Efficient use of water isn’t enough to save our springs

By Robert E. Ulanowicz

This is a repost of a Jan. 31st, 2015 guest editorial to The Gainesville Sun. Dr. Ulanowicz is a member of the Advisory Panel to the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

As Americans we are understandably proud of our commitment to efficiency. It is no surprise, then, that in order to save our aquifer and springs in North Florida, we encourage ever more efficient ways of using water.

At the individual level, we endeavor to install water-saving showers and toilets or to plant drought resistant shrubs and lawns. On a larger scale we seek to develop more efficient ways of using water for irrigation, such as replacing center-pivot irrigation by “dropped-nozzle” application of water to crops.

The records show that efficiencies can indeed foster per-capita decreases in consumption, but it may come as a surprise to many that, at the community level, the drive to enhance efficiency usually results in an increase in overall water consumption!

This paradox has been documented through the outcomes of a number of projects that were intended to save groundwater by implementing more efficient ways of irrigating crops. In regions that ranged from Kansas to New Mexico and Colorado, increased water use followed in the wake of adopting greater efficiencies.

This counter-intuitive phenomenon is not new. It was described 150 years ago by British economist William Jevons. Unfortunately, this inconvenient reality, known as “Jevons’ Paradox,” has been little-heralded by economists since then.

There are many ways whereby improved efficiency can lead to greater overall consumption, but in most cases the savings gained by better efficiency are overwhelmed by an increase in total demand, spurred on either by the new technology itself or by extrinsic factors.

The implication for Florida’s programs to rescue our groundwater is clear: emphasis solely on water-saving efficiencies is destined to failure. Certainly, as individuals we need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but at the community level it becomes necessary that we reorder our priorities and focus instead primarily upon ways to limit total extractions.

Regulating total use was actually the intended mission of Florida’s water management districts. Toward that end, the districts issue Consumptive Use Permits (CUPs) and establish Minimum Flow Levels (MFLs) for lakes, rivers and springs.

Unfortunately, as the courts have discovered, MFLs are difficult to define, making them almost impossible to adjudicate and enforce.

Applications for CUPs, meanwhile, are almost never denied. To make matters worse, incentives that promote Jevons’ dynamics are actually written into some CUPs. The permit regulating extractions by the Jacksonville utilities, for example, rewards the reuse of wastewater (an efficiency) by allowing additional withdrawals from the aquifer without requiring any replacement!

commonspoemThe bare truth is that, aside from urban residents, use of a scarce and necessary common resource remains free to major users. This situation inevitably leads to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” or catastrophic overuse.

At this time we do not have a firm idea of how much water is being extracted from the aquifer. To avert tragedy we need to begin to measure all that is pumped from the Floridan aquifer. A program to monitor all users — domestic (urban and rural), industrial and agricultural — must be initiated.

Secondly, we need to use water balance models, independent of developmental goals and desires, to establish a cap on what can be sustainably removed from the Floridan aquifer. While capping withdrawals might seem draconian to some in North Florida, it should be mentioned that caps restricting pumping have already been established around Orlando and Tampa. Such limits are long overdue for North Florida.

Finally, we must develop a schedule of charges to be assessed to all users commensurate with their metered use.

Once fees have been implemented (a possible referendum issue?), greater efficiencies will arise quickly and spontaneously. A convenient mnemonic for this strategy is E=mc2, or “Effective management consists of metering, capping and costing.”

We in North Florida are indeed fortunate to have our springs and lakes as visible indicators of the health of our aquifer.

calculate and internalizeElsewhere, as with the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest, the deleterious effects of overpumping remain largely invisible, and these groundwater resources are being tapped to extinction.

Of almost equal importance to our well-being, it is extremely fortuitous that we possess our springs and lakes for recreation, scenic beauty and inspiration.

They are outstanding riches that truly deserve extraordinary efforts for their preservation.

However, if we fail to make our top management priority the capping of total extraction from the Floridan, it becomes inevitable that we will lose these irreplaceable treasures.

MaximumpowerspeedlimitWe need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but we must reorder our priorities and focus primarily on ways to limit total extractions.


Editor’s note: Is Jevons’ Paradox an early Economist’s observation of the Maximum Power Principle
What are the best policies for preserving precious stocks such as aquifers in our complex society in descent?