Monday, July 23, 2018

A Hot, Wet Tragedy of the Commons

Baby AF, briefly and formerly known on this blog as Baby by Forty, aka BabyDB40, has been going through a six week growth spurt and denying us sleep, even on the weekends. As such, the blog's writing will experience lows not previously thought possible. Your patience is appreciated.

But before this site morphs into a dad blog, I thought we'd get back to basics: a preachy, left-leaning diatribe that lazily links something I found in the newspaper or NPR to economics and personal finance. Enjoy.

I know it's cool to dunk on the New York Times these days, and the paper has certainly given its critics plenty to be angry about. But it's still the site I go to for news (if not for op-eds) in the early morning and the way-too-late-at-night. I'll forever love the paper, flaws and all, because the writing is always so good.

Earlier this week, Noah Gallagher Shannon wrote an excellent long form piece, "The Water Wars of Arizona" which documents how huge, foreign and out-of-state corporations are buying up land in the rural parts of our state to grow crops. And while the fairly ridiculous notion of agriculture sprouting in the desert is not particularly new, the scale and the reasons corporations are buying up land here, are. 

For one, these new farms are drilling for water far, far deeper than they used to. These agricultural conglomerates are extracting so much water that the local residents' wells cannot pull enough water to run a washing machine or draw a bath: the water level is being drained below the depths of their wells. 

The solution for the residents? Do as the big farms are: drill deeper, at a five figure expense, and hope that the water table isn't drawn down so far that you run in to the same problem down the line.

But why are these corporations buying up Arizona land in the first place? Why now? It's the same thing that drew companies to the state for mining a century earlier: a complete lack of regulation.
My family came to the state in 1980, as my dad worked for a company hoping to get a different resource out of the hot, Arizona ground: copper. I was born in a tiny mining town called Globe: the sort of place that elicits a chuckle from Arizona natives when you say you're from there. As soon as the job was done, we picked up sticks and my dad was on to the next opportunity in Nevada. 

But the state of Arizona has long let companies pillage its resources, its residents frequently getting little in return. The area is typical of "The Far West" described in Colin Woodard's American Nations: libertarian-leaning and embroiled in a love-hate relationship with the corporations who employ, and exploit, local labor. The area's economic history is littered with sad stories of former mining towns turned to tourist stops and ghost towns: remnants of industries that simply wanted to take whatever they could out of the earth.

At one point, the state decided it would sell a huge portion of their public land and buildings, including its own capitol building, which the state then leased back from investors who, inexplicably, were allowed to remain anonymous. Arizona residents weren't told the name of the corporation their property had been sold to and that, now, was their landlord.

This environment of lax regulation was bound to bring other companies calling. Even though there are no more choice public buildings to pillage, there was still something of value the state could sell: water. Rather than using the water from rivers and lakes which are heavily regulated, huge companies could just use the water pumped from the underground aquifers, which is amazingly not governed by many laws. For example, the New York Times piece notes that "local farmers were never required to put meters on their wells...which meant that nobody knew exactly how much water was being pumped, much less how much was left. "

My state's foolish policies aside, the larger issue at play here is determining the best use of public resources, which everyone, residents, local small businesses, and far flung corporations, all have to share. 

Unfortunately, what is happening in rural Arizona is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. This occurs when a group of individuals that share a resource (say, underground water used by residents and industrial farms, or fisherman from several nations sharing the supply of fish in a sea) act in their own "rational" self-interest, but end up depleting the public resource they are sharing. 

If the group collectively takes more than the common supply can replenish, eventually the resource can be permanently destroyed. No one single player is to blame. Every actor is just doing what he thinks is to his benefit. But eventually the group ends up in a situation where all the individual actors are screwed: the fish are all gone, the wells go dry, and everyone loses.

At the core of the issue is the right of ownership. Cutting up and selling parcels of land is one thing. Assuming that each individual owner can pump as much water as he'd like from the ground underneath is another.

Who owns the aquifer of water that sits below all the thousands of parcels of land? Well, no one does. Or put another way, everyone does. It's not to be owned, but shared. Hence, the commons.

Maybe that's too much of a hippy-dippy framing for the conservative or, sigh, libertarian readers out there. So let's try a different take.

A tragedy of the commons, like we're seeing with the aquifers, is a type of market failure: when a market fails to distribute goods efficiently. It's terribly inefficient for a small group of farmers to destroy a renewable water resource, when the alternative is everyone sustainably drawing from it indefinitely.

Still, I'm arguing from the position of someone who plans to live here for a long time. These companies are essentially mining water and sending it across the globe in the form of alfalfa for Saudi cattle and pecans for Chinese consumers. It's naive to think they have any interest in preserving this resource for local, Arizona residents. They're trying to exploit it for their residents.

So what can protect the commons? The R word: regulation.

