Monthly Archives: March 2014

Where Will San Francisco Get its Water Now? Analyzing a Failed Water Transfer Deal


Cities have a massive thirst for water, but their needs must be balanced against those of agriculture and the natural environment in
determining how fresh water will be allocated. In California, an emerging market for water transfers allows various water districts to negotiate for additional supplies. In theory, areas with unmet water needs will contract with areas that have surpluses.
As Keith Tanner (MCP ’13) notes, however, this market-based system of allocating water resources does not always operate efficiently. Keith analyzes a failed negotiation between the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Modesto Irrigation District to transfer water supplies from agricultural to urban use. Though initially promising, the deal fell apart. The press blamed the intervention of a stakeholder coalition opposed to transferring long-term ownership of water outside their agricultural region.

Keith attributes the failure of the deal to the interaction of three overlapping spheres of conflict that combined to make the deal politically infeasible. First was internal conflict within the Modest Irrigation District. Newly elected board members staunchly opposed the deal. Second, several of the district’s contractual partners—including the City of Modesto, which threatened to sue to block the deal—imposed barriers of various kinds. Compared to these concerns, the opposition of the stakeholder coalition—though present—was a relatively minor factor in scuttling the MID boards’ willingness to pursue the deal.

The case of the failed San Francisco deal raises concerns about the ability of the water transfer system to operate efficiently in California. Keith reports that the city has moved on to pursue a similar deal with another regional irrigation district, while MID has turned its attention in-house to better defining its strategy and preferences in the water market. Read more about California water transfers and the failed deal to add to San Francisco’s water supply in Keith’s thesis.

How Small Towns Think About Big Gas

Thanks to technological advances in natural gas exploration, many rural American towns are now confronted by a puzzle with which they have little experience: how to regulate gas drilling in their backyards. The reactions of local jurisdictions to natural gas have varied widely, as officials have considered the tradeoff between economic rewards and environmental risks. What explains the disparity in the approaches that local governments take to gas drilling? How do they decide about local policy?


Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Jessie Agatstein (MCP ’13) takes on this question in her thesis, which looks at local responses to natural gas drilling in three communities—Erie, CO, Washington County, ID, and Dryden, NY—all with populations under 20,000. These localities have adopted markedly different approaches to natural gas exploration. Erie has pursued negotiated agreements with specific developers, Washington County has utilized special use provisions to define where and how drilling may occur, and Dryden has banned the practice all together.

Much of this difference, Jessie notes, can be explained by two things. The first is the delegation of regulatory authority over natural gas exploration in many states to local governments, producing a wide array of policy approaches across countless jurisdictions. The second is what Jessie terms “problem diffusion.” It results from differences in how gas issues are viewed on the ground in different geographic contexts. Instead of copying the policies that other nearby jurisdictions have taken, local officials respond mostly to the problems that their neighbors have encountered and formulate policies that are intended to counteract these difficulties.

Jessie also notes the high level of sophistication with which local officials in the communities she studied with have approached natural gas exploration. Contradicting the stereotype of outmatched and incapable small town governments, officials have deftly navigated many complex issues. In some cases they have charted new policy territory. She cites the wealth of public information available online about natural gas impacts and local regulatory policy as strong contributors to the effectiveness of local officials in dealing with natural gas.

What insights can you share about how communities have reacted to natural gas exploration? Post a comment below, or read more in Jessie’s thesis.

Use Only What You Need: Strategies for Water and Stormwater Conservation

BusBench_imgMunicipal water agencies find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. In many jurisdictions, water supply and infrastructure are reaching their limits as both population and demand for fresh water continue to grow. Conservation is an obvious goal for water agencies, and many have begun to experiment with innovative ways to address growing water consumption.

Zach Youngerman (MCP ’13) catalogues these efforts and assesses their impacts. He combines water conservation policy tools into three categories: regulatory approaches which restrict the allowable uses of water, particularly in times of drought; financial approaches that use price signals to reduce demand; and community-based social marketing approaches that encourage the adoption of new norms and behaviors to save water.

Zach finds that regulatory approaches can work reasonably well for water conservation, but have minimal or negative effects for reduced stormwater use. Similarly, incentives and pricing signals have been an effective—if somewhat adversarial—means of achieving conservation in some cases, through the inability to meter stormwater use can make their application difficult. Social marketing approaches—such as encouraging the use of rain barrels or an advertising a lawn care aesthetic rooted in more natural landscaping—seem to have been highly effective, though water bureaus must overcome entrenched norms about water use and have encountered many obstacles in the course of conducting a campaign.

In practice, water bureaus often employ a variety of these three approaches in encouraging water conservation, and Zach offers a set of best practices for agencies to consider for each. Read about these recommendations in Zach’s thesis, and share your own thoughts on successful strategies to encourage conservation below!