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Water Shortages - A New Solution

Why are we running out of water in many cities? Droughts are pointed to, and there is waste and over-consumption. But perhaps there is a better way to look at this problem of water shortages.

To begin with, we can see that if a city is dependent on an aquifer, it cannot continue to deplete that supply indefinitely. The result will be the loss of the water the people rely on, possibly forever. On the other hand, we know that water can normally be drawn from an aquifer at a rate that doesn't deplete it.

This is because the water in these underground supplies are continually refreshed by rain and snow as it works its way down to them. This only happens at a certain rate, of course, so if we draw water out at that rate or less, we can use this supply forever. To take it out any faster is not just dangerous, but potentially disastrous. There will likely be new ghost towns in our lifetimes simply because there is no more water for the residents.

The same is true for other water supplies, whether lakes or rivers. If we limit what is taken from them appropriately, there is never a problem with the supply itself. But how we limit it makes all the difference.

Often the water usage is allowed to grow and grow until there is a serious problem. Then a city or water district rations water, creating rules like no watering lawns or no washing cars in the driveway. In places where these restrictions are most severe, people's lawns die, and they sometimes paint them green.

A Better Way to Deal with Water Shortages

First, we have to face the realities. There is only so much water available in some places, like in desert towns of the southwest, for example. In these places it probably doesn't make sense to have lawns for most people. This is why xeroscaping is the norm in a place like Tucson, Arizona. This is landscaping done with rocks and desert plants that require little water.

But who should decide who gets to have a pool or a lawn or a flower garden? I vote for the individual making the decision, not some bureaucrat. That is one reason I think it is better to limit water usage with proper pricing rather than complicated regulation.

What do I mean by proper pricing? Pricing that motivates people to monitor their usage, and creates a demand that is equal to or less than the usage that the source can sustainably supply. In other words, there is that limit beyond which our usage threatens to destroy the source, whether it is an aquifer, lake or river. Raise the price until usage is below that and the problem is solved.

Let's look at a more specific example. First set a price for water for a minimum level of usage, perhaps allowing 20 gallons per bedroom per day for residential properties. This might be close to the current price in most cities. Then charge three times as much for each gallon of water after that. If this doesn't reduce the demand to a level that is sustainable, make it five times as much. Just keep raising the price until the actual usage is where it needs to be.

Now if it costs $300 per month to water a lawn and some wealthier citizens still want to do it, no problem. At that cost level, of course, many people will start consider landscaping with rocks instead of grass. The point is that survival needs are met at a reasonable cost, while everyone pays the true cost for every gallon beyond that.

The true cost is the cost that makes demand fit sustainable supply. It is the point where an environmental resource is fully used but not abused. That is what this system aims at. No more water shortages.

Think about it for a moment, and you can imagine the water conservation measures that will become common when that extra water is six times as expensive. Low-flush toilets, short showers and turning off the water while scrubbing the car down will be the norm.

This system also leaves people free to do what they want - as long as they pay the price. A swimming pool may be worth $4,000 in annual water costs to some. There could still be beautiful flower gardens and even green lawns, which we all enjoy as scenery, even when they belong to others.

Currently, when cities restrict and regulate the kinds of water usage instead of using pricing, what happens? Beautiful lawns and gardens die while Joe Shmoe quietly lets the artificially-cheap water run for hours in his backyard as he washes off car parts. Doesn't it make more sense to let people be free to do what they want, but make them pay the price? That is the way to cure shortages of water.

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Water Shortages