Thursday, February 12, 2009

Interesting E-mail on Water and Politics in California

I appreciate a thoughtful memo. This email was more interesting than 98% of the stuff that I receive. I can't tell if Wayne is aware that I co-wrote the paper that he comments on below but I appreciate his honesty. An economist would say that the introduction of water markets and flexible pricing for water would go a long way to address his concerns. Farmers of California --- get ready to sell your water endowments to the urbanites! The price of California strawberries is about to go up.

To Matthew Kahn, UCLA

From Wayne Lusvardi, Pasadena, CA

Re Help the Environment, Stay in the City


by Wayne Lusvardi

Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser asserts that people living in cities, especially in the moderate weather of California, may emit relatively less carbon than those in suburbs (see: *Help the Environment, Stay in the City,*, Feb 11 - Glaeser calls this the Green-Brown Paradox.

Glaeser estimates the amount of carbon dioxide that an average household would emit from home heating, driving, electricity, and public transportation in cities versus suburbs. His major finding is that cities, especially in a moderate climate such as Southern California, emit relatively less carbon dioxide than suburbs.

However, steering new development into coastal cities in Southern California also results in unsustainable use of water resources. Cities may emit less carbon (Green) but this forces a reliance on imported water supplies (Blue) instead of more sustainable local groundwater supplies in non-coastal areas. The real paradox is not Green vs. Brown as Glaeser asserts but Green vs. Blue.

Glaeser fails to mention new legislation in California, Senate Bill 375, will divert new development to cities as opposed to the suburbs purportedly to reduce carbon footprints and urban sprawl and promote
*smart growth.*

Under this legislation, water will no longer be gold in California. Rather, cliches about reducing global warming and producing green power will be Californiaʼs new foolʼs gold. Los Angeles is now facing the grim reality of an 85 percent cut in imported water deliveries from Northern California through the California Aqueduct due to a court order to protect the tiny Delta Smelt fish. California should consider how embracing popular cliches about environmental protection, such as Glaeser's, has resulted in what might be called the perfect drought, which stems more from political than natural causes.

SB 375 requires regional planning agencies to put into place sustainable growth plans. It will require that new housing development be shifted from the urban fringe, where groundwater resources are more abundant, such as San Bernardino County, to highly dense urban areas near public transit and light rail lines, such as Los Angeles and Pasadena, where local water sources are patchy and often polluted. The environmental intent of SB 375 is to reduce auto commuter trips, air pollution and gasoline consumption.

However, the legislation will unintentionally result in more reliance on imported water supplies from the Sacramento Delta, Mono Lake and the Colorado River for thirsty cities along Californiaʼs coastline instead of diverting development to inland areas that have more sustainable groundwater resources.

This can be clearly seen by viewing the U.S. Geological Survey map of Groundwater Basins in California. The populous coastal areas of the state have spotty groundwater resources, while the inland areas have the most abundant water basins to sustain new development - see:

SB 375 makes no sense from even a global warming perspective. Higher temperatures are generated in dense urban areas with more buildings and pavement, and less vegetation. Conversely, suburban and urban fringe areas with less hardscape and more vegetation are generally cooler. This is called the Urban Heat Island Effect. Concentrating housing development in already highly dense urban areas will only worsen the urban heat island effect and thus increase spot global warming.

Moreover, by virtue of shifting to reliance on imported water supplies, California will need to buy more imported coal-fired and natural gas-generated electricity to pump that water to urban centers located far from the sources of water. Glaeser doesn't factor in the increased energy demand from imported water into his carbon footprint equation. Nor does he consider that most of the electricity for Southern California is imported from outside the state, creating an alleged carbon footprint in sparsely populated rural areas of the Southwestern United States.

Fortunately, the new law doesnʼt yet mandate local governments to comply with the plans. No real changes are expected until regional planning agencies adopt the sustainable-communities growth policies called for in the law three years from now. However, if cities choose not to comply now, that will allow state regulators to divert state transportation tax funds to compliant cities. That SB 375 is a license for greedy coastal cities in Democratic strongholds along the coast to capture the taxes of inland cities in Republican territory is never mentioned in the media. Environmentalism serves as a cover for politics by other means.

Laws like SB 375 continue dependence on costly imported wholesale water, say at $500 per acre foot (a football field of water one foot high, which is enough to sustain two families per year) compared with cheap local groundwater at roughly $50 per acre foot. Imported water results in a ten-fold "drain" on local economies. That is why water is metaphorically colored gold in the Golden State of California.

That this piece of legislation was passed by green Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and signed by every state legislator representing Los Angeles, and without dissent from local water agencies and even air-quality resource boards, is indicative of how environmental policy is based on powerful political-cultural imagery beyond science and common sense. Incredibly, the implementation of SB 375 will even be granted certain breaks for transit-oriented development under the California Environmental Quality Act.

California is shifting from valuing water as gold to a Foolʼs Gold Rush to reduce global warming and generate green power. Paraphrasing a Latin proverb, (political) hay is more acceptable to a donkey than gold.

Glaeser asserts that there is a paradox is between fewer carbon emissions per average person in cities versus more carbon emissions in suburbs. But the real Green paradox is the trade off between carbon emissions and unsustainable imported water in coastal cities in California.

Note: Wayne Lusvardi worked for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 20-years. The views expressed are his own.