November 2012, Vol. 24, No.11

Water Volumes

Aquanomics: Water Markets and the Environment

B. Delworth Gardner and Randy T. Simmons (2012). The Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, CA 94621-1428, 413 pp., $34.95, softcover, ISBN-978-1-4128-4578-6

John R. Wennersten

The authors of this book have put together an extremely useful primer of up-to-date information on water markets, pricing, and the economics of dam decommissioning. The book explains that water needs to be treated differently from other resources; water needs to be viewed as both a pricing tool and a natural resource.

The biggest problem we confront in the future, argue Gardner and Simmons, is that humans have altered freshwater ecosystems worldwide. Currently, the regulatory framework for these freshwater markets is unstable in the United States and elsewhere. 

The authors have assembled a number of seasoned perspectives that range from water quality markets to the role of water in the political economy of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. A unifying theme of these essays is the current difficulty in expanding water laws and removing barriers for improved water efficiencies and conservation. 

By far the most interesting essay in this book is that of Brian Steed. In “Lessons From Los Angeles: Dealing With Diminished Predictability in Los Angeles Water Resources,” Steed chronicles Los Angeles’ problematic water history. In many respects, he finds that Los Angeles is the template for all American cities that experience economic and population growth and need to garner water stability. 

The lesson learned is that many of the areas where water has been imported from have now become water-needing growth areas in their own right. As Steed notes, people “not only want water flowing from their taps, many also want a flourishing ecosystem in the area where the water originates.” As cities develop their diversified water portfolios, they will have to implement water technologies that include low-flow toilets, graywater reuse, and conservation-based water pricing systems. As prices rise in urban water markets, Steed concludes that desalination will become an increasingly attractive option. 

The book is written in a forthright non-technical style. Insights from “water people” such as Brandon Scarborough, Richard Wahl, Pearl Zheng, and Susan Sayre more than justify the price of this well-bound edition. 

John R. Wennersten is the author of Global Thirst: Water and Society in the 21st Century and is a consultant on urban rivers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.