Local politicians need to give more thought to what they ought to do with public resources. Who should benefit from them? If you want the resources to benefit your citizens, how many generations do you want these resources to be around for?

I write about reaching financial independence and retiring at the ripe old age of forty, so hopefully it is clear that I am no socialist. I am very happy to make money, to invest money in humongous companies, and to let capitalism do its thing. In my heart, I really am a believer in the free market.

Free markets do a lot of things well, but allocation of a scarce public resource is not always one of them. The free market doesn't give two shits about whether an acre of water would be better for a thousand residents to drink, instead of feeding cattle halfway around the world.

But citizens should care. Politicians, even right leaning ones who have "conserve" as the root of their fucking brand, should care about conserving the water their constituents depend on: the miracle under their feet.

So this fall, as the national media get wrapped up in the narratives of whether Democrats can flip the House, or maybe even steal a couple seats in the Senate, take a look at the local races in your neighborhood and your state. My bet is that there's an important issue (or five) in your hood like our state's little water debacle.

As always, thanks for reading.

*Photo is from kevin dooley at Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. Great post. I learned about the tragedy of the commons in first year philosophy, and the concept has depressed me ever since...but it has also helped me understand a lot about human behaviour and the need for regulations. Yes, capitalism does a better job of distributing resources than communism ever has, but it does so at the expense of the environment and our collective future unless we balance the free market with regulations that are in the public's interest.

    1. Thanks for writing, Solitary Diner!

      I agree that the tragedy of the commons is depressing. One tends to see it all over the place as we tear down forests, hunt species to their extinction, etc. etc.

      As you said, captialism is our best economic system but I wish we could acknowledge that while also stating the obvious: it ain't fucking perfect and, you know, has some known flaws that we can address with, gasp, regulation.

  2. Hhhmm. I suppose a way that I can (sort of) connect to this is how we think about schools (can you tell I'm getting ready to go back to teach?). Unfortunately, as a society, we have yet to think of all kids as our kids. The future is a commons, no? I'm glad you wrote this post. There's lots of chew on.

    1. Oh! And best of luck with the sleep situation. My son just turned one...and still hates sleep. I plan on nagging his tired butt *every* morning when he's a teenager trying to sleep until noon!

    2. Hi Penny,

      As a former teacher, I definitely can relate to children being a type of commons. We can invest in this future generation and all reap the benefits for hundreds of years, or we can neglect this generation, save some money on property taxes right now, and then pay the bill in 20 years.

      I was hoping you'd give some good news about sleep 1 year in but I appreciate the honesty! Maybe I'll just have to get used to functioning without sleep.

  3. I'm a geologist by training and so it doesn't take much for me to start panicking about groundwater resources. Another example: when I head out on public trails or visit a local lake and there is trash just... everywhere. How hard is it to care? How hard is it to take the future into consideration? Sigh.

    1. So neat to hear from a geologist! How bad do you think the aquifer situation is in Arizona?

      Trash on trails/campsites is definitely a pet peeve for us as well. We saw a couple bad spots in Iceland and were pretty steamed: it's way to beautiful to trash.

  4. If you haven't read it (and since you have all kinds of free time now that you have a newborn in the house... j/k), you should check out the novel "The Water Knife". It came out a few years ago and is basically a dystopia set in the American southwest in the not distant future where people live and die because of water rights.

    1. Cool! I have actually been reading to baby AF (like, books I want to read) so I'll put it on the library list. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Ever seen The Book of Eli? Fun distopian future movie that's also somehow all about scarce water.

  5. "I know it's cool to dunk on the New York Times these days". I take umbrage with that particular sentence. It's not cool at all. Only losers who hate the free press dunk on the NYT (and the NYT always repairs its errors).

    Now on to your post. My wife and I read that article about Arizona last weekend as well. We immediately said to each other, "We're keeping our property in Seattle (or replacing in king)...our son and/or grandchildren will need it!"

    I don't want to come down too much on the SW, but a fews back I was sitting around having beers with a few (military) college buddies. We started pontificating about what cities are worth retiring to (we are all well traveled ex-military roamers). I remember quickly at the beginning saying, "Well forget the entire SW, it's not going to have any water and is screwed." Lots of nodding heads and the closer anyone got to the SW with our selections was Denver.

    I'm not just observing this from afar. My dad retired to Las Vegas. In the course of his 20+ years there, Lake Meade went from a vibrant boating wonderland, to a wasteland.

    This stuff is not hypothetical. Have a backup plan.

    1. Glad to hear you're another NYT fan, Tin! I knew we'd get along famously.

      I'm probably more optimistic about the long term viability of the southwest because 70% of our water usage is to agriculture, and the state is turning more purple every election. All residential use (which I think is at the core of whether people can really live here) only accounts for 22%. I wrote about this in the early days of the blog:

      If agriculture's usage is limited even a bit...

