The sin of profligate water use

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Victoria currently has level 2 water restrictions as explained here.  That means that households in Melbourne are: only permitted to hand water their gardens on two days per week; are not permitted to wash their cars with a garden hose in their driveway; and are banned from watering lawns with drinking water.  You might think that is because water needs to be rationed to avoid running out of it.  But in fact, Melbourne’s large dams are over 60% full, the long term forecast is for average or above average rainfall, a pipeline has been built from the Goulburn River to Melbourne and a 200 GL per year desalination plant will be completed later this year, which could be itself supply one third of Melbourne’s (unrestricted) water usage.

We can say for sure that draconian water restrictions are not needed to prevent Melbourne running out of water.  Well, maybe its because water must be preserved lest desalinated water is used in the future, and desalinated water is bad for the environment.  In the full scheme of sins against the environment desalinated water from the new Wonthaggi plant is not first order.   The footprint of the plant is about the same as a medium size shopping centre.  The plant will emit 240 GL of hyper-saline (twice the salt) water into the ocean each year.  The idea that super saline emissions of that scale into the open ocean does substantial damage to the environment is just wilfully stupid.  The extra CO2 emissions will be offset by wind power and will come under the ambit of the new carbon tax.  In any case, we might note that driving a car to an authorised car wash more than 2 kms away will use cause more emissions that washing the car with desalinated water from a hose at home.

So why does Victoria still have such draconian water restrictions? — because using water is a sin.  It is immoral.  It doesn’t matter that we won’t run out of water, or that the damage to the environment is an order of magnitude less than other unregulated activities (like flying to overseas holidays), it is just immoral in its own right.  Why is using water immoral, profligate and anti-social and therefore in need of close government prescription?  It just is. It can’t be explained.  It is a natural law — part of the immutable dichotomy of good and evil since the creation of the universe.  It is just immoral to consume water that isn’t absolutely necessary to sustain life, and therefore it should be banned.

Western Australia has a highly immoral water policy.  Dam levels are at only 25% of capacity (filling up with heavy winter rain), but the water restrictions are modest — sprinklers can only be turned on two days per week in summer.  Otherwise there are no restrictions on washing cars or watering lawns — how shocking.  WA has a second desalination plant coming on line later this year, which is why the government of that dissolute state is not very concerned about running out of water.

24 Responses to "The sin of profligate water use"
  1. Melbourne is actually on stage 2 water restrictions so gardens can be watered on alternate days, cars can be washed in their driveways provided you use a high pressured cleaning device, and pools can be filled under certain conditions.

  2. “So why does Victoria still have such draconian water restrictions?” Is sin the only answer you could come up with?
    What about the fact that Melbourne’s population is likely to double, to 7 million, by 2050? That climate change will affect rainfall in unpredictable ways, but will almost certainly increase evaporation? That we water supplies we’re tapping now are pretty much it, with no more room from growth?
    The water restrictions are a sensible policy designed to get us through the next few decades. We need to bank as much water as possible and encourage good habits while we can.

  3. We have this issue in Brisbane. The process for dealing with it irritates me.
    1. The cost structure. My water bill comprises a $165 “connection fee” and $10 for water. If I double my water it goes up to $20 or something like that. Rather than just charging a price per L that includes the “connection fee” which would incentise people to actually decrease their consumption if that is the goal.
    2. If you want people to use less, increase the price rather than put in restrictions. Some people will just decide the lawn and caviar isn’t worth it.

  4. Mitch
    Thanks, yes level 2, not level 3a.  
    Sam

    Matt
    If the population is going to grow to 7 million, why don’t we start rationing electricity so that we ‘encourage good habits’?.  Or, ban holiday flights out of Melbourne Airport to ‘encourage good habits’? 

  5. Two reasons, both about politics.
    1) because the North-South pipeline is closed, because us salt of the Earth farmers don’t like them rotten city slickers stealing our water.  Don’t they know that they’ll starve and go broke without us virtuous farmers?
    2) Water restrictions are politically popular, because they make people feel like they’re “doing their bit”.  Common good, we’ll win the war one Victory Garden at at time, etc. etc. etc.

  6. Why don’t we start rationing electricity? Because in the electricity market both suppliers and (industrial) consumers respond well to price incentives, so market mechanisms work well. Same applies in the airline market.
     
    In the water market, supply is pretty much fixed, and end-use prices would have to rise enormously to make a difference in consumption. Rationing works well because it changes behaviour explicitly, and there’s no real downside apart from dirtier cars and browner gardens. Power blackouts and no flights out of Melbourne would lead to chaos.

  7. Matt
    Supply is no more fixed for water than it is for electricity.  It is no harder to manufacture water than it is to manufacture electricity.  There are actually very similar commodities in that respect.  Electricity is main variable input to the production of water.   

  8. Sam,
    it sounds to me like Victorians are suffering a sentimental hangover from the drought.  Water consumption was “bad” when water was in short supply and that mindset has outlasted the water shortage.

  9. The simple response here is that stage 2 water restrictions aren’t draconian, particularly considering its the middle of winter. The purpose of the restrictions is to preserve as much water from catchments as possible without resorting to desalination plants. I don’t know anyone who would object to stage 2 restrictions being made permanent, or frankly anyone who would even notice. This isn’t really an issue that requires this kind of attention, particularly since you haven’t shown any evidence that the restrictions are a significant economic drain.

