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?
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.
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.
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.