California Drought thread

post by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-05-07T18:44:00.732Z · score: 3 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 90 comments

I think we need a discussion thread for the californian drought going on. I would like to compile information in the main post and would like help compiling it. If we really are proud to be effective altruists then this is an area we should really figure out.




Any one have any good ideas on how we can help?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-07T19:27:11.472Z · score: 25 (27 votes) · LW · GW

The easy economic (although not political) solution is to raise the price of water. Long-term, the way we can help is by causing more people to understand very basic microeconomics.

Sociologically, it would be nice if this destroyed the norm that good home owners maintain grass lawns.

comment by Elo · 2015-05-07T19:59:39.391Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Through the entire city of Melbourne (Australia) houses have a gravel lawn out front; and japanese style minimalist gardens. few plants; aesthetic rocks. That's just life. Lawns are weird.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T09:26:14.797Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why don't people have actual gardens instead of lawns? Roses and bushes and hedges and stuff. This seems to be the suburbian norm in Central Europe. But I guess we have enough water.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T12:03:55.403Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but... Why do people insist on imported species and habits at all? I have only barely seen California, but why not plant sagebrush or something equally adapted and learn to love it? It might even lend itself to topiary. (But nooo, exotics are so much cooler.)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T12:29:11.661Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Part of the story may be migrants taking their native plants with them out of nostalgia.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T13:05:02.020Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That may be true for the Americas and perhaps Australia, but intuitively not for Eurasia. We have botanical gardens, though. It's actually part of their mission to popularize biodiversity, and what better evidence to show for the effort than to have an introduced species become widely cultivated? Horse chestnuts have no place in Kyiv's native flora, but they became a symbol of the city. ('Oh, the horse chestnuts suffer from leaf miners! Why doesn't the Institute of zoology DO something?' 'Stop planting the friggin' trees.' 'You, sir, are not a patriot.')

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-08T22:05:18.553Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The first botanic gardens were a library of useful plants. (Diversity is a library-ish role.) Then imperial gardens were about gathering the diversity of the world, to assess whether it was useful.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-09T02:27:52.938Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I omitted that because nowadays it no longer holds.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-09T15:18:52.722Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that there was anything false about your statement. I don't remember what my point was, so I should have written it down. It might just have been trivia.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-09T16:50:44.943Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You probably meant that technically, even the trees like ginkgo or all the oaks and maples imported from afar are useful - they can withstand the ufriendliness of city life. I agree. It is just a different kind of usefulness that potato and cucumber have, and back then there was no way to weigh costs and benefits of introduction. (The usefulness of a cactus is yet another thing.) Or you could mean that having a rich botanical garden was a status thing for a capital; an obligatory research facility for a self-respecting university. It should be still somewhat true. However, today people know little enough about native species that there's merit in educating them, and the libraries now get it backward. Or you could mean, further, that botanical gardens used to be efficient institutions of progress, and indeed gave rise to centralized experimental biotechnology research as scientific approach. That is, I think, probably true.

comment by knb · 2015-05-10T02:11:44.071Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

People like lawns, and there is research that shows plentiful greenery increases a sense of well-being. It is just absurd to force this kind of pointless water austerity on people while enabling massive scale waste elsewhere.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T09:22:39.379Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

High prices do two different kinds of parallel rationing. They ration the good to its higher marginal utility uses: people who need it more will be willing to sacrifice more for it. This is a good thing. They also ration the good away from the poor and towards the rich. This is not really a good thing.

How could, in general, one have the first but not the second? Ration a thing to high marginal utility uses, but ability to afford, income, social class should not play much a role?

My attempt: let the price go high, because it incentivizes production. But also subsidize a certain quota of it per person, roughly as much as the highest marginal utility use is (drink, one quick shower etc. calculate it). Make the quota sellable, transferable, because people will do it anyway on the black market.

comment by Zubon · 2015-05-08T13:45:56.183Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I would expect the second effect to be small in practice with respect to water because of the small quantities involved. My demand for water for drinking and cleaning is inelastic within the relevant margins, and even large changes in the price of tap water would have minimal costs to me. My use of water for lawns would be more price sensitive, so green lawns in California would become more of a luxury good, and I am with James_Miller in seeing that as a good thing in the American Southwest. As you suggest, some sort of price tiering or progressiveness in municipal water costs would minimize effects.

