Environment Texas is lobbying City Council to increase its water conservation budget by one-third. We're in a severe drought, you know. Just like we were last year.
We're also in a recession. The city has no spare change lying around. Why, it's even offering an on-line budget "simulator" so ordinary citizens can see first-hand the hard trade-offs the city must make.
If only there were a way to encourage deeper conservation during this parching drought while simultaneously protecting our city budget. If only there were some way to make our good residents understand just how precious water is right now without another million-dollar advertising campaign by the city.
There is, of course. Just raise the price. I assure you -- no, I swear to you -- that there is a price that will bring water use down to the necessary level. As a bonus, the city will garner more revenue that it can use to plug its budget gap. As a bonus on the bonus, the city can dispense with its costly conservation and rebate programs and use that money to plug the budget gap. And as a triple bonus, Austin's residents can get out from under the stringent water restrictions. They will be able to water their yards when they want -- but they will use a lot less water, if they choose to water at all.
I understand the political opposition to raising prices, even if I despise it. The suburban lawn-watering lobby is a powerful player in this town. But I don't understand why environmentalists refuse to get on board.
I know that some of them do support price increases and some of them helped push through price increases last year. But those price increases were not nearly high enough and, anyway, prices need to be flexible. We should charge high prices during a drought and lower prices when water is plentiful. I haven't seen any environmentalists pushing that pricing scheme.
But the real problem with the environmentalists' approach is their willingness to buy both
boots belts and suspenders. Even those who want to raise prices also want to impose watering restrictions and pay gobs of money for conservation programs. If we price water right, these last two are unnecessary. In fact, they are a dead-weight loss. They make us collectively poorer without providing any corresponding cost-justified gain.
So why don't environmentalists support pure water pricing? I think it is the kumbaya spirit that animates many environmental groups. A kind of "we're all in this together" mentality. And a tinge of moralizing, which makes them more comfortable with imposing a code of conduct like the city's watering restrictions and issuing solemn commandments such as, "Thou shalt not waste water."
I'm not mocking them. Well, I sort of am, but I don't mean to be mean-spirited. Environmentalists' collective action and earnest commitment are valuable commodities in a society that often seems determined to squander its natural resources as quickly as possible. But communitarianism is very, very expensive.
(Cross-posted at Urban Returns.)