We win EPA’s Campus RainWorks Challenge

A big round of applause for our students Lawrence Vulis, Agata Bugala, Uziel Crescenzi, Alexander Fenichell and Deanna Greene for winning the 2016 EPA’s Campus Rainworks Challenge. They developed a master plan (Castor Project) for our Campus to capture rainwater. The Castor Project design is a novel climate-informed, optimal system for campus-wide stormwater management. It gives options to reduce stormwater runoff between 10% to 20% and increases permeable area from 8% to between 9-10%. They also plan to teach college and high school students about stormwater and water conservation. This project is a significant step towards improving stormwater management for New York City and campus sustainability for CCNY.

You can look at the master plan and the design boards here.
We welcome any comments.

 

The History of New York City Water

pepactonArun Ravindranath has published his work on the history of New York City Water supply and the Delaware River Basin Compacts in Water Policy Journal. His work is focused on understanding water risks and how the reservoir systems perform under changing climate and political and institutional constraints. He is developing a framework to assess the dynamics of natural and human systems to inform water allocations and policy. We welcome any comments. Here is a quick summary of the work.

The Delaware River is the longest continuous river in the Eastern United States. The river basin encompasses four states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, covers roughly 13,000 square miles, and supplies more than 15 million people with water for drinking, agriculture and industrial use. The Delaware water release policies are constrained by the dictates of two U.S. Supreme Court Decrees, 1931 and 1954, and the need for unanimity among four states and New York City. Critical stakeholder groups include New York City, a variety of environmental interests, and key water organizations from the four states. The reliance of several entities on upstream water sources has led to competing interests, conflicts, and disputes over the years. Arun, through this investigation, has explored important changes in the allocation rules, key implementation issues surrounding drinking water supply and environmental impacts on the downstream ecosystem, wildlife, and fisheries, and provided context for social value changes.

Image - courtesy of nyc.gov.

A New Demand Drought Index

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Elius Etienne has published his work on droughts in Journal of Hydrology. He led the entire project from data collection on agriculture, climate and water use, to quality control, to developing the drought indices and validating them. The indices that he designed are an improvement over the standardized indices which do not consider water demand. This Demand-Sensitive Drought Index can be used with aggregate demand (like all agriculture) or can be utilized as a disaggregated index for a particular sectors’ water demand. He also derived drought resilience and recovery estimates for the United States. In the context of the current droughts in various parts of the country, this work can aid the policy experts in mapping the potential duration, severity, and recovery of the drought to proposed changes in demand such as agricultural water use changes and domestic supply restrictions. He has developed a website for sharing these findings. The Project App provides the background, databases and the tools and simulation modules for public understanding. He also created a quick five-minute audio slideshow on the demand sensitive drought index and its utility.

Time to Revisit Water Privatization?

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CNN Money recently reported seven publicly traded water utilities that have seen new highs and an average year to date performance of at least 7%. The anticipation that the recent water pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan would initiate several states and municipalities to involve private water utilities for managing their water supply may have motivated the investors to long these stocks. Several of these publicly traded companies are part of the National Association of Water Companies, a consortium of private water companies that provide a broad range of water services. Private water companies serve almost one-quarter of the countries population.

Shika Dalmia of Reason magazine has a comprehensive coverage of the water crisis and the mishaps of the governance at various levels. It started with choosing the less expensive Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) over the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) for a new contract and re-opening the Flint water treatment plant in the interim. Cash-strapped cities like Flint can benefit from privatizing their water utilities as private enterprises would make investments needed to meet the stringent water quality standards. Their long term infrastructure investments would perhaps compensate for the past under-investment in the water infrastructure. Flint particularly has a receding population base with at least a billion dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Perhaps, the first modern privatization of waterworks dates back to 1989 when England and Wales, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, sold ten public water utilities. Caroline Van den Berg from the World Bank, in her article in viewpoint in 1997, reported that these reforms delivered a volume of new investments in water supply systems, full compliance with the drinking water standards and have lead to a higher quality of river water along with more transparent water pricing system.