The larger effect will be on those using large quantities of water, farmers. Which is the goal. We can discuss the plight of the poor farmer, but that quickly seems to become a cover for agribusiness lobbying rather than a targeted intervention for independent farms.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T14:10:14.016Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That makes sense on the object level (although I was more interested in the meta, as in how to think beyond econ 101, beyond the supply-demand curve).

I should add that there are grass fields here (Vienna, Austria) that nobody waters and they are green enough - granted, there is far more natural precipitation than in California, granted, they don't look as nice as really "manicured" lawns, but they still look kinda grassy enough. The point is - probably it would be possible to find a different species of lawn grass that looks 80% as good but takes like 30% of the water. I suspect British lawn species may have been imported to Cali and that may not be such a good idea.

comment by bogus · 2015-05-10T23:08:20.101Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The point is - probably it would be possible to find a different species of lawn grass that looks 80% as good but takes like 30% of the water.

Good news - such a species does exist! It's called "Astroturf", and it requires even less than 30%.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T01:34:31.712Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why is it some Europeans have a hard time imagining that not every place has the same climate as Europe?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-05-09T17:50:46.321Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Because they're human, and humans have a hard time imagining how very different conditions can be.

I know someone who had a hard time raising basil, which mystified me. What could possibly be hard about raising basil? You put it in a pot on a windowsill and water it when it's looking a little limp and it grows.

My friend was living in Wales. Basil needs more sunlight than occurs naturally there.

Left to myself, I never would have believed that water boils at different temperatures in different places. It sounds like a practical joke, but there's good physics behind.

comment by blogospheroid · 2015-05-08T09:26:10.525Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Letting market prices reign everywhere, but providing a universal basic income is the usual economic solution.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-05-09T19:46:25.739Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is this really where any interesting amount of water goes?

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-09T20:08:46.746Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps not, but the norm forces many people to spend lots of time and money on lawn maintenance.

comment by lululu · 2015-05-13T18:37:30.864Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Looks like almost twice as much goes to lawn maintenance as to the entire industrial and commercial sectors, and by contrast, lawns have absolutely no productivity or economic benefits.

comment by passive_fist · 2015-05-08T00:44:33.295Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's not that simple. Farmers are some of the largest consumers of water. Raising the price of water would not really reduce water consumption considerably for farming, as modern farming techniques are already fairly water-efficient and further improvements (such as greenhouses or advanced irrigation techniques) are typically very costly. It's more economical for the farmer to just use the same amount of water and push the increased costs towards the consumer. In the end, the average consumer would end up shouldering the burden of increased water cost without any appreciable change in water supply.

If you try to raise the price of water beyond that which farmers could work around, they'd likely just pack up and leave, like ChristianKI says. And nobody wants that, either.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-08T01:22:10.269Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

If you try to raise the price of water beyond that which farmers could work around, they'd likely just pack up and leave, like ChristianKI says. And nobody wants that, either.

I am entirely fine with that. There is no right to grow water-thirsty crops in the desert.

Look at one of the documents linked in the OP. If the farmers stop growing alfalfa hay which is one of the thirstiest crops and replace it with almost anything else, California will save a lot of water.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-08T02:06:35.895Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

as modern farming techniques are already fairly water-efficient and further improvements

It's my understanding that California farmers don't use many water saving farming techniques because of the low price they pay for water.

comment by lululu · 2015-05-13T18:45:11.711Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're correct that modern farming techniques are fairly efficient, but within the confines of any specific crop being grown. Efficiently watered corn, for instance, still takes less water input than efficiently watered rice, millet takes less water still. Techniques are good but crop selection is questionable. Beef/alfalfa is the thing on the top of my mind when I say this.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-07T22:08:02.454Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think everybody understands that if you raise the price of water enough farmers won't be able to be in business and shut down instead of using up water. The problem doesn't seem to be understanding of basic microeconomics but the politics and process.

Do you raise prices by taxation? Do you raise prices by taking drafting rights away and doing yearly auctions of water?

Is there a way to change the pricing of water on a seasonal level? Price pressure only works to reduce consumption if the people are knowing which price they are paying. If you do this, do people actually know which price they are paying at which time?

To me those seem to be questions for economists.

