By Jay Lund
The State Water Board’s recent decision to outlaw some water-wasting activities under penalty of $500 fines helps alert urban residents and businesses to the seriousness of the drought. These water conservation actions, though, are fairly mild compared with the water rationing and other mandatory restrictions that Santa Cruz and a few other California communities have imposed this year.
Local water utilities have more leeway than the state in the severity of measures they can take to reduce consumption. But, so far, few of them have gone beyond voluntary calls for water conservation, and only in the face of serious and imminent water shortages.
Voluntary measures generally reduce urban water use by 5 percent to 15 percent. Economic conditions and other factors also can affect how much water people voluntarily save. Mandatory measures, however, can cut water use by 50 percent or more under dire conditions, as Bay Area cities learned in the severe 1976-77 drought.
If the current drought is so bad, why wouldn’t all water utilities mandate additional water conservation?
Here are some common reasons (which some may call excuses):
- Lost water sales revenue. Less water used is less water sold, is less revenue to the agency and, potentially, less funding available for a contingency reserve should the drought worsen.
- Desire to reserve tougher conservation actions for more severe drought conditions. Imposing draconian restrictions early in a drought leaves a utility with little means to signal greater urgency if conditions worsen.
- Risks of “crying wolf.” A utility can lose face with the public if it imposes mandatory water conservation actions and severe drought conditions do not materialize locally. Lost credibility promotes opposition to new water rates and other utility actions and poses political risks to elected or appointed utility leaders.
- Avoiding the expense of additional water conservation. Adding or strengthening water conservation actions often disrupts normal utility operations and adds expense. Enforcing mandatory becomes increasingly expensive.
- Fear of losing long-term options. Continuing higher water use preserves options for water conservation in the future. Water for landscape irrigation, which accounts for half of urban water use, can be seen as a strategic reserve that can be tapped later for growth or used to offset supplies lost from water rights conflicts, climate change or stricter environmental rules. Water utilities are often conservative institutions, in part because they have little control over their long-term supplies and demands.
- Taking advantage of good management (or good luck). The state has an interest in not punishing utilities that have managed their systems to reduce risks in a drought.
Most large urban water utilities have detailed plans for stepping up conservation activities with worsening drought conditions. They begin with public education and voluntary conservation then gradually impose increasingly severe mandatory restrictions.
While many agricultural areas and a few communities face severe water shortages this year, many of California’s largest urban areas are in pretty good shape, thanks to smart water management and good luck.
In a water system as large and diverse as California’s, we should expect wide variability in utilities’ experiences and operations during a drought. However, mandatory restrictions for urban water users will become more widespread as the drought persists.
We often look for easy answers and villains in droughts and see water use by others as water wasted. Things are often more complicated.
Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
Lund, J., “California droughts precipitate innovation,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, Jan. 21, 2014
Lund, J., J. Mount and E. Hanak, “Challenging myth and mirage in California’s drought,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, July 10, 2014
Lund, J.R. and R.U. Reed, “Drought Water Rationing and Transferable Rations,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 429-437, November 1995
Lund, J.R., “Totally RAD Urban Drought Management from California,” in J. L. Anderson (ed.), Proceedings of the 18th National Water Resources Conference, ASCE, pp. 532-536, May 1991
Weiser, M., Reese, P., “The Public Eye: Voluntary water conservation not effective, data show,” The Sacramento Bee, July 28, 2014
Weiser, M., “California adopts $500 criminal penalty for water waste,” The Sacramento Bee, July 16, 2014