Increasing Water Supply Must Balance Conservation Measures

By Ed Ring
February 21, 2017

In a recent commentary tax fighter Jon Coupal exposed one of the hidden agendas behind recently Senate Constitutional Amendment 4 recently introduced in the California Legislature. Coupal writes: “They wish to charge those water users they perceive as “bad” more per gallon than those users they perceive as “good.” The beauty of “cost of service” rates, however, is that they are fair for everyone: You pay for what you use.”

California’s consumers already endure tiered rates for electricity consumption, where if their electricity consumption goes beyond approved levels, they pay more per kilowatt-hour. At least with electricity, there is some rationale for tiered pricing, because when demand exceeds capacity the utility has to purchase power from the grid at the spot market rate. But in the case of water that’s a much harder case to make. Water prices are negotiated far in advance by water utilities.

The reason utilities want to charge tiered rates is so they can discourage “over-consumption” of water, in order for them to avoid running out of water during times of severe drought. What happened repeatedly over the past few years was that suppliers to many regional water districts could not meet their contracted delivery obligations. Understandably, water districts want to reduce total annual consumption so, if necessary, they can get by with, for example, only 60% of the amount of imported water they would otherwise be contractually entitled to.

Punitive rates for “overuse,” however, will effectively ration water, as only a tiny minority of consumers will be wealthy enough to be indifferent to prohibitively high penalties.

There is a completely different way for water districts to address this challenge. An optimal solution to California’s water supply issues should incorporate not only conservation, but also increasing supply. And to fund new supplies of water, utilities should experiment with tiered pricing that only incorporates moderate price increases. Doing this would mean a large portion of consumers will not be deterred from “overuse,” and the extra revenue they provide the utility could be used for infrastructure investment to increase supplies of water through myriad solutions – including runoff capture and enhanced aquifer storage, sewage treatment to potable standards, seawater desalination, and off-stream reservoir storage.

The following images excerpted from a spreadsheet provide a simplistic but illuminating example of how reasonable tiered pricing could, in aggregate, fund massive investment in additional supplies of water. In the first example, below, with assumptions highlighted in yellow, are water consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in punitive pricing for overuse of water. As can be seen in the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are tripled for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a small 4% minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a minute 1% of all consumers. Consequently, the utility only collects $900,000 per month, barely 5% of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.


The next example, below, shows hypothetical consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in reasonable pricing for overuse of water. Again, as can be seen in the the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are increased by 50% (instead of 300%) for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a significant 20% minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a substantial additional 10% of all consumers. Consequently, the utility collects $3,000,000 per month, 14% of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.


This is a simplistic analysis, requiring caveats too numerous to mention. Utilities get much of their revenue from property taxes, not from consumer ratepayers, and fixed service fees still constitute most of the amount that appears on a typical household water bill. The utility’s internal cost for water, pegged here at $.20 per CCF, is actually calculated through a maddeningly complex and somewhat subjective cost-accounting exercise that takes into account the amortization of capital costs for treatment, storage and distribution facilities, operating costs, as well as actual contracted purchases from, for example, the California State Water Project. But there is a deeper debate over principles that these examples are designed to emphasize, one with profound consequences for our quality of life in the coming decades.

By implementing severe financial penalties to utility customers who “overuse” their water, electricity, or anything else, state regulators are effectively imposing rationing on all but extreme high-income households. Complying in the face of punitive rates for overuse requires consumers to submit to undesirable lifestyle adjustments including short duration, low-flow showers, low flow faucets that require long wait times for hot water to arrive through the pipes and long wait times to fill pots, remotely administered, algorithmically managed “affordable” times for washing dishes and laundry, mandated purchases of expensive new internet enabled appliances that are ridiculously difficult to simply turn on and use, require regular warranty payments because they break down so much, with annual fees imposed to update their software.

We don’t have to live this way. California’s residential households consume less than 6% of the water diverted and used in California for environmental, agricultural, and commercial purposes, yet by far they pay the most to maintain and upgrade this infrastructure. Indoor water overuse is a myth, as all indoor water is either being completely recycled by the sewage treatment utility, or should be. Raising rates causes consumers to under-use water, despite most of a utility’s costs being for the operations infrastructure, creating a vicious cycle of rate increases to maintain sustainable revenues. And when consumer water use is crammed down further and further, the overall system of water infrastructure is progressively downsized until there is not enough resiliency and overcapacity in the system to absorb a major disruption such as an earthquake, a dam failure, or acts of terrorism.

The conventional wisdom in California as expressed in policies enforced by an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the State Legislature is that we must live in “an era of limits.” But this motto, originally coined in the 1970’s by Governor Jerry Brown, is in direct conflict with the spirit and culture of Californians, as exemplified by the dreams they offer the world from Hollywood and the miraculous innovations they offer the world from Silicon Valley. The idea that California’s legislators cannot enact policies designed to increase supplies of water and energy enough to make life easier on the citizens they serve is absurd, and must be challenged.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.


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