Prices alone also don't challenge norms that good home owners maintain grass lawns. They just turn grass lawns into a desirable luxury that not everybody can afford.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-07T22:54:52.358Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

It's not just that some farmers will shut down if you raise the price of water, others will find better ways of conserving water, some will switch to less water-hungry crops, and still more will move to locations with cheaper water.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-05-08T12:04:52.309Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Prices alone also don't challenge norms that good home owners maintain grass lawns. They just turn grass lawns into a desirable luxury that not everybody can afford.

But that would still lower the amount of water used on grass lawns thereby increasing the amount of water available for other purposes (assuming the demand elasticity of grass lawns is larger than that of those other purposes, of course).

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-08T13:04:21.815Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Status signaling through spending money on luxury items can be complex. The fact that not everyone can afford lawns makes the lawn a better signal for status and makes it more valuable as a status signal.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-05-09T11:41:17.684Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but that still decreases the amount of water used on lawns.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-09T12:52:05.052Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If having a lawn that needs water becomes a status symbol, rich people wanting to signal status can choose to grow lawns that take even more water.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-05-09T14:31:27.273Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, in principle such a thing is possible. But we're talking about water.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-07T19:27:40.313Z · score: 21 (25 votes) · LW · GW

There is nothing to figure out. The state controls the price (and allocation) of water. Farmers use up huge amounts of water very inefficiently, but they have political power. They use this power to get their water cheaply and to get the state to effectively subsidize their water.

It's an entirely political issue. To quote

The reason that California is suffering from a water shortage is the same reason why there were bread lines in the former Soviet Union: Central planning that allocated goods by fiat to favored groups rather than price signals.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-07T22:16:49.062Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with most of that, but I think it takes it too far. The bread lines in the Soviet Union were due to the need to hide the favoritism, while the special farmer prices are explicit and lots of favoritism to farmers is well-known. And while farmer political power drags out the process, I don't think it's the main culprit. This is largely the legacy of a system designed for a different environment, where water was not a binding constraint. Switching systems when a commons becomes oversubscribed is very difficult.

I don't see any central planning in California. Yet, I would say the two situations are similar for a different reason: the bakers and the farmers don't really own the resources that pass through their hands. However, the Soviet Union had the advantage of a working black market, while the California farmers are basically just wasting water, in the hope that a maintaining their quota will lead to a larger payout when the system shifts.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-08T00:14:32.824Z · score: 7 (13 votes) · LW · GW

The bread lines in the Soviet Union were due to the need to hide the favoritism

Hide? I don't think the fact that party apparatchiks didn't stand in those lines was a secret to anyone.

the legacy of a system designed for a different environment, where water was not a binding constraint.

I think you're factually mistaken. Water rights were always a big deal in the Western US precisely because water is the binding constraint in a lot of places. All the special water rights, the quotas, etc. reflect the system which always recognized that water was precious and in short supply.

I don't see any central planning in California.

No? source:

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday imposed mandatory water restrictions for the first time on residents, businesses and farms, ordering cities and towns in the drought-ravaged state to reduce usage by 25%. ... The reduction in water use does not apply to the agriculture industry.

and more:

environmentalists ... have forced the state to abandon critical water-storage reservoir projects to avoid disruption of wildlife and ecosystems. But that's not all they've done. They also divert 4.4 million acre-feet of water every year — enough to supply the same number of families — to restore water runs such as the San Joaquin River, allowing passage of salmon and other fish. Without paying a dime, environmentalists have taken control of nearly half of California's water.

If I am a farmer, can I buy water on the open market?

And the system is stupid, too. As far as I know some farmer water quotas are "use it or lose it" -- if you don't draw the water allocated to you this year, your quote will get reduced next year. Any guesses as to the consequences?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-08T01:06:38.970Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The wealth of party members was obvious, yet still it was important not to explicitly mention it.

comment by Dentin · 2015-05-07T19:30:03.408Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I fail to see why this is important enough to be a post. The problem is almost certainly politics and market distortion, not 'lack of water':

"Mr Brown put his foot on urban hosepipes while letting farmers carry on merrily wasting water, for which they pay far less than urbanites. Agriculture sucks up about 80% of the state’s water (excluding the half that is reserved for environmental uses). Farmers have guzzled ever more water as they have planted thirsty crops such as almonds, walnuts, and grapes. Meanwhile, urban water use has held relatively steady over the past two decades, despite massive population growth, thanks to smart pricing and low-flow toilets. Per-capita water use in California has declined from 232 gallons a day in 1990 to 178 gallons a day in 2010."

