Drinking in Private

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"It is a little known fact that the United States today uses far less water per person, and less water in total, than we did twenty-five years ago."

After Tyler Cowen piqued my interest with the above quote, I dug into my New Yorker backlog to read an article about the world's water supply from last week's issue ("The Last Drop," October 23). The quote is from water expert Peter Gleick.

You can't get the article online, but you can read an interview with its author, Michael Specter. Asked about the morality of private control of water distribution, Specter had this to say:

I am not one of those who believe that there is any moral issue here. Privatization is neither good nor bad; it's a question of who profits and what people pay. If a private company could take over the water system of Delhi (or any other city), fix the pipes, and deliver water at an affordable price, why is that worse than letting a government control the water when it has proved incapable of doing the job properly?

The New Yorker has been on this beat for awhile, with a relatively fretful piece from 2002 here. Ron Bailey takes up the theme here.

NEXT: Save Me From Myself: Poor Little Yachtsman Edition

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  1. I wonder, does the Cowen quote refer only to domestic use, or is he taking industrial and agricultural use into account as well?

  2. We?ve always innovated beyond our expectations, especially when faced with scarcity… … If there were a breakthrough and we could figure out an efficient way to process seawater, that would solve a lot of problems.

    There are ways of processing raw sewage back into perfectly useable, drinkable water- but here in San Diego, the “ick” factor has killed its being implemented a couple of times.

  3. joe,

    The quote is not actually Cowen’s; it’s Cowen quoting the article. I read the same article last week, and it is talking about all uses of water, not just domestic.

  4. I am feeling rather parch-ed.

  5. I’m doing my part by drinking more beer.

    – Josh

  6. I’m always interested in water issues because out west everyone lives by Mark Twain’s words……..not for drinkin’, it’s for fightin’ over… or something like that.

    In Ca we are constantly being nagged about using too much water. The naughty secret that nobody talks about is that agriculture uses all the water. If every household in the state cut water consumption by 10% it would reduce overall water consumption by 1%, yet the water nannies still harrass us to turn off the faucet while scrubbing our toofies. Which I do anyway, but still…..

    And on a slightly different note as my father used to say about France and Italy they drink wine over there because you can’t drink the water. Maybe that’s the answer.

  7. In Ca we are constantly being nagged about using too much water. The naughty secret that nobody talks about is that agriculture uses all the water.

    My first suspicion was seeing all the signs on I-5 through the middle of the state. My thought was “thou dost protest too much.”

  8. Let’s be careful here. The quote is from Paul Gleick, who may do excellent water-use research but his ultimate goal is central planning of water use.

  9. Earlier in my career I worked for a water and wastewater treatment equipment company. I posted here at reason, a few years ago, a short blurb on water privatization and the potential of market pricing to encourage conservation of water, which I repost here ( I copied the text from an article on Slashdot, so moy original H&R post might be very slightly different):

    The answer is not to require water saving measures through legislation but to make people respect the water they have through prices. It’s the perfect incentive for people to consider just how important water is to them.

    I work in the water treatment business, and I’ve visited water treatment plants all over North America. The thing that is common to all water supplies is that the customers think they have some sort of a “right” to unlimited clean water without sacrifice. They grumble and complain and write woefully misinformed letters to their newspapers when the local water company attempts to raise rates to cover infrastructure improvements or cost-of-living salary increases.

    What people don’t see is that treating water to make it drinkable costs money. If you could see the way water infrastructure in the U.S. and Canada is degrading and how the water industry (especially production and distribution companies) are being forced to ignore staffing and capital improvement needs just because their customers vote for the government to force low rates, you’d understand.

    If water prices were allowed to fluctuate more realistically, people wouldn’t waste so much of it. Really, in the U.S. and Canada, people pay over US$1.00 for a silly little bottle of water that isn’t even guaranteed to have as good quality as tapwater, and then they balk at rate increases of a few pennies per thousand gallons!

    If water prices more accurately reflected the true costs of production and distribution, people would think twice about watering their desert lawns. They’d go out and buy water saving appliances on their own, since it would directly translate into savings on their next water bill.

    The only thing compulsory water conservation accomplishes is building a bloated bureaucracy of bill checkers, house inspectors and intrusions into the private lives of citizens. Realistic water rates encourage conservation, reduce the load on local governments who have to redirect resources from fire departments, roads, etc., to enforcement of water use regulations, and above all, give consumers more respect for the vital natural resource they’ve been pouring down the drain ever since Roman times.

  10. Dead, good point about the signs in farm country. Now I’off to your big city for a meeting this morning. And I see our famous marine layer is mucking up the morning sun shine.

    DB, good point. Our water district instituted tiered pricing during the drought a decade ago or so. As soon as the drought was over, back came regular pricing and a memo about how tiered pricing didn’t work anyway (we tried it, it didn’t work).

    I blame the schools because they all teach that we are captive consumers who are forced to pay whatever the seller wants because the market can’t possibly work.

  11. I would only add to the above post that water rates tend to be tiered, higher usage increases your rate per cubic meter.

    In true recent American spirit, many towns are letting private companies improve their systems, then balking on their lease and reaquiring their water systems through eminent domain.

  12. I blame the schools because they all teach that we are captive consumers who are forced to pay whatever the seller wants because the market can’t possibly work.

    I think most people realize that the free market works only with products that a certain % of people are willing to do without.

    Drinking water is not one of those products.

  13. In the late ’70’s we had a severe drought in Northern California, it was no joke and most people tried to use less water. A popular sign in people’s bathrooms:

    If it’s brown, flush it down.
    If it’s yellow, let it mellow.

  14. I think most people realize that the free market works only with products that a certain % of people are willing to do without.

    We have a pretty free market in food, so I’m not sure there is a “necessities” exception to free markets.

    Now, the free market only works with products that have more than one supplier, that’s for damn sure. Whether tap water is a ‘natural monopoly’ due to the required infrastructure I couldn’t say.

  15. We have a pretty free market in food, so I’m not sure there is a “necessities” exception to free markets.

    Not really – the government both subsidizes agriculture and issues food stamps to the poor.

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