During Drought, California Asks Cities to Conserve

By Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.


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If you live in California, or follow national news, you are well informed of the fact that California is in a severe drought; a situation that our Governor has declared to be a state of emergency. In January, Governor Jerry Brown officially asked Californians for a 20% voluntary cutback in water use. At the end of May, our Senators backed and passed The Emergency Drought Act of 2014, which allows water districts and the State Water Board to divert for consumption as much water as possible from our state water sources without impacting wildlife patterns or water quality standards.  And on July 15th, state water regulators approved fines of up to $500 per day on Californians who are watering their outdoor landscaping and washing their cars in a wasteful manner.

In the midst of the statewide and nation-wide conversation around California’s dwindling water resources, the state saw a 1% increase in urban water use for the month of May, compared with the previous 3-years’ average use for May.  In light of this increase despite dwindling water reserves and the gubernatorial request for a 20% cutback, the question becomes: which measures are effective when addressing urban water use, and why are Californians not well-equipped to deal with a situation that has been going on for three years now?

Pricing

Cities have a unique leverage point in the case of water and conservation incentives. Water, being a public good, is owned by the state, and delivered by public utility districts.  Most public utility districts serve a handful of cities, and some, like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, serve only one city.  The districts set delivered water prices according to price tariffs which are set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). These rates are generally set according to a structure that allows the PUC’s to recover their capital costs, and sometimes, to receive a set rate of return on their investments.

Ultimately, it’s municipalities which implement the publicity campaigns to raise awareness around an issue, and implement the policies to incentivize its citizens to deal with a problem effectively.  Cities across California are taking various approaches to the problem of urban water use, and are experiencing varying degrees of success.

Some cities, like St. Helena, along with many other northern Californian cities, are ahead of the curve; setting policies like tiered volumetric pricing structures which send a direct market signal to water users.  These price structures incentivize water savings by charging customers per unit of water consumed. The same idea is being employed to implement drought pricing on water delivery, a pricing structure which increases the price of delivered water to customers, and attempts to more accurately reflect the value of water as a scarce resource in a time of severe drought and low reservoir levels.  Comprehensive pricing structures like these have been shown to decrease per capita and household water use by significant levels.

Although pricing seems to be a simple and effective strategy to incentivize water savings, there are roadblocks to implement even this basic solution. Surprisingly, there are many California cities that have not installed water meters; the state capitol, Sacramento, is actually the city with the most un-metered connections to the water system.  If users are not metered in their water use, they pay a flat rate for water, no matter how much they use, and thus have very little incentive to save water.  Previous Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed a law that will require all Californians to have water meters on their homes by 2025, but ten years seems a far cry in drought conditions like California is experiencing now.

Metering

Water meters are also a proven effective strategy for reducing water use. The city of Fresno, California installed water meters and saw per capita water use drop from 313 gallons per day to 245 gallons.  Some cities are waiting for funding, so that they’re able to afford the installation of water meters, and some cities are avoiding metering, for fear that if they are metered and show a reduction in water use, their water allocations will be decreased and sent elsewhere; shedding some light on the layers of politics, worries, and need for coordination within the state water system.

The current drought in California is bringing to light the issues around how the states’ water resources are managed.  If the drought continues, the fact that some cities will no longer have access to their historical water sources, will mean that it is no longer an option to maintain the current water management system. Water resources will need to be more easily shared, transferred, and moved.

This need for an integrated water strategy will likely take the form of top-down legislation in the state, but for now, urban users are being asked to bear the brunt of water conservation efforts.  Using their unique leverage point to directly communicate with water users through price structures and public education campaigns, California cities are emerging as leaders in best practices in the face of our current drought.

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