Soak the rich to help solve California's water crisis

During a time of drought, when most urban dwellers are making do with less, nothing sticks in the craw quite like the cad in Bel-Air who reportedly is using 90 times as much water as the average household. Nothing would be more emotionally satisfying than socking him (or her, or them) with a hefty fine and sending a mob of angry Angelenos to stomp down his lawns, jump in his fountains and otherwise despoil whatever else may be sucking up all that water. Don't forget to bring your torch and your pitchfork. And your canteen.

But here's the thing about that particular guzzler and the others similarly situated: In the scheme of things, they're really not that big a problem. They account for a very small portion of water use, and they pay for their wanton ways through tiered rate structures that bill them at the highest rate for most of their usage. That's good not just for the utility's bookkeepers but for all the ratepayers who are able to keep paying a lower cost per gallon for their more modest consumption.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of urban water users are responsible Californians who have met the challenge of a shrinking snowpack and a less reliable water supply with substantial cutbacks.

Should the guzzlers pay even more than they already do? Yes. We're in the eighth year of a drought (not counting the wet winter of 2011) and are facing a future with less water to go around. By all means, the tier structure should be modified to encourage wiser use and at the same time bring in some of the money needed for recycling and other projects that can bring in more water. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Mayor Eric Garcetti are correct to propose a fourth rate tier for the biggest users.

Penalties may ultimately also have a role in helping California work through its longer-term challenge, but they are fairly blunt instruments and accomplish little in allocating the state's shrinking water resources. Tiers offer incentives to conserve while ensuring that top users pay for their above-normal consumption.

Unfortunately, the tier system exists in a shadowy legal landscape due to the court ruling that struck down San Juan Capistrano's rate structure earlier this year. For now, most utility managers appear confident that their tiered rates can withstand legal scrutiny, but California has a lot of work ahead of it — in thinking, policymaking and litigating — to figure out the fairest way to parcel out water among residents.

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