Waiting for a miracle at Lake Mead

Lake Mead has dropped another ten feet since I wrote about its open-loop management,

My hypothesis is that the de facto policy for managing water levels is to wait for good years to restore the excess withdrawals of bad years, and that demand management measures in the interim are toothless. That worked back when river flows were not fully subscribed. The trouble is, supply isn’t stationary, and there’s no reason to assume that it will return to levels that prevailed in the early years of river compacts. At the same time, demand isn’t stationary either, as population growth in the west drives it up. To avoid Lake Mead drying up, the system is going to have to get a spine, i.e. there’s going to have to be some feedback between water availability and demand.

An article in the Arizona Republic confirms my thinking,

To slow the lake’s years-long decline, river users have built a reservoir west of Yuma to catch unused runoff, paid farmers to leave fields unplanted and are negotiating with Mexico to leave some of its allocation in Lake Mead while its farmers recover from an earthquake.

None of the steps will yield significant amounts of water, but together, they could keep Lake Mead from sinking below the drought triggers, buying time until a wet winter can replenish some of the water lost to drought.

“It’s time that we need,” said David Modeer, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which moves water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. “The reservoirs have shown they’re resilient. After a 12-year drought, they’re still half-full. What we do now will be worth it to stay out of a shortage.”

Managers are assuming that a return to historic rainfall patterns will save their bacon. But if climate models are right, and the Southwest will be on the losing end of trends in precipitation, that won’t happen. Even if they’re wrong, increasing demand can easily overwhelm restored rainfall. At some point, the loop will have to close – the question is how. Will property rights get reallocated and price signals aligned so that people live within the limits of supply? Or will the lake wind up permanently depleted? There are some signs of improved cooperation among states, but Nevada appears to be betting on failure:

if the reservoir fell below elevation 1,050 feet, one of the tunnels Nevada uses to draw water from the lake would sit above the waterline and would be useless. Nevada is working on a new, deeper tunnel

Gallatin County's Zoning Enforcement Trap

I’m playing a big role in a local effort to get the regulations of our zoning district enforced in the case of an egregious violation. Our planning and zoning commission’s habit, and apparent preference in this case, is not to enforce. Instead, it is proposed to enable the violation through a PUD amendment, and issue a trivial fine ($200, or 0.2% of the stated value of the structure).

Unfortunately, this proposal is illegal, because it contradicts existing covenants and a variety of goals and specific provisions of our General Plan and Zoning Regulation. This action might make sense if it were a naked political ploy to undermine the zoning through administrative rather than legislative means, which I hope is not the case. I think it is more likely an effort to “play nice” with violators and to avoid costly enforcement action.

If so, the resulting weak enforcement posture is a short-sighted avoidance of conflict, that encourages far more problems in the long run. As the diagram below illustrates, backing down on the case at hand solves the immediate problem, but has terrible consequences.

Enforcement Dynamics

  • The precedent for non-enforcement and amendments to legalize violations erodes the legal basis for future enforcement actions.
  • Accommodation creates an expectation of forgiveness, encouraging owners and builders to violate in the future.
  • Exceptions created to accommodate violations make planning documents and title histories more complex, creating more opportunities for errors.

These side effects of lax enforcement accumulate. As violations mount, time that could be spent on productive activity (ensuring a thorough permitting process, or revising zoning regulations to clarify standards and streamline processes) gets squeezed out by time wasted on enforcement.

These reinforcing feedbacks create a deadly trap, into which the unsuspecting can easily step. Once triggered, the vicious cycle creates more pressure to relax enforcement standards, capturing the county in an undesirable equilibrium with many violations and no meaningful enforcement. Ultimately, the citizens (who initiated the zoning district) suffer from the side effects of density granted to violators, that is unavailable to those who comply with the law.

Fortunately, with a little fortitude, the process can be reversed. A single forceful enforcement action has a salutary effect on expectations, stemming the tide of violations and freeing up time for the improvement of regulations. There’s still the hangover of side effects of past accommodation to contend with, but surely the withdrawal is better than the addiction to accommodation.