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Water Rationing Laws Exemplify the Malthusian Mentality of California’s Legislators

As reported in the Sacramento Bee and elsewhere, on May 31st Gov. Jerry Brown “signed a pair of bills Thursday to set permanent overall targets for indoor and outdoor water consumption.”

After pressure from the Association of California Water Agencies and others, the final form of these bills, Assembly Bill 1668 by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, and Senate Bill 606 from state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, offers water districts more flexibility in enforcing the new restrictions. But the focus of AB 1668, limiting indoor water use to 50 gallons per resident per day, is a step too far. Way too far.

There’s nothing wrong with conserving water. But urban water consumption in California is already low, and squeezing even more out of Californians will be costly and bothersome without making much difference in the big picture. Here is a table showing California’s overall water consumption by user:

Total Water Supply and Usage in California

As can be seen, in a state where total human water diversions total around 65 million acre feet (MAF) per year [1], in 2010 residential customers only consumed 3.7 MAF [2, 3]. According to more recent data obtained by the Sacramento Bee from California’s State Water Resources Control Board, by 2017 the average California resident consumed 90 gallons per day, which equates to around 4.0 MAF per year. Slightly more than half of that is for indoor water, which means that on average, Californians are already consuming less than 50 gallons per day per resident!

So why the new law? We must immediately rule out the desire to save significant amounts of water. On average, Californians are already in compliance with the new restrictions on indoor water consumption, meaning only a minority of households, those over the new cap, will be forced to reduce consumption. And while AB 1668 also mandates individual “water budgets” for outdoor water consumption, even if they cut all outdoor water use by another 20%, that would only save 400,000 acre feet. But at what cost?

THE COST TO FURTHER REDUCE INDOOR WATER CONSUMPTION

Here is a fairly recent analysis of what it costs to implement comprehensive indoor water savings [4]:

Cost to Retrofit a Home to Reduce Water Consumption

That’s a lot of money. But why? How many households are still “overusing” water, if the average consumption is only around 50 gallons per day?

For what it would cost Californians who are not taking their clothes to the laundry mat, who prefer to wash their dishes in the sink, who are not willing to stand under shower heads that cannot rinse soap out of long hair, who don’t want to purchase side loading dishwashers because it hurts their back to load and unload them, how much water will actually be saved? And how does one “overuse” indoor water? Doesn’t it flow down to the sewage treatment plant, where these plants release all that water back into the streams and aquifers, or even in some cases pump the water back uphill to be reused by residents?

THE COST TO FURTHER REDUCE OUTDOOR WATER CONSUMPTION

For outdoor water use, the solutions are even more draconian, and, of course, are disproportionately aimed at people who happen to live in homes with yards. People with lawns where their children play, people with trees that provide shade, people with aesthetically pleasing hedges that offer privacy, people with who love to grow flowers and vegetables – people who love living things. In the short run, these people will be visited by water agency bureaucrats, who will assign a “water budget.” How much will that cost, forcing local water agencies to reach out individually to 12.5 million residential property owners?

In the long run, the costs to manage outdoor water use will get much higher. Every home will need to have two meters, one to measure indoor water use, one to measure outdoor water use. These meters, increasingly, will be “smart,” able to monitor time-of-day use in anticipation of variable pricing depending on when you water. (Don’t water your plants after 9 a.m.!) And eventually, first in new construction, and later in retrofits, every home will have two sources of water supply – one pipe to provide potable water for indoor use, and a separate pipe to provide marginally less potable reclaimed water for outdoor use.

This is epic folly. These conservation measures, as described, are going to cost consumers tens of billions of dollars. When fully implemented, the total annual savings might be around 500,000 acre feet. That’s less than one percent of California’s total human water diversions for agriculture, the environment, commercial, industrial, and residential use.

And not one dime of this money will be instead paying for water treatment, water storage, or desalination projects that could add millions of acre feet to California’s annual water supply.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO THE MALTHUSIAN MENTALITY

Thomas Mathus was an English cleric and scholar living in the early 19th century who developed the theory that global population increases exponentially, while global production increases arithmetically. His theory, and the eventual collapse of civilization that it implies, has enjoyed lasting and ongoing influence. In California, it found its earliest expression in a 1976 speech by Gov. Jerry Brown, who announced that we had entered an “era of limits.” For over forty years now, Governor Brown, and like-minded environmentalists and the politicians they’ve influenced, have embraced the Malthusian vision. But there is an alternative.

One of the most thoughtful and bipartisan visions to counter the Malthusian mentality is offered by the so-called EcoModernists, who in April 2015 published the “EcoModernist Manifesto.” The powerful premise they offer to confront the Malthusians is this: “Both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”

The devil is in the details, of course. What “real processes” are they referring to? One of the authors, Michael Shellenberger – who just ran as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in this week’s primary – offers concrete examples. Shellenberger, who runs the nonprofit “Environmental Progress” in Berkeley, is a progressive Democrat. And yet he strongly advocates nuclear power, desalination plants, and permitting suburban housing developments on California’s vast tracts of cattle rangeland.

