Friday, February 25, 2011

Dispatch from Western Australia- Lessons for California

Mark Lubell, an Associate Professor at the Dept. of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis, is visiting Western Australia and writing on his department's blog about that country's water management lessons for California. Read his latest post: "Dispatch: Climate Adaptation in Southern California...oops...I mean Perth, Western Australia."

According to his departmental bio, Mark studies human behavior and the role of governance institutions in solving collective action problems and facilitating cooperation. His bottom line in this latest post:

Australia appears to have a far more centralized set of environmental management institutions than California, with centralization at the level of state agencies. This is a nuanced statement because in another way natural resource management is decentralized like in California--the national government gives all the responsibility to the states (for example, the states manage the national parks). But in terms of regional adaptation, the state agencies have a lot of centralized control. The chief example is the Water Corporation, which manages all of the water infrastructure and delivers water to households. The local governments don't provide the water themselves, and in fact the local governments have far less control over their resources than cities and counties in the US. So the number of actors and policy games involved with climate adaptation is smaller and more centralized in [Western Australia], which makes for an interesting comparison and possibly a better ability to actually get things done.

I wonder-- what conditions could lead to the creation of a state "Water Corporation" like this in California? Would people cede control at the prospect of trucking in bottled water in a severe drought? Adelaide, Australia, faced this prospect in 2009.

I also wonder how the Australian Water Corporation handles water rates, and if they have anything like a "universal lifeline" rate for low-income households to provide the poor access to water in a drought. It appears from the Water Corporation's website that seniors and pensioners can get "a substantial rebate or concession" on their water bills. Otherwise, it seems water users can negotiate a payment plan, but not for a reduced rate.

Some utility districts in California offer a low-income water rate, but from what I know most don't. Again, I wonder what it would take for California to mandate a water rate for the poor.

--- An aside:

The idea of a universal lifeline rate for water isn't my own idea, incidentally. The Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick, speaking at a UNESCO conference in 1998:

Water is a social good-- we all agree on that. People should pay for its use, to encourage efficiency and as a recognition of its value. But perhaps a universal 'lifeline rate' should be established, and anything above that should be priced much higher. To water a lawn, for example, should be truly expensive.

(As quoted in Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq De Villiers, 2001.)

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