    2. That's a really nice 2013 post. I'm VERY familiar with taking Navy showers, having been in a naval military service ;-). I'm also very familiar with making fresh water out of sea water and how precious fresh water is to the longevity of an ecosystem (a ship at sea).

      Now how do you get the agriculture industry there to start doing the equivalent of naval showers for themselves?

      As you say, regulations often are necessary for a very good reason. Usually because you can't generally trust your common man to do anything other than what is in their OWN self/financial interest (see tobacco, see Purdue Pharma and the opiod crisis, see Enron, see Wells Fargo, see the oil industry and climate change denial, etc, etc, etc.)

    3. I totally agree with the last paragraph, Tin. Industries won't regulate themselves. My hope is that citizens (and thus the politicians they elect) get comfortable with the idea of regulating the industries that operate in their backyard, rather than submitting to the infallibility of the free market. Even Republican politicians ought to defend the public commons against, say, foreign corporations that are essentially mining as much water as they can and exporting it back to their countries in the form of alfalfa for cows in Saudi Arabia.

      But if they don't, then perhaps Arizona citizens should start electing some centrist Democrats. :)

      And I didn't realize you served in the Navy! Hooray for the navy shower. :)

  6. I heard a story on NPR about this same thing in California central valley. Farmers are running out of water and they keep digging deeper and deeper. It's a race to use up these valuable resources. Pretty sad, but I guess it's human nature. Maybe we should stay in the Pacific Northwest afterall...

    1. Yeah, once you get inland from the coast in CA, you start to realize that a lot of this state is a desert, too.

      I have a feeling CA will find a way to keep things sustainable, as they're not afraid to use regulation when it's for the long term benefit of their citizens. AZ...I'm a little shakier on.

  7. Another fantastic post. You know, every time I hear some conservative blow hard going on about "job killing regulations" I sorta want to scream. I completely agree with you about the irony of their title as well, because it seems completely obvious to me that the only thing they are interested in "conserving" is their own power and privilege. What makes the irony even more palpable is the fact that they are eager to regulate things like who people can marry or which bathroom they can use. And don't EVEN get me started on the granddaddy of all tragedies of the commons: climate change.

    Anyhow, have you ever seen the film The Milagro Beanfield War? I have a hunch you'd like it.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, ECL! And I will need to check out that film, for sure.

      Somehow I forgot to include climate change in this post: as you said, the grandaddy of the tragedies of the commons. We're slowly screwing ourselves, aren't we?

  8. So just this morning I'm reading articles about the record setting heat wave in the SW. I don't know if you're old enough to remember, but reading the article just brings me back to that classic Sam Kinison comedy routine, "You live in a desert! Nothing grows here. Get the dog, get the kids, we'll take you to where the food is!"

    Here's a "cleaner" version of it:

  9. I can relate. My property near Tucson came with 1/10th ownership of a dried up well. The neighbors tell me that the golf course moved in everyone's well dried up. Some have drilled deeper but the $25K price to drill a new well has put me off and I plan to use rainwater collection exclusively when I finally move out there.

  10. Riparian rights are fascinating, and terrifying since every human needs access to clean water. Regulation is sensible.

  11. I meant to come back to this a long time ago but .. you know. Stuff.

    I'm trying to teach JB to take navy showers too because we're also not in the best water-supplied area and even if we're out of the drought now, I want our habits to always be conservative and respectful of the fact that water is a precious resource. The problem is there are so many more people who think it's their right to use up as much water as they can draw and that's just going to be a common problem.

    I have family planning to move to Arizona in the next few years to a property and primarily relies on well water, and I worry about what's going to happen when a business moves in and sucks up all their water.

  12. Excellent post. Things are unlikely to get better here until voters smarten up enough to elect leadership who will root out the corruption (particularly at venues such as the corporation commission, for example, which in cahoots with APS has made it impractical to install solar electric systems on homes). But...even my conservative friends are getting fed up with the antics in Washington. With any luck and some common sense from the Democrats (good luck with that!), maybe we finally will rise up and throw the rascals out.

    In the meantime: if you or your friends have any dreams of retiring to the desert or the high country, be very careful. Most areas away from the cities have serious water problems, partly for the reasons you describe. We used to own a ranch near Yarnell, and I would kill (almost) to have it back...but in brief moments unhazed by nostalgia realize that even though it straddled the Hassayampa River and we did own some water rights there, it might not have enough to keep even one residence with a couple of humans and a dog or two going -- to say nothing of a herd of cattle and a few horses. And you think you've seen forest fires in California? Northern Arizona hosts the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world...and it's all dying of drought and beetle infestation.

  13. I saw a supposedly a Japanese saying that said if you plan for next year, plan rice. If you plan for 10 years, plan trees. If you plan for 100 years, teach the children.