There is a convergence possible here, of pro-growth progressive Democrats joining independent voters and Republicans to embrace ecomodernism instead of malthusianism. In practical terms, this would mean rejecting rationing of water, energy, land and transportation, and instead investing in infrastructure for the 21st century.  In ideological terms, it would mean rejecting environmentalist extremism rooted in pessimism in favor of economic growth rooted in optimism.

THE HIDDEN AGENDA OF CALIFORNIA’S MALTHUSIANS

California’s voters have not questioned Malthusian policies, partly because they’ve been oversold the environmentalist agenda, and partly because too many of them have been convinced that nothing matters more than the color of their skin or the consequences of their gender. As a result, leftist oligarchs have been left free to consolidate their interests. Water rationing is just one manifestation of policy-driven artificial scarcity. This Malthusian policy also informs suppression of energy development, land development, and sensible investment in road and freeway upgrades. Public money is diverted to preposterous projects such as high-speed rail, while private investment in energy and housing is proscribed to exclude all but the wealthiest players. And those politically connected billionaires then make outrageous profits when their products – energy, utilities, housing – are produced at constant costs but sold at scarcity driven sky-high prices.

The reason Malthusian ideology constitutes the conventional political wisdom in California has little to do with the environment. It has to do with power and profit. These spectacularly wealthy special interest billionaires have coopted politicians, mostly Democrats, to spew the rhetoric of environmentalism and identity politics because it makes them richer, at the same time as it has made everyone else poorer. Everyone knows that California has the highest cost-of-living in the United States. But less understood is where all that money is going. It is going into the pockets of left-wing billionaires. To ensure government complicity, government unions get their cut, in the form of staggeringly over-market rates of pay and benefits.

POLICIES SHOULD NURTURE ABUNDANCE, NOT ENFORCE RATIONING

Permanent water rationing sets a horrific precedent. It also is just the wrong way to solve water scarcity. Let farmers sell their water to cities without losing their grandfathered water rights. For that matter, reform the water rights that allow farmers to buy water for next to nothing. Invest in more surface and ground storage to harvest storm runoff. Build desalination plants on the coast of Los Angeles County – BIG ones like they use in the Middle East, producing millions of acre feet per year – using less energy than the Tehachapi pumps.

Water is life. People should be able to use as much water as they are willing to pay for, and if they are required to pay a slight premium for overuse, that can fund investment in more water infrastructure. But the law as written will impose punitive fines for overuse. For less money than the cost of implementing water rationing, Californians could experience water abundance. From fragrant lawns to a rejuvenated Salton Sea, to not having to choose between taking a shower or doing the laundry, Californians can enjoy a better quality of life.

We don’t have to live in a society defined by Malthusian struggle. We can create abundance of water and energy in ways that are largely if not completely decoupled from environmental harm. Conservation has its place but when it is the only solution and is not accompanied by increasing supply it reveals its hidden agenda: Greed for money on the part of the firms that manufacture the instruments of conservation, greed for power on the part of the politicians that enforce conservation, and a contempt for the aspirations of ordinary people on the part of environmentalists who have let their principles run amok.

Nobody should have to submit to monitoring of how they use water and submit to punitive fines if they use more than their ration. The idea that everyone has to submit to draconian restrictions on their water use is ridiculous. It comes from a Malthusian mentality that is admirable in moderation and tyrannical in the extreme.

REFERENCES

Permanent Water Rationing is Coming to California, January 17, 2018

Increasing Water Supply Must Balance Conservation Measures, February 21, 2017

California’s Misguided Water Conservation Priorities, August 27, 2016

FOOTNOTES

(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)
http://sei-us.org/Publications_PDF/SEI-WesternWater-CWSD-0211.pdf

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”
http://www.water.ca.gov/urbanwatermanagement/2010_Urban_Water_Management_Plan_Data.cfm

(4) Cost for water efficient appliances:

Water Saving Potential of water-efficient appliances (Source: USGS)
https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-percapita.php

California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3 – Urban Water Use Efficiency
http://www.water.ca.gov/calendar/materials/vol3_urbanwue_apr_release_16033.pdf

Cost to purchase and install various water-saving appliances:

Cost (including installation) for a tankless water heater
https://www.bankrate.com/personal-finance/cost-of-tankless-water-heater/

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient dishwasher
https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2015/04/dishwashers-that-save-water-energy-and-money/index.htm

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient clothes washer
ps://www.homeadvisor.com/cost/kitchens/install-an-appliance/

Cost (including installation) for a low flow toilet
https://www.remodelingexpense.com/costs/cost-of-low-flow-toilets

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Permanent Water Rationing is Coming to California

Have you experienced water faucets that spray tiny jets of water onto your hands? You know, those eight tiny jets of water, each about 1.0 millimeter in diameter, that are emitted with so much pressure that the paltry quantity of water bounces off your skin before you can get it wet enough to apply soap, and makes rinsing the soap off nearly impossible? You can find these water faucets in airports and other public places, where they constitute a minor annoyance. But wait. Thanks to California’s state legislature, they’re on their way into your home.