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-05-07T19:33:18.786Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

We have posts about a whole bunch of less important stuff, I think a drought which is definitely a sub-category of risk is definitely well within boundaries.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-07T19:43:01.527Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

The California water shortage is not a "sub-category of risk", it's a sub-category of the use of political power to benefit particular groups.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2015-05-08T02:18:41.669Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And half of what gets discussed here isn't?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-08T04:43:18.209Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, not that I've noticed. LW occasionally discusses political philosophy but very rarely gets down to actual, specific policies and politics.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-07T19:05:08.799Z · score: 12 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Set up a darknet black market for farmers to sell water to residents. for bitcoin.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2015-05-07T23:43:19.329Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is a very interesting/amusing idea. Unfortunately, moving substantial quantities of water would be very difficult. I'm presuming you are joking about this proposal.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-08T00:52:59.412Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I made a small edit. Is it clearer now?

comment by Houshalter · 2015-05-08T23:18:03.799Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I live in a house with a cistern. We transport all our water in a tank wagon from a few miles away. It's not very difficult or expensive.

comment by Viliam · 2015-05-08T21:03:21.694Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The difficult part to do in secret would be physically transfering the water.

I imagine an anime, where thirsty Californian citizens pay bitcoins on darknet for water. Then they put on cow costumes (to maintain secrecy), go to farms, authenticate themselves electronically to an electronic cow-guarding system, drink water from the trough, and return home. The farmers pretend they see nothing unusual, just regular cows coming and going, to keep plausible deniability (I said it's supposed to be an anime).

Alternative idea: The farmers should produce and sell genetically modified animals or plants consisting of 99% or more water. For example, water elementals.

Yet another idea: The farmers should sell "tours on the farm" where people can go to see the farm. A visitor is allowed to drink 1 liter of water during the tour. Of course everyone would know people just come to drink the water and leave... but this would give everyone plausible deniability. There is no water being sold, officially.

comment by calamondin · 2015-05-08T21:07:02.250Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ugh are you are a bot or something? Such a cliche thing to say squints eyes suspiciously

comment by D_Alex · 2015-05-08T02:27:30.063Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Engineering solutions (RO desalination powered by photovoltaics) exist right now to deliver practically limitless amounts of potable water in a sustainable manner for around $1/m3. That is 1 cent per 10 litre bucket.

I am not sure who is feeling the pain in California... $1/m3 may be too much to pay for broadacre farming. But for city residents, who (in Australia) typically use ~300l/person/day, including lawn care, this seems very affordable.

Incidentally: Perth, Australia, used to rely on dams and groundwater to supply its needs. When I visited the dams 10 years ago they looked about what Californian dams look like now. This year, the dams are nearly full, and the annoying ads urging reduced water consumption have disappeared. What has changed? Two RO desalination plants were built, and now roughly half of Perth's fresh water supply comes from these plants. To power the plants, two small-ish wind energy farms have been built. So perhaps this is the right solution for California also...?

comment by advancedatheist · 2015-05-08T03:27:37.242Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I get the impression that Australia's settlers from elsewhere have had to live like settlers on exoplanets in science fiction because of that continent's environmental constraints. You have an accessible ocean but not enough fresh water? Have the Federation Engineering Corps build a wind farm to power a desalination plant.

comment by CurtisSerVaas · 2015-05-14T19:22:47.847Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That figure doesn't factor in the costs of transporting the water, but these seem like minor costs to me. I wonder if there are any costs I'm not thinking of. Even if it were 3X as much, it still seems reasonable.

According to this site, Americans use ~100l/person/day.

comment by Aesuan · 2015-05-08T18:20:47.632Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Bloomberg has an excellent article on what, exactly, "environmental uses" means. Essentially that's every gallon of water that, once it has settled into a river, successfully flows into the ocean. If any water is released from behind a dam, any part of a river is downstream of any dams... if, in short, a river in California has a mouth, then the water coming out of it is part of that oft quoted 50%.

We can absolutely choose to see that as a waste, but it doesn't change the fact that agriculture uses four times as much water as everything else. KQED had some great stats and graphs on residential water use. A little more than half of it is used outdoors. So if everyone in California stopped watering their lawns and gardens, stopped washing their cars, and gave up their swimming pools, the state would save as much water as if farmers decreased their water use by 12.5%.

