Q&A: Why is water cheaper than cable TV?

ASU professor explores past, present and future of water

March 16, 2017

Every year on March 22 United Nations Water celebrates World Water Day to highlight solutions to the world’s water crisis.

ASU Professor Michael Hanemann, an expert in environmental and resource economics, explores the past, present and future of water, and how climate change will impact water supply, distribution and costs in the U.S. and around the world. ASU Professor Michael Hanemann, an expert in environmental and resource economics, explores the past, present and future of water, and how climate change will impact water supply, distribution and costs in the U.S. and around the world. Download Full Image

Question: Water is one of Earth’s most valuable resources, but is inexpensive for consumers. Why is that?

Answer: Water is essential for life. Cable TV, as far as I know, is not essential for life. Yet many Americans choose to spend more money each month for their cable TV than for water in their homes. 

A gallon of gas costs a bit over $2; a gallon of milk costs about $3; a gallon of orange juice, about $3.50. And, you have to make a trip from your home to get them. Water comes directly into your home, and you pay only 2 or 3 cents for a gallon.

In Phoenix, we live in a desert city. We rely on the Colorado River for a significant part of our water supply. For the last 16 years, the Colorado River has experienced the worst prolonged drought in over a century. Yet, Phoenix has some of the lowest residential water bills in the country.

Around the world, water is seen as something that should not be treated as a commodity. Instead, people see water as a human right, something that is provided but that should not have to be paid for.

Q: How did that viewpoint come about?

A: In 1821, a water activist in London said, “Water must be considered one of the elements necessary to existence, the same as light and air; therefore, its supply to a great city ought not to be the subject of [commercial] trade.”

The pricing of water is a political flashpoint.

In Tucson, forty years ago, the City Council learned this the hard way. Water revenues were not keeping up with costs, and the water system was running out of capacity to meet peak summer demand. Water rates were raised to finance the needed improvements. Overnight, water bills skyrocketed.

A recall election was called and the City Council majority which had voted for the rate increase was booted out. As it happens, rates stayed up anyway, but the memory lingers and “Remember the Recall” remains a potent slogan.

Q: How have the economics of supplying water changed over time?

A: The economics ought to be simple. Water is not a man-made commodity. It falls from the sky.

But, in fact, the economics of water is surprisingly complex. From an economic perspective, water is a difficult commodity. It is free and yet costly. It is simultaneously a private good and a public good. It helped cities flourish financially but now it is their financial burden.

Water comes from nature at no charge. Three quarters of the earth’s surface is water. But, people don’t always live where water is located – in Phoenix, for example. They need water year round, not just when it rains. And the quality has to be right.

The cost of water is the cost of making it available at the right time, the right location, and the right quality — it is the cost of collecting, storing, transporting and treating the water.

That is why the cost of water in Phoenix is low: The infrastructure is new and doesn’t yet need much repair. The water itself is essentially free. In Boston, Chicago or Detroit, the water is abundant, but the water infrastructure is old and expensive to maintain. Therefore, water bills are high.

The cost of water is overwhelmingly a capital cost, much more so than electricity or gas or telephones. If you supply a bit more or a bit less water, the total cost hardly changes. Operating costs account for more than half the total cost of electricity supply, one third the total cost of for natural gas, but only about one tenth of the cost for an urban water network.

Q: Maintaining water systems is a complicated process that will only get more complicated due to rising temperatures. How might climate change affect costs?

A: In many municipal systems, there is intense political pressure to keep water rates low. The result is that, while rates cover operating costs, they don’t fully cover the cost of maintaining and replacing the water infrastructure.

The American Waterworks Association recommends 1 percent of pipe networks be replaced each year. That is equivalent to saying a pipe should be replaced after 100 years. But in some municipalities, to keep water rates down, the investment in maintenance is equivalent to replacing a pipe only after 1,000 years.

This cannot continue. Many of the current water pipes were put in soon after World War II and they are reaching the end of their working lives. Over the next twenty years, the cost to replace urban pipe networks may reach about a trillion dollars nationwide. Water agencies will have to spend three or four times as much on replacing pipes as they do today. If anything, this might lower rather than raise property values.

This is the cost to replace the network that we have today. It does not include the cost to meet new drinking water quality standards required for ever more exotic contaminants showing up in our water.

Then, there is climate change. With climate change, droughts are likely to occur more frequently in many areas. Because of the cost structure, if there’s a drought and the utility delivers less water, its costs hardly go down. It will have to charge more per gallon supplied. Rates should go up, not down, with drought.

Additionally, in Phoenix water lines are usually buried one to two feet below the ground. But the ground surface is getting warmer, and this is heating up the water pipes. At some point the pipes will have to be dug up and buried deeper. This isn’t rocket science — but it is expensive.

For water supply, there is a schizoid aspect to climate change. The warmer air puts more moisture into the atmosphere, which translates into more intense precipitation. But that can be combined with greater dryness at other times of the year. The result is a less reliable surface water supply.

A solution is to have more storage capacity. But storage is extremely costly. We will end up having to spend more money to get the same supply reliability that we used to have in the past.

This is the larger reality that we will all face: Maintaining the water supply that we have now, and that we take for granted, is going to become far more expensive. Viewing water as a commodity that one pays hardly anything for is just not going to work in the future.

