma

How are we running out of clean water?

Everyone knows the water life cycle diagram which shows the natural path water takes on earth so where is it coming out of that loop or is it becoming so contaminated it can't be separated from the pollutants?

davidzet2 karma

Spend more and you can shorten the cycle (literally toilet to treatment to tap)

Code-Scrub1 karma

I am really interested in studying environmental science, but I imagine it's dreadfully depressing.

What, if any, encouraging advice can you give to people trying to get into the science of climate change and environmental desasters? Is there any reason to be optimistic about where the world is going right now?

davidzet2 karma

Tough one. Focus on little victories, like picking trash off the street or growing better food.

You should track the Life Plus 2m project (above)

Augenis1 karma

Hello there! I am a redditor from Lithuania, a country which is (not really) famous for having large reserves of ground and surface drinkable water, to the point where we only pretty much use our own sources for all our water needs, from households to farming. Anyway, what's the chance of the water situation across the globe growing terrible enough that, for us, exporting clean water would become a profitable business?

davidzet2 karma

Pretty low for water, higher for stuff from water (i.e., food :)

Protect your land/farmers from big CAP policies.

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