Water Policy and Environmental Justice

I’m pleased to take a break today from my usual focus on climate change policy to highlight some reflections on water policy and environmental justice from someone with great experience and expertise, Sheila Olmstead, professor of public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.  I engage in a conversation with Professor Olmstead on a wide range of topics in the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  I hope you can find time to listen to our conversation here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  I’m pleased to say that my long-time colleague, friend, and former student, Sheila Olmstead, fits very well in this group with her abundant experience in academia, government, and NGOs.

Sheila earned her PhD in Public Policy from Harvard, and has focused much of her academic and professional work on issues relating to water resources management.  In addition to her faculty position at the LBJ School, she is a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Member of the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Editor of the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

If that were not enough, she was previously:  a Senior Staff Economist for Energy and Environment at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, and an Assistant and Associate Professor of Environmental Economics at the Yale School of the Environment.

Discussing water management issues in the United States, Olmstead begins by noting that the arid western states, in general, have greater challenges than do the more wet east coast states. 

“They’re also high growth states, many of them. And so, they struggle more with how to meet especially urban demand, given concerns about the natural supply. And that gets even more interesting as we look to the future, with the climate changing as it is,” she says.

In principle, prices can be an effective tool to affect water demand, but Sheila remarks that water is cheap in many areas of the west, like Phoenix, where the supply is relatively low.

“There’s not a really strong correlation between where the supply is scarce and where the price is high.  And that puts those regions in a very difficult situation of having essentially through the low water prices encouraged the kinds of development that are thirsty, without having the tools in the long run to meet that demand.”

Olmstead highlights that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which had serious impacts on thousands of residents over the course of several years during the last decade, is just one example of the water management challenges facing millions of people across the United States.

“We’re so much better than we were in the 1970s. The Cuyahoga River doesn’t catch on fire and so on, but our remaining major water quality challenges have mostly to do with agricultural water pollution, urban runoff. And these are not things that were well addressed in the structure of the Clean Water Act. And so, we just continue to struggle with the fact that these are really severe remaining problems, and some of them are essentially unregulated,” she says.

When I ask Professor Olmstead about her recent appointment to the EPA Science Advisory Board, she remarks, “I’m excited about the work.  I only have a vague sense so far of what I’m going to be working on, because we’re kind of just getting up and started. They’ve gotten the appointments processed, and I’m very excited about the other folks that are appointed, in particular, my environmental economist colleagues like Dave Kaiser and Lala Ma.”

Finally, I will note that Sheila Olmstead is the co-author of an excellent introductory environmental economics text book (which I use in my own course at Harvard), Markets and the Environment, co-authored with another former student of mine (and recent webinar guest), Nathaniel Keohane.  The book is now in its second edition.

My complete conversation with Sheila Olmstead is the 28th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.