Leslie Minton

ASU prof devising innovative tool for ‘unexpected’ writers

March 16, 2017

“As soon as you take one step up the career ladder,” the late management guru Peter Drucker aptly observed, “your effectiveness depends on your ability to communicate your thoughts in writing and in speaking.” 

What does that mean for the millions of professionals in technical fields who are under-prepared for that reality?  ASU expert in technical communication and user experience Professor Tatiana Batova ASU assistant professor of technical communication and user experience Tatiana Batova is part of a team about to launch Responsive Writing Solutions, an innovative workgroup tool to help professionals in technical fields who have had little training in writing produce good-quality written communication. Above, Batova stands, appropriately, at the intersection of Innovation Way and Williams Field Road, on ASU’s Polytechnic campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now Download Full Image

“Lots of pain points,” according to Arizona State University professor Tatiana Batova, “and lost time and money for organizations they work in.”  

Batova, who is an expert in professional and technical communication and user experience, is part of a team on the verge of launching a commercial software product to help these “unexpected writers”— professionals in technical fields who are increasingly required to do lots of kinds of writing in their jobs.

“The project started back when I was still a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when I had the idea of developing software that could help ESL (English as a Second Language) engineers and scientists with their professional writing.

“As researchers and communication experts, we were always being hired by companies to do workshops with engineers and other technical specialists to help them become better writers,” she noted.

It got her to wondering: “Could a customizable writing software be created to guide engineers and scientists with the everyday writing they do at work?     

“Interestingly, while we had placed our initial research focus on ESL writers,” continued Batova, who is fluent in English, German and Russian, “we soon found out that the fear of losing face due to poor writing was also a major concern for those for whom English was their first language. So with time, we broadened the focus." 

Now, four years into her career as an assistant professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, Batova and the team, including her doctoral advisor and co-principal investigator, Dave Clark, are about to launch a patentable commercial product that shows high promise.

Their work received seed funding from UW-Milwaukee and has been supported this last year by a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) award.

“I-Corps is a program to boost the commercialization of select technology developed through NSF-funded research,” explained Batova. “In addition to monetary support, there’s a solid entrepreneurship curriculum that takes us through the paces of getting a viable product to market.”

"Our solution not only promises to help writers and companies save money and avoid embarrassing errors and lost business due to poor-quality texts, but also to dramatically increase the job satisfaction of the ‘unexpected writers.'"

— Tatiana Batova, assistant professor of technical communication and user experience

Extensive market research is required of grantees, and Batova and her collaborators thoroughly researched the software that’s currently available, to see where there were opportunities for differentiating their product.

Over the course of a year they also interviewed more than 200 "unexpected writers" in eight U.S. states, about the writing challenges they experience on the job. They also asked them to contribute design ideas for the robust intelligent writing system they were building.

“They were engineers, IT developers, graphic designers, and managers of engineering work groups who have had little training in writing but whose jobs increasingly depend on good-quality written communication,” she reported. “They showed overwhelming interest in our product. 

“The data from the interviews indicate that our solution not only promises to help writers and companies save money and avoid embarrassing errors and lost business due to poor-quality texts, but also to dramatically increase the job satisfaction of the ‘unexpected writers.’”

The tool they’ve developed, Batova said, emphasizes clarity, conciseness, and global English: “The goal is to make the language simple enough for any reader to understand it.”

The system is very robust in its ability to learn.

“As workgroups start using it, the company can identify the documents they think are well done and relevant. The software picks up on rules and can make recommendations on usage and word choice based on analysis of previous documents,” she said. “It essentially can build an organizational style guide and an arsenal of examples of best-practices as well as text that can be re-used in relevant situations in the future.”  

Testing the UX

Now that a prototype of the software is ready, Batova and her team will soon begin testing users’ experience with it.

Batova hopes to draw ASU students into this phase.  

ASU professor Tatiana Batova and students in User Experience (UX) course at the Polytechnic campus

Professor Tatiana Batova and students in her User Experience course brainstorm product and service design improvements. The course, TWC 444/544, is popular with undergraduate and master’s students from a range of majors and colleges. In her courses, Batova works to engage students in a process similar to what she uses in her own research and development: using design thinking and participatory design practices to create and test prototypes with real people. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

“It would be a great opportunity for our bachelor’s and master’s students in technical communication to participate in a UX (user experience) project of this scale,” she added. “UX is a booming field, and this type of experience can help students secure internships and jobs.”

What will usability testing look like for this product?

“We’ll give the person a scenario and a task, like perhaps asking them to write an abstract for a proposal or a work email,” she said, “and then sit next to them and say, okay, show us how you would do that. We’ll be watching them, recording where they click, but also encouraging them to think aloud as they approach the task.

“We may make gentle inquiries like, ‘I see you’ve stopped; why? What are you thinking?’ We try to not to give them reactions that have positive or negative valence.”   

The team has been building a website to promote the product, which they’ve named Responsive Writing Solutions, and some companies they have consulted with in the past have already expressed interest in being early-adopters.

“Our end goal is to be sure that working within the product is easy and intuitive. These people are very busy. For most of them, time spent learning new software — like time spent writing reports and proposals — is time away from what they’re best at: being scientists, developers, and engineers.” 

Maureen Roen

Director, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts