Suburban California image via shutterstock. Reproduced at shutterstock with permission.
Does California have too much water? Seriously. Because our actions are sending peculiar messages. Even the State Water Board has backed off on conservation targets for some water agencies.
It’s true, rains have replenished much of Northern California’s reservoirs and Governor Brown’s mandated 25% water restrictions made a serious dent in our water binge. A whopping 1.1 million acre-feet of water was saved, or rather, not wasted, thanks to these restrictions. And that water savings came with other benefits: If that 1.1 million acre-feet of water had been produced in a desalination plant instead, 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity would have been consumed—enough for over 800,000 California households for a full year.
Our savings was not inconsequential, but the truth is, we could have squandered even less without much hardship or inconvenience. I learned this directly when, after ripping out the lawn, I cut my water use by 75%. But throughout last summer, the majority of my neighbors—and perhaps yours—were still pouring water on their lush green lawns, ignoring restrictions, and not suffering any consequences except for an occasional warning.
Meanwhile, water agencies were complaining that their budgets were being severely pinched as a result of lower water sales. Many have temporarily weathered the cuts by drawing down reserves but others have been forced to raise rates.
Last summer, the small Yorba Linda Water District in southern California was facing a $9 million budget shortfall and so they raised rates in this conservative upscale Orange County community (home of the Richard Nixon Library) by $25 per month. Residents were so outraged that they gathered twice as many signatures as needed to repeal the hike. Legal wrangling has ensued.
In San Diego County, water officials were gleefully proclaiming their drought-proof ocean desalination project would be completed soon. But their glee turned to embarrassment not long after they flipped the switch and discovered they had too much water. Obligated to take or pay for this expensive new supply, the San Diego County Water Authority opted to take it and dump it in a lake. You read that right.
So do we have too much water or not enough? And if we had more water what would we do with it? Grow more grass on driveways like several of my neighbors?
Many folks think they should be able to waste as much as they can afford. One board member of the Metropolitan Water District (who ironically lives in Yorba Linda), referring to his garden hose, told a Washington Post reporter, “They’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands.” Many offers ensued; he has curtailed his tough guy talk…at least temporarily.
The problem with that sort of thinking is that water is a monopoly and priced as a commons. Many water agencies still charge one flat rate even though water may come from a variety of sources with disparate associated costs. They call it a “melded” rate.
If agencies turn to expensive sources like ocean desalination to provide water to meet the demands of the biggest wasters, then the cost is blended with cheaper water. And it isn’t just the rate-payers within that district who are subsidizing the water wasters. Metropolitan Water District provides hundreds of millions of dollars of additional project subsidies to its members, thus spreading the cost of the subsidy over their entire service area. So, in effect, every rate payer in Southern California is subsidizing the most profligate users like the “Wet Prince of Bel Air” who was using 38,000 gallons a day.
Despite all of the fear mongering the drought has wrought, there is a silver lining: For the first time in decades we have made a dent in improving our relationship with water:
- We proved that, despite the skepticism, we can waste less water.
- The Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (although the aquifers don’t have to be “sustainable” until 2040).
- We made it illegal for Home Owner Associations and local governments to prohibit homeowners from removing grass.
- We forced water agencies to downgrade demand forecasts that have been used to justify unnecessary infrastructure. And
- A lot more people are slightly more knowledgeable about water.
As California settles back into what could be another long hot summer, it will be interesting to see whether we can learn to live with “enough” water or whether we return to living like we have too much.