Agriculture is absolutely important to California's welfare, but is it four times as important as everything else combined? As many others in the thread have said, California doesn't have a water problem. It has an agriculture problem.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T02:07:06.884Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if, in short, a river in California has a mouth, then the water coming out of it is part of that oft quoted 50%.


Agriculture is absolutely important to California's welfare, but is it four times as important as everything else combined?

Ok, so even if we reduce the 50% somewhat, it still takes up about twice as much as the water used for farming. Are the various environmental causes twice as important as agriculture? Also, as far as agriculture, it is using water for economically productive purposes, most of the other uses, e.g., lawns, swimming pools, aren't.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-08T03:01:11.358Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

A large part of the problem is that California's system didn't keep up with the state's growing population, largely because environmentalist got the state to stop new dam construction in the 70's. Also more recently in the years when there was excess water, said environmentalists insisted it be sent to the sea to (maybe) help the delta smelt rather then saving it in reservoirs for drought years.

comment by advancedatheist · 2015-05-08T03:38:28.348Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

California might have had a reputation at one time as a progressive, future-oriented place, and it still has that to some extent because of Silicon Valley. But that reputation doesn't really match up with the trends since the 1970's, when the state stopped building infrastructure in accordance to the limits-to-growth ideology that took hold in some of the state's politicians, notably Jerry Brown.

comment by knb · 2015-05-08T01:42:31.239Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Many libertarians and conservatives have been calling for a free market in water in California. I agree that would likely be the best solution overall. However that solution will have inevitable pushback from farmers, who benefit from their existing usage rights. My understanding is that California farmers have a "use it or lose it" right to water resources. In other words, they can use the water or not use it, but they can't re-sell it. This leads to a lot of waste, including absurdities like planting monsoon crops in a semi-arid region. If the farmers could simply resell the water they don't use (at or near the residential water price), there would be more water to go around, and farmers would probably actually come out ahead of the game. While less beneficial overall, it might be politically easier to implement.

comment by roystgnr · 2015-05-08T03:46:56.271Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If everybody understood the problem, then allowing farmers to keep their current level of water rights but also allowing them to choose between irrigation and resale would be a Pareto improvement. "Do I grow and export an extra single almond, or do I let Nestle export an extra twenty bottles of water?" is a question which is neutral with respect to water use but which has an obvious consistent answer with respect to profit and utility.

But as is typical, beneficiaries of price controls benefit from not allowing the politicians' electorate to understand the problem. If you allow trade and price equilibration to make subsidies transparent and efficient, you risk instead getting the subsidies taken away. That extra single almond is still more profitable than nothing.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-08T17:23:11.567Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think the public understands that there are farming subsidies and is in principle okay with farming being subsidized since the new deal.

comment by Elo · 2015-05-07T19:56:52.244Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Is the drought personally effecting you?

As I mentioned on the facebook chain; Australia has plenty of experience living in and dealing with drought. This is a known problem with known solutions. No further research/effort is necessary. (as does Israel, and several other desert nations)

While it may be argued that the answers are known but not by the right people; trying to educate those who should already know about solutions or options is going to be a ridiculously futile challenge, and that doesn't seem to be where you are looking to solve the problem anyway.

To make an analogy to another field; you sound like a chemist saying that atoms seem to have all these properties and it would be really great if we could figure them out and find fundamental building blocks of atoms. (in this analogy I would be a physicist who has no idea why you keep harping on about commonly known things)

Your "drought" is my Tuesdays. And I am a civilian in terms of drought knowledge!

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-05-07T20:00:06.470Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I mean minimally we could just talk about it to get the word out. I think people are being pretty unreasonable here.

trying to educate those who should already know about solutions or options is going to be a ridiculously futile challenge, and that doesn't seem to be where you are looking to solve the problem anyway.

Then we can just pivot and have it be a thread to inform those who do not know.

comment by Dentin · 2015-05-07T21:57:16.641Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Being unreasonable how? Unless you actually live there and are currently being affected by it, it is -not an important problem-. It is not a life or death situation. There is enough water for everybody to drink, flush toilets, and shower.

What there isn't, is enough water to do all that and grow subsidized water inefficient crops that shouldn't have been planted in the same place. That has been a known issue for at least a decade, and California elected not to fix that issue when it would have been easier. Now it will be harder and more painful, but it's not catastrophic by any means. If anything, this is pretty much the minimum required level of pain to get anything done in California anyway.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-07T23:02:55.631Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That has been a known issue for at least a decade, and California elected not to fix that issue when it would have been easier.