Privatizing water comes with resistance. The two primary arguments against privatization are the public good and the natural monopoly ideas. Public good by definition has to be non-excludable and non-rival in consumption. Non-excludable for water as good is the fact that the entity providing it cannot exclude the access of water to people who do not pay for it. Nonrival in consumption of water is the fact that one person’s use does not reduce somebody else’s.

Recently, DWSD and Baltimore Water Department (both public water utilities) shut off water for customers with delinquent accounts. Clearly, water as a commodity in not non-excludable in the eyes of public water utilities, especially when they are up against decreasing revenues. Water is also rival in consumption. If I use X gallons of water for my lawn, those gallons of water are not available for my neighbor. One could argue that water supply is unlimited, making it practically non-rivalrous, and hence, the marginal utility of water is zero. Try winning that argument with a farmer in Central Valley, California or resident in San Fransisco. Hence, on both accounts, water as a public good fails.

Monopoly-Man

The nature of water industry, some argue, necessitates a natural monopoly since it requires massive fixed costs and economies of scale in the production of the good. Hence, in the long run, two or more companies that started off operating as competitors, would eventually have to yield to either one that could expand and achieve lower unit costs with increasing output. The inconvenience caused by having to deal with many water and sewer lines underground further supports this argument. It is reasonable for anyone to, therefore, think that there will be one company that will capture the entire market and start exploiting the consumers with higher prices.

Assuming that the monopolistic company has in fact raised the water rates, a rational customer, in the absence of any competing companies (for the time being) will respond to this rate increase through under consumption and rationing –thereby decreasing the revenue for the monopolistic utility. Residents of California, in 1976, have demonstrated a rationing of 40% to 50%, thus drastically reducing the revenues of their respective water districts.  The customer will prioritize his needs and budget the super expensive water supplied by the monopolistic company for essential needs. The client would respond to price increases in the same way as he would to water supply shortages — “conservation.”

He will consider purchasing bottled water if it is cheaper that the current water rate. The price signal is already out, and a different company can provide water trucks to the community at a more competitive rate. Recall that the customer is only stuck with this company as there is no one else who can come into the market, lay the pipes and start providing water. Bottled/truck water is rather mobile for any new company to come into the market. If the rates are exorbitant, to the point that the customer cannot afford any water, he is then compelled to create his own by rainwater harvesting and traditional water purification techniques. Remember, at that price level, his time value of developing water resource for survival is still much cheaper than the water rate he was offered. Price gouging so-called natural monopolies can seldom sustain. Economist Thomas DiLorenzo, in his article on “the myths of natural monopoly” has a comprehensive treatment of this concept, starting with the origins of the term “natural monopoly” in economics.

In the last two years, Flint switched three utilities (all three public) for providing water. DWSD whose contract expired on 2014, the new KWA, which was supposed to provide water from Lake Huron in two years time and the interim water supplier from the Flint River. Suffice to say that this is proof enough to bring in private utilities who would compete for market by providing lower rates and better services. The Department of Environmental Quality of Michigan and the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for ensuring quality checks, might, in fact, be more vigilant on the private companies than their public counterparts. The private companies are also liable to class action lawsuits in the event of such incidents. The municipality, on the other hand, may claim sovereign immunity.

Steve Hanke and Stephen Walters, in 1987, presented the ideas of how a privatized water system can work. They proposed a franchise bidding system where the company wins based on the water rates and services it offers. They also provided examples of private waterworks from France. In the United States, economist Charles Howe, in his national academy of press’s open book in 2002, presented a comprehensive assessment of issues and experiences from privatization of water services.

It is time to revisit these issues and reflect on private water provision in the US.

