“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” — Thomas Sowell
As Wichita grapples with water issues, it’s important that the city realize that abundance is better than austerity and punishment. Life in Wichita is nicer and more attractive to outsiders when we are able to use a lot of water at a reasonable price. Under an austerity program, for example, our $3.5 million investment in Waltzing Waters sits idle. With abundance, we have “liquid fireworks” and “a significant public improvement intended to encourage further WaterWalk development and give people another reason to come downtown,” according to Wichita city officials.
The strategy we need, therefore, is to increase supply rather than restrict usage. But when officials asked for citizen input, according to city documents, “The public strongly supported water restrictions.” So city officials are likely to implement austerity programs that will be expensive and do little good compared to their costs.
As an example, tomorrow city staff will recommend that the council approve a rebate program for those who install clothes washers, dish washers, and toilets that use less water. Smart irrigation controls are included in the recommendation. The rebate, according to city documents, is “anticipated” to be $100, with a total of $1,000,000 allocated to the rebate program. This means that up to 10,000 appliance purchases could receive the rebate.
How much water will this save, and at what cost? According to Energy Star, a program of the Environmental Protection Agency, a new clothes washer saves eight gallons of water per load compared to an older washer. The same article also says the average family washes 300 loads of laundry per year. Based on these figures, switching to the new washer saves 2,400 gallons per year.
To place this number in context, 2,400 gallons of Wichita water costs: 2,400 gallons times $1.63 per thousand gallons water purchase price, plus 2,400 gallons times $2.88 per thousand gallons sewer usage price, equals $10.82.
(We’re not really concerned with sewer plant capacity at this time, so perhaps we shouldn’t consider that cost. The water cost for 2,400 gallons is $3.91.) With this in mind, the city is considering paying someone $100 to save a resource valued less than $4 per year. This assumes, of course, that the city prices water what it is actually worth.
Another context: If 10,000 of these washers were purchased, the savings would be 24,000,000 gallons of water per year. This is about one-half of Wichita’s average daily usage. This program, then, would save a inconsequentially small amount of water, at the large cost of $1 million. A single extra-hot day in the summer would cancel this entire year’s savings.
Remember too that this cost will not be paid voluntarily. Who wants to pay taxes so that someone else can get a discount on a new washing machine? Those who want their money used for this purpose may do so charitably. A government program is not needed.
Past city initiatives
When Bob Knight spoke to Pachyderm last week, he told the audience that experts told him that we had water for 50 years.
In 1998, the Wichita Eagle reported: “By the end of 1999, the city will have spent $7.6 million trying to determine whether excess flow from the Little Arkansas River can be diverted into the underground aquifer northwest of Wichita. If it works as planned, the city will build the recharge system for $7.2 million, completing the work in 2005 — a year, it estimates, after it will begin experiencing water shortages during extended dry periods.”
The recharge system described in the article is the ASR program, described on its website as “The city of Wichita’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) program is designed to restore the invaluable Equus Beds aquifer and ensure that it remains a bountiful and clean source of water for future generations.”
Phase I of the ASR was completed for $27 million. Phase II was completed for $220 million. So far the city has spent a quarter billion dollars on this project, and we rarely hear it mentioned as a solution to the current water shortage. Citizens ought to insist the city explain the status of the ASR project and why it is not playing a prominent role in solving our water supply problems.
Recognize economic behavior
In discussions on issues like this, people are susceptible to disregarding economic behavior, that is human nature and how people react to the world. As example is this remark gathered during citizen participation: “Restrict watering, but not through rates or watering bans.”
I wonder: How else do we influence behavior? Persuasion? Here’s how well that works, according to another citizen snippet of wisdom: “People love the idea of conservation, as long as it does not affect them.”
Many of the comments lambasted those who waste water, with lawn irrigation mentioned frequently: “People water their yards every day. And they water way too much. Most of the water runs off into the gutters. More water wasted on yards than showers or toilets by far.”
But if these people who water their yard every day are acting with any rationality, we have to conclude that they don’t think they’re wasting water. Someone else may call it waste, but the every-day irrigator is making a trade off as to the value of a nice lawn, the water bill, the cost or hassle of conservation measures, the effort it takes to learn to conserve, and other factors. Each of us does this many times every day in our economic lives. It’s important that the city price water properly so that people are motivated — through their own self-interest — to use water wisely. The decision as to wise use of water needs to be left to each person and family.
Some comments seem to be at cross-purposes: “Clamp down on private outdoor users. We can get through this by appealing to the community spirit.” Which is it this this writer recommends: the carrot or the stick?
Finally, we need to be on the watch for those who want to control the behavior of others in the name of saving the earth through soft environmental terrorism. An example comment of this type: “Control urban sprawl — builders and developers are interested in expansion only — their income. Encourage leveling of population growth an judicious use of resources.”
I wonder if it has occurred to this person that builders and developers can earn income only if they build what people want to buy. Furthermore, warnings of overpopulation have been issued for decades. The desire to control the production of new people is anti-human. And as we’ve seen, “judicious use” is in the eye of the beholder.