Glendening's heat stroke

August 20, 1999|By William A. Niskanen

AN EXTENDED period of hot muggy weather makes some people do strange things, but Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening takes the prize. The statewide restrictions on water use that he announced August 4 are arbitrary, perverse, heavy handed and ineffective.

Arbitrary, because water conditions differ substantially by region within Maryland but the restrictions are statewide.

There appears to be more than an adequate reserve of water, for example, in the Potomac River watershed, northwest Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and in many areas served by wells.

Perverse, because the restrictions by type of use do not reflect the relative value of different uses of water by individual families, firms and farms.

As a rule, the unit value of water is highest in residential use, somewhat lower in commercial and industrial use, and lowest in agriculture.

The water program announced by Governor Glendening, however, limits some of the higher value uses of water with no restrictions on the much higher volume of lower value agricultural irrigation.

Heavy handed, because the means by which the program would reduce water use are far more intrusive than necessary.

The only ways these restrictions can be enforced are social pressure, neighbors informing on violators, the diversion of police from much more important duties, and fines that are grossly disproportionate to the violation.

A 10 percent increase in the price of water for all water uses in the problem areas should be sufficient to reduce the quantity demanded to the temporarily reduced supply and would allow each user to determine the amount of water used at this higher price.

Ineffective, because the restrictions on water use in areas for which the reserves are adequate provide not one additional drop of water to the residents of low reserve areas.

Mr. Glendening asked all resident of Maryland "to share the pain" of the drought, whether or not they live or work in areas with low water reserves. He did not mention that implementing uniform restrictions throughout Maryland imposes a wholly unnecessary pain on those in areas with adequate reserves.

He also did not mention that a price increase would permit each water user in areas with low water reserves to minimize the pain to themselves by reducing some water uses to maintain others or by reducing some non-water expenditures to maintain their desired total water use at the higher price.

In the name of sharing the pain, Mr. Glendening has increased the pain on all affected parties.

Burton Rubin, a Fairfax County water commissioner, responded by stating that water restrictions in the Washington area "are not necessary and they don't help anybody.

"It's very difficult to understand why anyone who is elected to serve the interests of a group of people would go out of their way to make them miserable." Indeed.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute in Washington.

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