As Americans we are understandably proud of our commitment to efficiency. It is no surprise, then, that in order to save our aquifer and springs in North Florida, we encourage ever more efficient ways of using water.
At the individual level, we endeavor to install water-saving showers and toilets or to plant drought resistant shrubs and lawns. On a larger scale we seek to develop more efficient ways of using water for irrigation, such as replacing center-pivot irrigation by “dropped-nozzle” application of water to crops.
The records show that efficiencies can indeed foster per-capita decreases in consumption, but it may come as a surprise to many that, at the community level, the drive to enhance efficiency usually results in an increase in overall water consumption!
This paradox has been documented through the outcomes of a number of projects that were intended to save groundwater by implementing more efficient ways of irrigating crops. In regions that ranged from Kansas to New Mexico and Colorado, increased water use followed in the wake of adopting greater efficiencies.
This counter-intuitive phenomenon is not new. It was described 150 years ago by British economist William Jevons. Unfortunately, this inconvenient reality, known as “Jevons’ Paradox,” has been little-heralded by economists since then.
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