So doesn't that make this issue appropriate for a blog devoted to rational decision making? Plus, global warming could create massive water shortages in China and India so over the long run figuring out rational ways of politically dealing with this issue is important.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-10T00:55:54.869Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Plus, global warming could create massive water shortages in China and India so over the long run figuring out rational ways of politically dealing with this issue is important.

The political system in California is radically different then the one in China. Political solutions are likely to look different.

comment by drethelin · 2015-05-08T04:12:19.660Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How would global warming create water shortages? Warmer weather means stronger monsoons, according to the geological record.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-08T13:26:17.044Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Climate change is more than just warming.

The IPCC report says:

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.

A few pages afterwards they list high confidence for climate change attributed water issues in the US West Coast.

The IPCC report is a really nice document and might be one of the best sources for understanding climate change.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T01:40:54.124Z · score: -6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The IPCC report is a really nice document and might be one of the best sources for understanding climate change.


comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-08T09:44:46.794Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW, [I heard that] arid ecosystems might arise from cooler and drier climate, not only warmer and drier ones. Thus, if global warming makes Gulf Stream disappear and it leads to cooling of some areas it used to affect, they may become arid geologically soon. But I am not an expert, this is just how I imagine it could happen.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T01:45:30.661Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So would you find the reverse, i.e., climates becoming wetter due to global warming, equally plausible?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-09T02:30:35.127Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that in some parts of the world, for example Maritime Antarctica, it will plausibly grow wetter, and in others, like Europe, drier. On average.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-08T05:10:25.450Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure, but I heard this and asked an expert I know (an economist who studies global warming) who confirmed it.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T01:42:26.936Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, if you ask a global warming expert whether some observation confirms his theory, he'll say yes, even if yesterday he said the opposite observation confirms it.

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-05-07T22:25:16.739Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

How come we can talk about fiction threads and risk in far mode but not this? Even if it is a political situation we can still discuss it. We talk about all sorts of x-risk this and that, I think it's more than alright to discussion a drought affecting where the most of us live.

comment by Dentin · 2015-05-07T22:40:48.909Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

For me personally, it's because this is completely, utterly, a political problem. Only political solutions will fix it. That puts it pretty firmly in the 'uninteresting' category, and as it's politics I'd rather not see it on LW.

However, there is a way to slightly change the topic to make it interesting: just go out one meta-level. Instead of worrying about the current stupidity, talk about the x-risk of politics in general. Use this scenario as an example or case study of how political failure is/can/will be a problem for the human race. Use this scenario to evaluate new structures and apply existing best practices to determine what a proper outcome should be.

Finding ways to structure society in the future such that this sort of situation is less likely? Now that's interesting! Discussing governance structures capable of resolving these kinds of situations when they come up? Also very interesting. Discussing the current problem? Not really very interesting at all.

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-05-07T22:53:21.410Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Now that's interesting! Discussing governance structures capable of resolving these kinds of situations when they come up? Also very interesting. Discussing the current problem? Not really very interesting at all.

Then just start talking about it. I'm very happy to respond and talk about stuff like that, it definitely does sound interesting.

comment by Elo · 2015-05-07T20:09:05.670Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

fastest 2 ways to get the word out; Make a website describing drought and some good solutions to help out. brand it as a NFP, i.e. shower heads, not running a tap while brushing your teeth, aethetic lawns that are not grass, water saving technology for farming systems. maximise for "saving water is saving money is saving the environment" win-win-win messages.

  1. print 10,000 flyers and hand them out to people. (at 100/day thats gonna take a while)
  2. pay for online ads targetting the geographic area which point to water saving website.


  1. offer a glass of "saved" water to politicians. "This water was not wasted on ugly grass so that now we can drink it. This water was saved because we handed out shower timers, isn't it great that water is freely available and we treat our resources with respect"
  2. call local politicians; encourage them to put out water saving propaganda. create a mockup and offer to them for free.

existing resource:

TL;DR; Push a public message about it; be loud about it.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-05-12T06:39:26.853Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

See Slatestarcodex' California, Water you doing? post which clearly answers most of the factual questions regarding water usage.

Water used for lawns indeed takes a comparably large fraction.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-14T19:48:09.256Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Where by "large" you mean "small."