  10. Shalmaneser
    Any regulation that can be rescinded without anyone noticing should be rescinded.   

  11. Yep, Sam is right.  There’s too much faux morality and not enough straight economics in this argument.

    I’ve never seen the case for restrictions even in droughts, let alone now.  If water supplies are low, then put in a massive drought levy per litre, along with an advertising campaign to tell people just how much watering a lawn will now cost them.  I guarantee that’ll change behaviour.  And such a levy is highly progressive to boot (hint: it’s not yer average unemployed person who has big gardens and private swimming pools).  But if water levels are currently high, then just price the water according to the infrastructure cost.  There is simply no ADDITIONAL cost to a bit of wasted water at the present time.

    The bit about saving water for when Melbourne has 7m people is surely a joke – if we don’t use it today’s water will have evaporated and been recycled as rain many times over by then.

    It’s far more sensible to borrow to build the needed infrastructure and then pay off the loans using a per litre levy on those future 7m people – which is exactly the traditional practice in utilities provision.  If environmental constraints mean we can’t build the infrastructure on the scale we’d like, that too is best and simply managed by pricing future water appropriately to reduce consumption.  Both case are very much user pays, but in neither of them do present-day water restrictions make any sense at all.

  12. Just to add a bit of focus to our collective emotional way of managing water, the opportunity cost of water for washing a car at a car wash could easily be of the order of $50 / kl, and similar extreme values for public water fountains that recycle water et al. But I suppose such understanding is easily ignored in framing much of our public policy where faith is seen as more relevant than science in simple issues.
    Hence little chance for more complex issues like extracting economic rent from miners or land owners.

  13. Water regulators try to do too much when setting prices.  As well as efficiency (marginal cost pricing) they consider equity issues (everyone uses water and we don’t want to disadvantage the poor) and information issues (average cost pricing is often used).
    So part of the problem is that raising prices is not seen as a palatable way of regulating water use, hence the need for prescriptive demand management.
    My feeling is also that this sort of demand management is seen as a long run ‘attitude shift’.  The regulators think that the only way of ensuring people conserve water is to drum it into them over years.  Switching between different levels every few months depending on dam levels wouldn’t achieve this attitude shift.

  14. How quickly some city folk forget the 15-year drought. 60% is not nearly enough to ensure continued water supply in a decade-long time frame. Also, you can’t just assume that we can build desal plants willy nilly to make up the difference, look how expensive the first one turned out.

    La Nina won’t last forever, Sam. You’re not doing much to disavow the common view of economists sitting in their ivory towers, out of touch with reality on the (dry) ground.

  15. m0nty: Sam’s point is that there are other mechanisms to manage demand for water.
    Price signals, for instance, which work perfectly well in Australia for many other essential commodities (food, for instance).

  16. I think the reason that water consumption is “sinful” is that ministers in past Governments were terrified about Melbourne running out of water prior to the previous election and were terrified of raising prices.

    With the desal plant coming on stream next June we will have plenty of water but, yes, we will have to pay for it! What a surprise! 

    My guess is that irrigators and country people generally will become more relaxed over rural-urban water trades in the years to come.  Of course they will be sill stuck with the desalination plant  so the cockies will have forced urban dwellers to drink expensive water while continuing to consume cheap water themselves. 

  17. The standard efficiency results from using price signals can break down if prices become so high that budget constraints bind at subsistence levels for some consumers.  I’m not saying that this would happen if water was priced efficiently at the moment, but it is feasible if we return to serious long term drought.

  18. That’s fair, Evan, but there have been any number of proposed solutions to deal with that while still maintaining the power of price signals. 
    One easy solution is to give everybody a free allocation of a subsistence level of water (say, 75 litres per day) while increasing prices beyond that.
    Victoria already has tiered domestic water pricing.

  19. Hi – Could you please link to the source for this? “the long term forecast is for average or above average rainfall”. Thanks

  20. JJ
    The source is an ABC TV show I saw the other day.  Are you concerned it is not true.  I don’t think it is a controversial statement.  By long term I mean over the next 2 years.  But, I am happy to remove the assertion if you can demonstrate it is false.   

  21. Water restrictions are built on moralising so that neighbours not inspectors police enforement, which is cheaper and probably more effective. But moralisation takes time to imbed in the culture and cannot be turned on and off, which makes it less efficient than the price mechanism, but more equitable. Now, the counterargument is that equity should all be done through the tax and benefits systems (or equity isn’t something to be valued). But we don’t have a tax and transfer system that is terribly equitable. So if you want acceptable water equity you end up with an inefficient rationing mechansim. Isn’t this sort of stuff similiar to Elinor Ostrom’s work?

  22. I don’t know why water isn’t treated exactly as electricity is — a commodity, in which distribution, but not production is a natural monopoly.  Yesterday it was announced in WA that the Government is proceeding with the third stage of desalinated water production (the doubling of output of the second desalination plant).  After that stage more than 50% of Perth’s water will come from desalination.  I would be happy if the Government in WA went the whole way and provided 100% desalinated water and removed most of the dams on the rivers that flow out of the Darling Scarp (Helena, Canning, Serpentine, Murray and Harvey rivers).  Damming those rivers is more destructive to the environment than desalination.  

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