WaterInTheWest: technical solutions to California’s water crisis

Stanford’s NewImageWaterInTheWest program is an important resource for anyone wishing to study technical solutions to the California water crisis. E.g., consider the possibility of artificial groundwater recharge?

Now in its third year, the current drought reminds us that California’s water supplies are limited. Calls are growing louder to enlarge dams – or build new ones – to expand the state’s water storage capacity. But far less attention is given to a cheaper but less visible option – storing water under our feet.

Groundwater storage represents both a practical solution to the state’s additional water storage needs and a tool to help manage groundwater more sustainably. Groundwater levels are continuing to decline across the state, not just from California’s current drought, but from decades of chronic overuse. Augmenting water supply through recharge into aquifers presents a cost-effective way of increasing the availability of groundwater for the inevitable dry times ahead.

There are so many water-related resources that I won’t attempt to summarize. Go to the WaterInTheWest site, explore. Then you will be better-equipped to address the really-big challenge: political change. 

We know from Economics 101 that any less-than-infinite water supplies will be squandered unless water is fully priced at its economic value (i.e., marginal cost equals marginal value). My understanding of the political challenge is that agriculture was given nearly-free access at the beginning of the water infrastructure development. The farmers are politically powerful enough to (so far) defeat every market-pricing initiative. Since agriculture consumes 80% of CA water we know that fiddling with household consumption is another “feel good” policy. Once California water consumers have to pay market prices, then technical solutions like artificial groundwater recharge become financeable.

That political change is possibly more difficult than getting US, EU, China, India, and Brazil to agree to a harmonized carbon tax. So the chance of a sensible CA water policy solution is approximately zero until things get seriously bad: perhaps when there are crop failures and people dying because they no longer have adequate access to sanitation and clean drinking water. That seems to be how democracies make unpleasant changes – at the cliff edge, or over the cliff.

5 thoughts on “WaterInTheWest: technical solutions to California’s water crisis

    • Thanks Will. Have you seen any analysis of the economics for a basin – e.g., Murray-Darling? By that I mean projections of future water costs assuming water purchasers pay the full cost of managing a sustainable resource?

      I’ve looked briefly at The Basin Plan for the Murray-Darling and sub-topic of fees and modeling: Modelling the economic effects of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan [PDF]. It’s a bit like a lay person reading a medical journal – a high risk of misunderstanding.

      What I was hoping to find would support a conclusion like “At a 2020 average price of $P per cubic meter we estimate that sustainable supply will balance demand”. Comparing that to today’s price we can see that price increases of X times are required if all subsidies are eliminated. I don’t know if X is order of 10 or 100.

    • Thank you – I’ve download the study. From the introduction you linked I found this surprising bit:

      There is currently 6,544 gigalitres (GL or billion litres) under license for possible extraction from groundwater out of a total estimated sustainable reserve of 29,173 GL.

      Surely that doesn’t mean “there is no Australian water problem”? Perhaps it means that over the Australian continent reserves are adequate, but not necessarily in the high consumption zones?

      • Yes the reserves are not necessarily in places where it is accessible or cost effective to utilise. I’m just getting into this science myself so I am learning. Water infrastructure is a problem. Getting water (ground or surface) to where it needs to be used is a challenge. Occasionally you read of someone (usually a politician) proposing “there’s plenty of rain in the Top End. Why don’t we just build a big pipeline from the Kimberley to Perth?” or similar. But moving water that far is expensive and has to be weighed up against desalination.

Comments are closed.