You’ll just love your personal space filled up with these expensive gadgets. For example, these faucets will probably require voice-activation, turn off after ten seconds, and send a report to your utility in order to help you manage your usage patterns. Smart faucets. Smart washers. Smart dish washers. Smart shower heads and smart toilets – all coming your way, thanks to the California State Legislature and their partners, the scarcity profiteers of Silicon Valley.

You’ll love how all these water-sipping, next-generation durable goods can go “down,” get hacked, don’t work very well, and require annual warranty payments. You’ll also love purchasing bargain basement annual software upgrades, but only affordable, barely, if you join their green team club for life special VIP program. You’ll love how the control panel on your washer will look like the bridge of a starship, and can only be operated after you’ve mastered the virtual version of a two-inch thick instruction manual.

California’s ruling coalition of government employee unions, extreme environmentalists, and high-tech billionaires are at it again, this time with a water conservation bill, AB 1668, that is going to impose a mandatory limit of 55 gallons per person per day on indoor water consumption. Bring on the gadgets.

To put the impact of this bill into perspective, consider what it would cost to retrofit a household to reduce indoor water consumption:

COST TO RETROFIT A HOME TO REDUCE WATER CONSUMPTION

The biggest cost on this table is the cost for a tankless water heater or a hot water circulation system, necessary if we don’t want to waste water while waiting for it to get hot. Because there’s no good solution to that problem, this is a significant source of water waste that is blithely ignored by water conservation activists. It’s reasonable to expect people in a developed, wealthy nation like America to wait until they have warm water before washing their hands, shaving, hand washing dishes, or showering. And there is no way a person is going to bring their indoor water usage down to 55 gallons a day without either performing all these tasks with cold water, or by installing a system to deliver instant hot water.

But if every Californian did their best to comply with AB 1668, could they reduce their water usage to 55 gallons per day? The next table shows how much they could save, using USGS data. Please note the USGS data is for America, not for California, where decades of conservation incentives have already yielded tremendous reductions in use. Per capita indoor water use in California isn’t anywhere near 139 gallons per day. More on that later.

PER CAPITA POTENTIAL WATER SAVINGS USING WATER EFFICIENCY APPLIANCES

Apart from water efficient toilets which save water and don’t require lifestyle changes, there’s not much here that isn’t expensive and inconvenient. Notwithstanding the fact that Silicon Valley moguls are salivating over the prospects of subsequent mandates that will require all these retrofit appliances to be “smart,” they aren’t going to make life better. Low flow shower heads require longer duration showers, especially if you have to rinse shampoo out of long hair. Consumer reports offer mixed reviews on low water consumption dishwashers and washing machines. Some of us like to wash our dishes by hand – in many cases because it’s less time consuming. And who wants to pull wet clothes out of side loading washers? As for waiting for hot water to make it to faucets, there’s no inexpensive and effective solution.

Enforcing the 55 gallon indoor limit will also be costly not only for California’s residents, but for every water utility in the state. After all, to regulate indoor water consumption, you have to measure indoor water consumption separately from outdoor water consumption. And, of course, residential outdoor water consumption is also in AB 1668’s cross hairs. To accomplish this, AB 1668 calls for dedicated outdoor water meters, separate from indoor water meters, and it calls for water utilities to prepare a water “budget” for each customer parcel based on the size of the parcel and other factors such as the local climate.

THE COST/BENEFIT OF RESIDENTIAL WATER RATIONING

Since AB 1668 proposes to effectively ration residential water consumption, at staggering expense, it’s worthwhile to explore the cost and benefit of this policy. If we assume that five million of California’s 12.5 million households still have legacy appliances, just the retrofit would cost these unlucky homeowners $37.5 billion. But it doesn’t end there, because the water utilities would have to install indoor/outdoor meters on around 10 million households (some households are in multi-family dwellings with no yard or a shared yard). Assuming the cost to install these meters and conduct site visits to assign individual outdoor “water budgets” at $1,000 per household means another $10 billion will have to be spent – i.e., implementing AB 1668 will cost $47 billion.

But how much water would actually be saved, for $47 billion? According to the most authoritative study available on current indoor water consumption, the average Californians uses 62 gallons per day. (ref. California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3, page 12, 1st paragraph “Indoor Residential.”) This means that if California’s 40 million residents got their indoor water use down to 50 gallons per day from 62 gallons per day, it would save 537 thousand acre feet per year (0.54 million acre feet). This is a minute fraction, less than 1%, of California’s total water diversions for environmental, agricultural, and urban uses.