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-05-14T19:53:21.239Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW


but no. well, at least not large in the sense of "one of the largest identified parts". But consider that lawns are a kind of "nice to have" thing not something as essential as food and hyiene but rather recreational.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-14T21:22:15.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Iowa grows food. California grows luxuries. Residents in California would pay a lot more for lawns than for strawberries. The demonized alfalfa is the closest California gets to a necessity, as it is an input for milk.

comment by SilentCal · 2015-05-08T15:34:57.575Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A lot of press has focused on almond agriculture, which has the interesting property that missing one season of water destroys more than one season's harvest; it can kill the trees. This seems politically advantageous in a situation like the present one; by increasing the harm done by denying the water, it has a blackmail effect, yet without looking like blackmail.

Is there any politically realistic way to counter such incentives to be more vulnerable? I'd say it requires government either to take a consistent laissez-faire line so that farmers' failures aren't seen as public responsibility or to step in and regulate more, restricting who can grow almonds or at least requiring a drought plan registered in advance.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T02:01:19.712Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How about politically realistic ways to counter the NIMBY and limits-to-growth style arguments that made it impossible to update the state's water infrastructure that led to this problem in the first place.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-07T19:38:43.873Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The a shower design by a company called orbital systems that uses nano-tech filters and smart sensors to save 90% of the water that's used while showering by reusing water.

They have tested their product with commercial customers and are taking preorders for direct to consumer sales. If the water prices are high the shower pays for itself in a few years.

It would make sense to do the same thing with sinks. Reuse the water by having good water filtering. Having a sink that can recycle it's water also allows the sink to clean dishes that you put into the sink. It just needs sensors, a camera and a few motors to be able to redirect the faucet.

Once you filter most water at the tap it's also much easier to use rainwater.

Toilets should have sensors to make smart decisions about how much water is needed at a particular instance and use exactly as much water.

Silicon Valley should build tech to reduce domestic water usage and make bathrooms and kitchens better.

Most water usage isn't due to domestic usage but farming. Farmers will have to do with less water or go out of business. Maybe the can also drastically improve by going high tech. Israel seems to have figured out how to do agriculture with less water, maybe Californian farmers can learn from it.

Given California's issue with high housing prices, it might make sense to allow anybody to build housing in land that's currently zoned for agriculture.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-07T22:59:28.557Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Silicon Valley should build tech to reduce domestic water usage and make bathrooms and kitchens better.

I would rather a less valuable part of our economy do this.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2015-05-07T23:41:59.702Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can you expand on this reasoning? Water use is a planet wide issue and is even more relevant for less developed areas. This seems like something that could have very high pay off.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-05-08T00:23:48.888Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt kitchens and bathrooms play a big role in water shortages, plus assuming (as I did) that Silicon Valley only comes up with solutions that are profitable for themselves, their solutions are unlikely to be applicable to developing countries.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-08T16:44:37.675Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Techonology that is expensive today will be much cheaper in 20 years. The first smart phones were too expensive for developing countries.

Economies and research of scale can make nanotech filters cheaper. The same goes for computer chips and sensors

Existing sink companies don't have the internal culture to produce high tech sinks that are actually good. It seems to need a different mindset.

Peter Thiel speaks a lot about how there little innovation in atoms over the last decades. There's room for innovation in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It's not only about saving water. If you get a sync to recycle water you can do things like automatically adding soap to the water when washing your hands.

comment by drethelin · 2015-05-08T04:16:21.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The real question is how much worse of an experience that shower is. "energy efficient" tree saving hand blowdryers in bathrooms end up not ACTUALLY drying your hands!

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-08T12:19:25.493Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Getting technology right isn't easy. Existing water saving shower solutions are indeed worse.

This shower has more pressure than a regular shower and the water is more clean than a regular shower. The water also is better temperature controlled than a regular shower. You even get a smart phone app for your shower but that's likely not the most important thing.

The only usability issue that you have to change the filters from time to time.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-05-09T01:39:40.831Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Getting technology right isn't easy. Existing water saving shower solutions are indeed worse.

Yes, and their salesmen gave similar hype-pitches to the one you give in the next paragraph.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-05-08T06:20:43.141Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's also a way of taking a shower that drastically reduces the water used, requiring no new technology.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-13T06:18:33.983Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What do the farmers say? Surely they have arguments that can't be reduced to 'because they pay us to do exactly this'?