MGD/GDP, 1980-2010

There is a steady trend in Florida (and elsewhere) of using less water per dollar of economic output. In 1980, water users withdrew about 29.5 million gallons a day of fresh water for every billion dollar of domestic product. By 2010, that had declined by two-thirds to only 9.6 mgd per billion dollars.

Water users have become more efficient and industries that use relatively small amounts of water have come to dominate the Florida economy. It is reasonable to expect that trend to continue.

An outbreak of ordinariness

The “springs bill” being considered in the Florida Senate is full of commonsense policies. The bill calls only for measures that should have been in place long ago, enjoy strong public support, and cost less than recent water management budget cuts. If asked, almost all Floridians would favor what is in the bill:

    • Finally mapping springsheds of major springs?
    • Adopting minimum flows and levels for major springs no later than 2020?
    • Deciding by 2017 on how to protect or recover the listed springs?
    • Requiring local governments to adopt at least a minimum landscape fertilizer code? 
    • Speeding up the use and funding of agricultural Best Management Practices?
    • Cutting back on putting sewage into the aquifer of springsheds?

Maybe the outbreak will be contagious and even spread to the Florida House.

Dodged a few

In light of the many mistakes made in Florida water history, it is good to remember that some misguided water ideas never came to reality. Here’s a few:

No fresh water impoundment was ever constructed in upper Tampa Bay.

The so-called Intracoastal Waterway “missing link” between St. Marks and Tarpon Springs was never built. The State of Florida strongly supported this damaging project for many years, partly because it would bolster the argument for the “Cross Florida Barge Canal.”

The Barge Canal itself was stopped. The original canal work has been at least partially restored. (More complete restoration is needed.)

The prediction of some authors in the 1940s and 1950s that Florida could become a desert like the Sahara hasn’t happened (but cross your fingers about anthropogenic climate change?).

No giant water supply pipeline has been built from north Florida to central or south Florida.

Some current bad water ideas will fade away too.

The even bigger wealth effect

As I noted last Monday, higher income households tend to use more water, apply more fertilizer, etc. That is significant by itself but wealth and income patterns have even more profound effects on water (especially because of the state’s high income inequality). How?

Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” (Perspectives on Politics, March 2013, Figure 4.)

Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” (Perspectives on Politics, March 2013, Figure 4.)

It turn out that wealthy people have much different views on desirable policies than most Americans. As shown in the figure to the right, for example, they are much less fond of spending government funds on “environmental programs” than the general public. (Makes one think of a particular Florida governor and his drastic cuts in water management budgets.)

The economic elite find politicians to be remarkably responsive to their views. In contrast, the policy views of non-wealthy Americans matter hardly at all in public debates:

Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.

Clearly, when one holds constant net interest group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans, it makes very little difference what the general public thinks. The probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change…

Ordinary Floridians can get the water policy they want–but only if they want what the economic elite wants. That is a failure of democracy and only democratic reforms can fix water and many other broader problems in Florida.

[Or, as it has been called: The Doom Loop of Oligarchy.]

The wealth effect

Higher income is associated with more intense water resource impacts. Higher-income households use more water and are less sensitive to conservation pricing. More expensive homes also apply above-average amounts of  fertilizer and pesticides. Only expensive residential developments are able to build in wetlands and pass on the cost of mitigation credits ($75,000 or more per acre). 

Water conservation campaigns can preach that “every drop counts.” If you search for where the number of wasteful drops is the highest, however, you may end up at the homes that can most easily afford to invest in efficiency.