Urban water conservation for the birds

Butte Sink Wildlife Management Area. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sacramento Valley’s Butte Sink Wildlife Management Area. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Jay Lund

People who save water like to know their conserving is doing some good, such as sustaining economic growth, building municipal reserves for longer droughts or supporting the environment.

But many urban residents are concerned their water savings will go to uses they value less — such as supplying more wasteful customers, new urban development or agriculture — rather than meeting the needs of fish, waterbirds and other wildlife, which they value more. In fact, most household water conservation does free up water for other local users or eases State Water Project and Central Valley Project supplies for other thirsty cities or farms, rather than go directly to environmental protection.

For households interested in conserving water for environmental purposes, a bargain might be struck. The table below lays out how people might be motivated to use less water knowing that much of their savings would be dedicated to a favored environmental cause, such as supporting wildlife refuges.                           

Water Conservation for the Birds — Who Does What?table_waterbirds.png

Wildlife refuges seem the most suitable place to begin such voluntary environmental water transactions. Water management for refuges is generally more structured and precise than for fish and have more developed assessments of how their water use affects wildlife. Refuges also are better tied into the water supply system, making it easier to move water to wetlands most in need.

Urban water savings would make major, measurable improvements at refuges, where a little goes a long way.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Central Valley refuges use about 600,000 acre-feet a year for waterbirds and other critters, compared with a statewide net urban water use of about 6.6 million acre-feet a year — about half for landscape irrigation. So a 10 percent savings in urban water use, or a 20 percent reduction in landscape watering, could roughly double water for wildlife refuges.

Such a program would better define and publicize the ties between local water use and the health of California’s ecosystems. Once urban water customers see their conservation efforts making a difference, they will likely be motivated to make further savings.

If successful for wildlife refuges, it could be expanded to fish and other environmental purposes, creating wildlife and recreational assets and empowering environmental water management.  We could make water conservation for the birds, and for the fish.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Lund J and Moyle P. “Water giveaways during a drought invite conflict“. CaliforniaWaterBlog. March 23, 2015

Lund J. “New environmentalism needed for California water“. CaliforniaWaterBlog. Dec. 9, 2014

Lund J, et al. “Why give away fish flows for free during a drought?” CaliforniaWaterBlog. Feb. 11, 2014

Hanak, E., et al. “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation“, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011.

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10 Responses to Urban water conservation for the birds

  1. Tim Johnson says:

    Jay – good article but a total miss on what Ag water districts, rice farmers, refuges and conservation organizations are already doing with Ag water this year and last. Its in place, working and does not need to be developed.

  2. Tom says:

    Jay – isn’t this a specious article?
    The foundation of the article assumes the environment is a low priority that won’t get water unless this idea is implemented. It ignores the many other water uses that arguably should be a lower priority than the environment.

    To demonstrate the point, why not write the exact same article but this time offer that consumers who save water can volunteer their savings be used for:
    Almond export profits to the Middle East
    Walnut export profits to China
    Rice export profits to Southeast Asia and Japan
    Flower profits for 1-800 Florist
    Pomegranates for POM water
    Cotton grown in CA instead of the South East where there is plenty of water
    More development and farming in deserts

    I imagine those would be difficult marketing campaigns compared to the environment. What do you think?

    Let’s start with the assumption that the environment matters instead of “second fiddle” and in need of “feel good” handouts.

    • jaylund says:

      There seems a fair consensus that the environment isn’t getting enough water. Here’s a new way to get some, perhaps.

  3. Joanne Vinton says:

    I like this idea. It reminds me of SMUD’s Greenergy Program, where voluntarily adding a few extra dollars to the bill supports renewable energy development. Maybe something like that could be done with water bills–a few extra dollars each month would support habitat restoration, construction of bioswales, and other projects.

  4. Barbara Hennigan says:

    Linking voters to distant water can’t be a bad thing. One benefit(?) of the Rim Fire was that an entire urban area began to notice that something was happening in THEIR watershed. Another example–bond money for conservancies. There was $6/acre for a small Southern CA coastal conservancy but the Sierra Nevada (where 60 % of the water comes from) got 59 cents per acre. Locating voters is simple, but the legislature seem a little vague about where water comes from. One of the best hopes for increasing water supply is forest management for water production and that will require a lot of support from urban voters.

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  7. tsac0008 says:

    Doubled population and doubled acreage under permanent cropping is a losing proposition. The depletion of the public resource, water for the gain of corporate agriculture at the expense of the environment is wrong. When did sustainable agriculture become a negative phrase? Growing water loving crops in the desert is ridiculous and water for permanent crops there was never adjudicated. Most vested agricultural and city rights for water were for much smaller volumes than they now use. We have reached a natural limitation that requires population and agricultural limitation!

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