Monday, September 7, 2009

What's up with the City/County Water Study Committee?

The last meeting (Aug. 20) had some pretty interesting discussion occurring because of a late addition to the agenda. A local outfit called the Tucson Regional Water Coalition (TRWC) sent the committee a report titled "Water as an Economic Resource" (pdf document). Sounds pretty innocuous, right? And for the most part it was. But I should start by explaining what the Tucson Regional Water Coalition is. It was created last year by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC), a local organization of business and development heavy-hitters. This fact obviously did not sit well with some of the committee members who will never trust anything coming from those quarters.

But, despite it's detractors, the paper did elicit some good discussion of the merits of, and justification for, regarding water as an economic good in some aspects of water policy. What I thought was particularly good was the discussion by a panel of "experts" brought in by the creators of the paper to discuss it's merits. By and large they were not too impressed with it, although at least one of them did review it and make suggestions to a draft version of it. While they generally agreed with the overall tone of the paper, I thought they felt some of the assertions made were a bit too strong. The recommendations at the end of the paper, in particular, may have overstated the case a bit. Such as: "Establish policy declaring economic efficiency as the central criterion in water management decisions." While it should be a consideration, I don't see how you can justify making it the "central criterion."

I was also disappointed in the examples they chose to use for applying economic principles to analysis of water policy. After opening the paper with a pretty good discussion of how to consider all costs associated with a policy in your decision-making process, they completely failed to do that in their examples. I viewed the examples as a pretty blatant way of demonstrating that conservation and environmental uses of water don't stack up in terms of economic efficiency the same as acquisition of additional water supplies and application of all water to serve growth.

The authors could have done a better job of presenting the value of economic principles in a way that would further the central focus of the study - balancing growth and the environment in ways that provide long-term benefit to our communities. And some of the committee members could have done a better job of seeing the paper for what it was (at least arguably) intending to accomplish - remind us that economics are part of good policy.

As for the primary focus of that meeting - evaluating the cost of growth - representatives of our water and sewer utilities did an admirable job of demonstrating how they have changed their financing and billing structures over the years to shift the costs of new services (growth) onto those customers, rather than sharing the cost among all customers. It's still not perfect, but that is mostly because of failings in state law that restrict the ability of local jurisdictions to recover some costs through impact fees. But even so - the costs of water and sewer will be going up in this area for the foreseeable future because of regulatory requirements and other needs associated with aging infrastructure. Glad to see they're planning ahead.

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