National Policy Analysis Logo

 #279  

 February 2000




Government Mismanagement, Not Drought, Responsible for Water Shortages

by David Ridenour

 

Only government bureaucrats could suggest that the best solution to a government screw up is more government.

But that's precisely what is happening when it comes to droughts.

Local water authorities recently testified before the National Drought Policy Commission that greater coordination between water agencies is necessary to reduce drought impacts.

Isn't that just swell? Now instead of setting loose the water police on just a few localities, we could set them loose on the entire nation.

Last summer, the Mid-Atlantic states faced what some government authorities claimed was a serious drought problem. Fear spread that unless bold action was taken, many communities could run out of water.

In response, several states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, imposed harsh water restrictions. Where these restrictions were imposed, lawns turned brown, flowers wilted and fruit withered on the vine. Worse, neighbor turned against neighbor: Government officials actually encouraged local busy-bodies to inform on neighbors violating the water restrictions.

As it turns out, many of these restrictions were unneeded. Recently, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), representing local governments of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, found that the mandatory restrictions weren't necessary. According to a COG report, "the region was never at risk of running out of drinking water... [and water supplies] would have been adequate to meet full demands even if the drought had persisted into the fall and winter."

Government bureaucrats miscalculated in handling the drought and there is little reason to believe that adding more bureaucrats to the mix would have helped.

There is a growing perception that drought will be chronic problem in the future due to global warming. But it won't.

For one thing, satellite data suggests that there has been little warming of the planet over the past 20 years. Global temperatures actually dropped slightly between 1979 and 1998.

Precipitation levels also haven't fallen. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body tasked with setting global warming policy, admitted that land precipitation has changed little over the 20th century.

If anything, droughts have become less common. According to a report written by National Climatic Data Center staff, precipitation has remained above the 20th century mean since 1970.

Water shortages will occur in the future, but the shortage will have more to do with government control of water resources than with anything else.

Part of the problem is that government subsidizes water. As long as the public doesn't face the true cost of the water it consumes, it will have little incentive to conserve. The city of Tucson was able to reduce peak water demands by 20 percent in the late 1970s simply by increasing prices.

Another part of the problem is that government is a poor water manager. With investor demands for profit, privately-held water companies are more efficient than government. Private companies also have ready access to capital, making investments in new facilities and new technologies possible.

The United Kingdom's Thames Water is a good case in point. Since the company was privatized in 1989, Thames has invested over $1.6 billion in infrastructure - and both the water supply and the environmental have benefited.

Among the improvements was the installation of new technology that detects leaks and automatically shuts off the water supply until repairs can be made. The company currently dispatches repair crews every five and one-half seconds to repair leaks: The water it loses to leakage each year has declined by 31% just since 1996.

Thames has taken this smart approach international.

If we're serious about preventing water shortages in the future, the solution is not more bureaucrats on the job, but getting government out of the water business.


# # #

David Ridenour is vice president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected]




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