Water & Power
Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 04:51PM
Toby Considine in Background, Re-thinking things

Water policy is a bit afield for me, but sometimes it is worthwhile to look at the spaces nearby to see better, what one works with every day.

Water is in always in the news here in the southeastern U.S. Winter rains have done little more than put the ongoing drought in a holding pattern, not getting any worse, but not yet getting any better.

The towns in the triangle are running low. Mandatory water restrictions are in effect across the Research Triangle. Mandatory restrictions do not seem to result in any actual reduction for most users. Neighborhoods in Durham are still arguing over whether their homeowner’s associations still legally require them to water their lawns.

The most recent restrictions do seem to be cutting into certain businesses. As they pay for their domestic water with unemployment checks, I am sure that the displaced workers appreciate that their domestic water is still priced for affordable lawn watering.

I am keeping an eye on Durham, which sank to less than a month of drinkable water, and suddenly discovered that it had a larger water supply, now designated a “Premium” and “Normal”. I guess it’s a lot like the quality electrical service I have at home, which is up all the time if you don’t count the flickers.

The water systems don’t appear to price their product high enough for capital renewal. There is more than one main break a day in Raleigh—one reported noted dismissively that in the last one “only 200,000 gallons” were lost. All spending is determined politically, and the mayor has declared that in 2008, more pipes will be replaced. Again, it sounds like to power grid, which has plenty of money for storm repair, but no money for storm proofing.

Price signals are even worse for water than they are for electricity. To save money, the water bills are sent out every two months. On a recent plane ride, my neighbor told me how her water heater leaked when she was out of town for a few days. The heater was in the attic, and the outflow saturated the walls and created a pool in her crawl space. Three pumper trucks were required to drain under her house. She moved out for six weeks while the walls were rebuilt. The water company did not notice and her bill was under $160.

Water pricing is kept artificially low, that is why there is no capital renewal. Since prices are how we communicate scarcity and value, end users treat water as an abundant valueless resource. Regulators occasionally step in with pretend solutions that are despised (like the flush-twice toilet). Real innovations, which would be driven by price signals, do not occur.

Water may soon be recognized as a more critical issue than energy, causing us more degradation of life style sooner than does global warming. Rarely do people have some sort of event that consumes an order of magnitude more electricity than usual, as did my flight-mate above. Perhaps we should plan now to add AMI (Automated Metering Infrastructure) to water as we are now doing to electricity. If so, we should commit now to an open interface that included the customers.

And while we are at it, why not collect customer email addresses and cell phones as well, and email/text them when their water use suddenly shoots up in a sustained way. They can always ignore it if they wish.

Let me see. Scarce resource creeping toward a crisis. Inadequate capital expenditures driven by misguided progressive populism. Too-low prices causing society to substitute regulation for innovation. Nothing in common here.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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