Should Americans who use more water, pay more?

"I think that we Americans are spoiled. When we wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television," says Robert Glennon. (Credit: Richard Giles/Flickr)

If dollar bills flowed out of the faucet and down the drain every time you turned on the tap, would you use less water?

About one-third of the United States is in at least a moderate state of drought and experts say US water policy needs a serious overhaul to solve the problem.


Most people think of water as if it’s air—an infinite and inexhaustible resource, when it’s actually quite finite, says Robert Glennon, professor of law and public policy at University of Arizona.

“I think that we Americans are spoiled. When we wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television.”

Exacerbating the drought, which is most severe in the Southwest, is a rapidly increasing population. The US Census Bureau estimates the country’s population will balloon from nearly 310 million in 2010 to more than 420 million in 2060.

“Where are we going to get the water and other resources for an additional 110 million fellow US citizens?” Glennon says. “It’s a real challenge. And that’s before you consider climate change.”

Use more, pay more

Most people don’t even think about their daily water use, says Glennon, the author of a new paper, Shopping for Water and of the book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.

“Even in places where people pay a ‘bill’ for water, they’re not actually paying for the water,” he says. “What they’re paying for when they write that check . . . is the cost of service.”

Seasonally adjusted increasing block rates could be the answer, he says. In other words, people who use more water, pay more.

Glennon acknowledges that increasing the price of water is controversial. It’s necessary to recognize the human right to water, but allotting a modest amount for basic sanitation, cooking, and drinking would require only 12 to 15 gallons of water per person per day.

How to price 99% of the water

Multiplied times the approximately 310 million US citizens, the amount would equal around 1 percent of total current US water consumption.

“It’s absolutely a question of bringing people into a conversation,” Glennon says. “Then we can have a discussion about how to price the rest of the 99 percent of water.”

The agricultural industry accounts for around 80 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use, and more than 90 percent in many Western states, according to the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. But with water so cheap, there are no real incentives for farmers to use less of it, to spend money on installing expensive water-conserving infrastructures, or to cease crop production during the offseason.

It’s what economists call “the tragedy of the commons,” in which users have limitless access to a common-pool resource, Glennon says.

Another straw in the glass

“I like to say our water supply is like a giant milkshake glass. Each demand for water, or each well, is like a straw in the glass.”

Establishing markets driven by a demand-offset system could be a solution, Glennon says. If someone wants to add a new straw to the glass, they first need to convince someone else to remove theirs.

In this scenario, farmers could stand to even make a profit by leasing their water to others during their offseasons. In turn, the profit gained could be used toward updating their infrastructure to use water more efficiently.

This seemingly beneficial solution would be difficult to enact until US water policy—which makes it difficult for farmers to trade water in some areas—is overhauled.

To Glennon, solving the US drought is a matter of removing the disincentives. “I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.

“As I go around the country, I meet inventors and engineers who have built better mousetraps—things that work (to conserve water),” he says.

“What is so sad is that almost none of them have a viable business plan. The price of water doesn’t justify it. There’s the threat about running out of oil, but water is needed by virtually every business in the United States. The problem with the system is we don’t think about water. We use more than we need to, and we need to change that.”

Source: University of Arizona