Sometimes it seems like the drought has gone on so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be under water restrictions. Where I live we are currently under “Stage 1” restrictions. Twice a week, on a day assigned based on my address, I wait for the clock to strike 7:00 pm, and then lug out my sprinklers to water my brown and splotchy lawn.
It’s annoying. Sometimes I’m even tempted to “cheat” and water my lawn surreptitiously in the dead of night. When I see a green lawn in my neighborhood, I can’t help but wonder if they are really abiding by the rules. Nevertheless, I recognize that many places in the state have things even worse, and it seems like an acceptable sacrifice to conserve water during a time of scarcity.
But what if it doesn’t? What if those who cheat and water more frequently that restrictions allow actually use less water than those who follow the rules? That is the counter-intuitive result of a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Organization and Behavior. The study, which looked at the effects of water restrictions in Nevada, found that imposing outdoor water restrictions did not affect weekly water use, and that households that followed the restrictions used more water overall than those who did not. The authors speculated that when homeowners were only allowed to water on set days, they responded by binging on water on those days, whereas houses that had more flexibility tended to water when and where it would be most effective.
If we want to encourage water conservation, the best way to do so is to let prices reflect market realities. When there is a shortage of an ordinary product, prices tend to rise, and this price increase leads people to find ways to cut back. If the price of movie tickets goes up, people see fewer movies. When the price of gasoline goes up, people buy cars with higher gas mileage. The main difference with water is that prices are controlled by political as well as economic factors.