AB 1668 is not about saving water. It’s about control. It’s about power and profit for special interests. Otherwise we could just expand sewage treatment plants, which we should do anyway. How can you waste indoor water if it can go down the drain, to be treated and pumped right back up the hill for reuse?

Let’s keep this in perspective by imagining best case scenarios whereby indoor and outdoor residential water use is dramatically reduced. If Calfornia’s 40 million residents reduced their household water consumption by another 20%, it would only save 0.74 million acre feet per year. An impossible 40% reduction? Savings of 1.5 million acre feet per year. For one-tenth the cost, the proposed “off-stream” Sites Reservoir could easily capture over 2.0 million acre feet each year in storm runoff. Just one good storm dumps ten times that much water onto California’s watersheds.

TOTAL ANNUAL WATER SUPPLY AND USAGE IN CALIFORNIA

So what could Californians do instead with $47 billion? We’ve looked at this before. Limiting ourselves to water infrastructure, here’s a list:

WAYS TO CREATE WATER ABUNDANCE IN CALIFORNIA

First of all, market-based incentives can eliminate water scarcity at almost no cost. For example: Allow farmers to sell their water allotments at market rates without losing their vested rights. Or permit utilities to engage in mild price hikes that encourage people to use less water, instead of resorting to punitive tiered pricing or rationing. These alternatives, to some extent, have already been tried. They work. But if you accept the premise that increasing the absolute supply of water in California is desirable – here are the capital costs for water infrastructure that would create water abundance in California for decades to come.

  • Desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater  –  $15 billion.
  • Reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage  –  $10 billion.
  • Build the Sites Reservoir for off-stream storage of 2.0 million acre feet of run-off  –  4.4 billion.
  • Build the Temperance Flat Reservoir for 1.3 million acre feet of storage  –  3.3 billion.
  • Aquifer recharge to store runoff – there isn’t even a good study exploring this option at a statewide level.

As can be seen, all of these water infrastructure projects could be built for $32.7 billion. They could be financed via infrastructure bonds, increased rates to consumers, redirection of funds currently being squandered on high-speed rail, or even redirection of proceeds from carbon emission auctions.

What California’s ruling junta prefers, however, is to create a surveillance state defined by expensive scarcity. In the 1950s and 1960s, California’s legislature approved and implemented what remains the finest system of inter-basin water transfers in the world. But today, after over 30 years of neglect, at the same time as California’s population has doubled, California’s water infrastructure is crumbling at a time when it should be expanded. The reasons for this are plain enough. Special interests have replaced the public interest.

THE SCARCITY PROFITEERS

Instead of building water infrastructure to increase supplies of water, public employee unions want to see tax revenues pour into their pockets and into the pension funds. High-tech billionaires want contracts to build “smart” appliances and monitoring systems to enforce water rationing. Extreme environmentalists, and the trial lawyers who get incredibly wealthy representing their organizations, want more legal bases upon which to file lucrative lawsuits. Sadly, major corporate agribusinesses often acquiesce to this abuse of residents because they’ve decided that a bigger slice of a smaller pie is all they can hope for from this legislature.

Until Californians realize there will be no end to these encroachments on their freedom and prosperity until they resist, California’s ruling junta will prevail. California will be a harder and harder place to live. If ordinary Californians value their freedom, they will form a coalition with farmers, energy companies, civil engineering firms, and construction unions to demand water abundance. They may rediscover the vision and leadership that built a water infrastructure that is still one of the wonders of the modern world.

REFERENCES

Assembly Bill 1668, “Water management planning” Text (Source: California Legislative Information)
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB1668

Residential Water Use in California:

Water Saving Potential of water-efficient appliances (Source: USGS)
https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-percapita.php

California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3 – Urban Water Use Efficiency
http://www.water.ca.gov/calendar/materials/vol3_urbanwue_apr_release_16033.pdf

Cost to purchase and install various water-saving appliances:

Cost (including installation) for a tankless water heater
https://www.bankrate.com/personal-finance/cost-of-tankless-water-heater/

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient dishwasher
https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2015/04/dishwashers-that-save-water-energy-and-money/index.htm

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient clothes washer
ps://www.homeadvisor.com/cost/kitchens/install-an-appliance/

Cost (including installation) for a low flow toilet
https://www.remodelingexpense.com/costs/cost-of-low-flow-toilets/

Total precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:

California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)
http://sei-us.org/Publications_PDF/SEI-WesternWater-CWSD-0211.pdf

California water use by sector:

California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

California urban water use by sector:

California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”
http://www.water.ca.gov/urbanwatermanagement/2010_Urban_Water_Management_Plan_Data.cfm

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