Austin's new water conservation laws are a good illustration of the wastefulness of command-and-control regulations:
The new watering laws -- which limit watering of commercial and multifamily landscapes to twice a week year-round beginning on Oct. 1 -- are part of the city's broad new water-conservation policy approved in August. In addition to being limited to watering twice a week -- Tuesdays and Fridays -- owners will only be able to water before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m. on those days.
City leaders say the new policy will save 33 million gallons of water a day in the coming years and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide -- used to generate the electric power for water treatment -- by about 40 million pounds. Austin is the first city in the country without a water supply problem to adopt such a far-reaching conservation policy, says City Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who led the effort.
The new ordinance also limits irrigation at "residential facilities" (colloquially, "homes") to designated watering days between May 1 and September 30. The restrictions apply regardless of how full the lakes are.
I don't quarrel with the City's desire to conserve water. I don't think global warming is the real rationale, though. The City wants to knock a percentage point or two off the annual growth in demand, which could delay costly capital investments in new water treatment plants. That's reasonable, depending on the cost of conserving water versus the cost of building new treatment plants.
But why this ridiculous command-and-control system? Why this self-destructive antipathy to using prices to ration scarce resources? I was gearing up for a sermon on the benefits of prices, but M1EK has already covered this fairly well.
Command-and-control systems may get you the same savings, but they cause a lot more pain and cost a lot more to enforce, as the Statesman article shows:
People who repeatedly violate the rules could receive Class C misdemeanor citations and fines of up to $500, but inspectors will work with property owners first to seek compliance, said Dan Strub, the city's acting division manager of water conservation. The city is hiring three full-time water conservation inspectors, at a cost of $180,000, to join two full-time inspectors.
Deborah Cole, who has owned the Austin business Greater Texas Landscapes for 26 years, said the new watering rules are simple to understand but impractical to follow. "The premise they are based on is that two days a week will be adequate for landscapes that have good soil depths and the right plants. But many commercial sites and residential sites in Austin do not naturally have much soil," she said.
There are solutions, such as adding soil or mulch or upgrading sprinkler systems, but businesses need time to phase those expenses into their budgets, said Kyle Gillman, vice president of the building owners group.
City Council Member Lee Leffingwell said that a city committee spent more than a year writing the rules and that property groups had ample time to offer feedback and then figure out how to comply with the rules, which the City Council passed in May.
Property owners can seek a variance from the watering schedule if they have newly installed landscapes (which require more water) or have very large properties, Strub said.
Carl Tepper of Kucera Management, which manages 20 office buildings in North and Northwest Austin, said the city should allow variances for evapotranspiration controllers, devices that can save water by prompting sprinklers to run only when a lawn needs water, based on soil and weather conditions.
Beginning next year, the city will require the controllers on newly installed sprinkler systems, Strub said. But they will have to be programmed to run only twice a week.
"If we gave variances to everyone (with "ETs") just because of the potential to use less water, that would make the ordinance much less enforceable. There would be exceptions all over town," Strub said.
Wow. What a nice illustration of the lunacy of top-down regulations. Let's count the costs. First, there are the unnecessary direct enforcement costs. We will spend $300,000 years on inspectors to snoop for profligate water use when we could get the same savings for free just by fiddling with the price.
Second, there are the secondary enforcement costs -- the unnecessary extra water use caused because our enforcement scheme must be simple enough to enforce. Thus, we have good Mr. Strub arguing that we can't encourage businesses to use efficient evapotranspiration controllers "just because of the potential to use less water." Right. Let's require businesses to waste water so we can easily monitor whether they are wasting water.
Third, there are the losses to businesses caused by the one-size-fits-all approach. The twice-a-week schedule may not be enough for some; the cost to them will be dead landscapes. But even when the twice-a-week schedule is adequate, some businesses might be able to cut their water use in a different, less painful way. The extra cost
s they must incur to do it the City's way is a dead-weight loss.
Fourth, the top-down approach misses a lot of potential savings. The City's regulations focus solely on lawn watering. That may account for most water use, but I guarantee that there are plenty of easy savings to be found in restaurants, car washes and office buildings. Raising the price would encourage all commercial water users to watch their water use. We would save more water at a lower average cost.
Using prices would have two other collateral benefits to the City. First, it would permit us to calculate the cost of water conservation. That's a good thing when we'd like to know whether it would be cheaper to add new water treatment plants. Second, raising the price would bring in extra revenue that could be spent on improving water infrastructure -- old, leaking pipes, for example.
This turned into a sermon after all. But I really don't get this fetish for top-down regulation. Just raise the damned price.