UN Sustainable Development Science Symposium Talk

On Monday, September 21st, I spoke at the UN Sustainable Development Science Symposium held at CUNY Graduate Center. The circular science seminar series is organized in the context of the opening of the 70th General Assembly of United Nations. My talk was about Securing the Global Water Sustainability and Food Security. Here are some excerpts/key points from the talk:

Where will the food for the 9 billion people we expect on Earth by 2050 come from? The answer to this question depends on where the water and the energy for agriculture will come from. Establishing an economically, environmentally and physically feasible pathway to achieve water, energy and food security in the face of a changing climate is crucial to planetary well-being.

A central hypothesis of this work is that innovation towards agricultural sustainability in countries such as India and China, that have large populations relative to their water, energy and arable land endowment, and yet have opportunity for improvement in productivity metrics such as crop yield per unit water or energy use, can show us the way to achieve global water-food-energy sustainability.

These countries experience a monsoonal climate, which has a high frequency of climate extremes (more floods and droughts, and a short rainy season) relative to the developed countries in temperate climates. Strategies that are resilient to such extremes in monsoonal climates may be of global value in a warmer, more variable world. Much of the future population growth is expected to occur in Africa, S. America and S. Asia. Targeting these regions for higher productivity and resilience is consequently important from a national security perspective as well.

China’s Water Sustainability in the 21st Century

China is facing a water resources crisis with growing concerns as to the reliable supply of water for agricultural, industrial and domestic needs. High rainfall variability (both within the year and across years) and increasing consumptive use across the country exacerbates the situation further and is a constraint on future development. During his visit to New York, Xi Chen worked on examining the overall water situation in China. Obtaining data for such an analysis, especially for all China is certainly a challenging task and Xi Chen has to be commended for his perseverance during this phase.

In this project, we modeled the differences in water demand and supply and their spatio-temporal distribution to quantify the dimensions of the water risk. The work provides a detailed quantitative assessment of water risk as measured by the cumulated deficits for China. Considering daily precipitation and temperature variability over fifty years and the current water demands, risk measures are developed to inform county level water deficits that account for both within year and across year variations in climate. We choose political rather than watershed boundaries since economic activity and water use are organized by county and the political process is best informed through that unit. The risk measures highlight North China Plain counties as highly water stressed. These regions now have depleted groundwater aquifers.

china_stress

Water requirements for industrial use and energy and mineral processing and production will continue to increase in China, as will the need for high quality domestic water use as living standards and economic factors continue to improve. Given this, we also provided some recommendations for future water sustainability in China. The full article can be found here.

Securing the Future of India’s Water Food and Energy

With over a billion people to serve (around 70% in rural areas), India faces an unprecedented water crisis in the next two decades. Inability to provide a reliable and regular water supply for domestic, industrial and energy needs and scarcity of water for irrigation are some of the prominent concerns. The national food security goals (intended toward arresting the food scarcity) have led to targeted regions for the procurement of rice and wheat, with minimum support prices, and a variety of subsidies for fertilizer, energy and seed. This has led to a significant change of the regional cropping patterns away from traditional crops that were adapted to the local climate and soils. Needless to say that it has also increased the demand for irrigation in the targeted procurement regions. Not surprisingly, aquifer depletion and inefficient water use are now endemic. Uncertain climate and needs of the growing population for food will likely determine the shape of the water crisis in the country.

In this context, the work I conducted recently attempts to (a) quantify the dimensions of the water scarcity problems in the country and (b) provide a clear, scientifically thorough, rational set of solutions that can be implemented to restore water and environmental sustainability. The work provides an initial, formal analysis for the re-design of the Indian food procurement system that considers climate driven variations in renewable water supply, the sustainability of groundwater pumping, varying regional productivity of crops and farm level economics. Assuming that the food security goals are to be met while keeping current procurement prices fixed for each crop, the scheme attempts to maximize net aggregate farm income from the procurement system. The results suggest that net farm revenue could be doubled while minimizing or eliminating the need for irrigation to meet the food requirements.

Details of the work can be found in the UNESCO’s Global Water Forum’s Discussion Paper. For the technical content and underlying methodologies, you can read my Water Resources Research Article. You can read my other articles on water sustainability and risk analysis here.