Heading into the fourth summer of drought, water agencies are looking for ways to get Californians to conserve at home. Tear out lawns. Install low-flow toilets. Irrigate with gray water. But what should the whole state be doing? Opinion asked nine water experts what needs to change about how California handles its water.
Confront the price tag
By Wade Graham
What California doesn't know about its own water use is staggering and scandalous.
The state has no precise idea how much water is diverted from rivers by farmers. It knows even less about how much groundwater pumping is going on. California has promised five times as much water as exists — and officials show no interest in reconciling "paper" water with reality.
Just as important, we know nothing of water's total price tag. Although every H2O molecule is identical, volumes of water aren't delivered at equal cost. To pump it from the ground and over mountains to distribute it takes enormous amounts of energy. Subsidies make this all artificially cheap: Taxpayers pay for the dams, aqueducts, electricity and interest.
We need an honest metric for water's true cost so that Californians can judge whether investing in local conservation is a better deal than pumping water hundreds of miles, or whether allocating 80% of our water to agriculture, which makes up just 2% of our economy, still makes sense.
Wade Graham is an adjunct professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and trustee of the Glen Canyon Institute.
Congress can deliver relief
By Jason Peltier
The big lie in California right now is that there must be a choice between urban and rural water use, rather than a solution that meets all the state's needs. Congress could deliver immediate relief to both groups by passing legislation to minimize water-supply reductions.
Due to overzealous application of the Endangered Species Act, the federal government has defaulted to the most water restrictive policy possible, without regard to science or drought conditions. Over the last 20 years, that has meant redirecting some 2 million acre-feet of water a year from human to environmental purposes, causing nearly continuous shortages for our farmers, weakening our water system and, sadly, producing no measurable benefits for the fisheries. Legislation could require the release of more water from state and federal projects — the highest amount within the law's environmentally acceptable range — for use by cities in Southern California and farms in the Central Valley. Laws protecting wildlife would remain in force and determinations about the environmental conditions would continue throughout the drought.
Asking the federal government to respond to a drought is no different than telling FEMA to handle floods, fires and earthquakes. The federal government should be required to demonstrate some balanced consideration of human conditions and permit the capture of excess water for cities and food production when the situation is appropriate.
There is bipartisan support for a legislative solution. With the crisis upon us, Congress must pass relief legislation immediately.
Jason Peltier is the principal deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District.
Get tough with smart meters
By Kevin Wattier
In Long Beach, customers can report water wasters by phone or email or on our website. We even have a smartphone app to send pictures and video.
After seven years of collecting these reports, we've found that a small portion — about 2% — of our customers account for nearly all the complaints. The water department sends out a polite letter asking the person or business to reduce their water use and explaining how we can help. But, unfortunately, that same 2% hears from us again and again. In fact, some have gotten 30 or more letters.
We are no longer willing to let them undermine the water conservation efforts of the other 98%. In February, we began installing "smart meters" for Long Beach's egregious water wasters. These record water consumption every five minutes, and using a mobile app we and the customer can see every morning exactly how they used water the previous day. We have used this data, for instance, to spot patterns of violations, such as broken sprinklers, watering on an unauthorized day, or for too long.
These smart meters help our department investigate water violations and take action. One customer just received an $800 fine. We've accomplished a lot with education and voluntary conservation. But California needs to move into the enforcement stage of water restrictions.
Kevin Wattier is the general manager of the Long Beach Water Department.
Tiered pricing still works
By Paul A. Cook
Gov. Jerry Brown has asked water agencies to price water to encourage conservation. Communities looking for a proven model need look no further than the allocation-based conservation rate structure we developed at the Irvine Ranch Water District.
Although the court decision regarding San Juan Capistrano's rates has attracted much attention, that ruling did not invalidate tiered rate structures. Indeed, the court simply affirmed that to be in compliance with Proposition 218, each price tier must be based on the water district's cost of providing the service.
Our approach, implemented during the drought of the early 1990s, works like this: Each customer has a custom monthly water budget based on factors such as the number of people in the household, the size of landscaped area and the weather. Those who exceed their budget buy additional water at higher rates related to expenses such as providing imported water. These tiers send a clear price signal to high-use customers that they need to use water more efficiently.
By assigning costs to the appropriate tiers and providing a clear, explanation of how the rate structure works, IRWD has gained wide support from customers. Since implementing this rate structure, residential water use in the district has dropped nearly 25% on a per-person basis, and irrigation water use has dropped nearly 50% on a per-acre basis. Studies have shown that, unlike water rationing, it promotes sustained improvements in water use efficiency.
Paul A. Cook is the general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District.
A renewable source: wastewater
By Doug Owen
In a drought, is it possible to discover new sources of water?
Every day in California, billions of gallons of highly treated wastewater are discharged into the ocean or inland waterways that could be recycled. Our 2014 study estimated that by 2020 purified wastewater could yield more than 1 billion gallons a day of potable water, enough to meet the needs of more than 8 million Californians.
Today's purification technologies — combining micro- or ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection and advanced oxidation — are safe and reliable. After this process, the water is cleaner than most bottled water.
Wastewater reuse compares favorably with other new water supply alternatives — desalination, stormwater capture, importing water — in terms of cost, energy requirements, environmental considerations and reliability. Although cost depends on many factors, generally potable water reuse in California costs between $2.50 and $6 per 1,000 gallons.
The amount of water on Earth doesn't change. All water is reused water. Recycling wastewater is drought-proof, cost-competitive and safe.
Doug Owen is executive vice president and chief technical officer of the Water Division of Arcadis North America and board chairman of the WateReuse Research Foundation.
Desalination? Not there yet
By David Zetland
In Australia, major cities spent billions of dollars on desalination plants that came online near the end of their 1995-2009 "Millennium Drought." Some now consider the undertaking a boondoggle. But it was a good decision. For them.
What works in Australia, however, wouldn't necessarily work in California. The Carlsbad desalination plant being built near San Diego will cost nearly $1 billion while serving only 7% of the 3.1 million county residents. Do the math, and you'll see that to serve California's 38 million people would require 175 similarly sized plants.
California has cheaper options. Australians use an average of 54 gallons per person a day; Californians average 125 gallons. Why the difference? Low-flow toilets matter, but most of the difference comes from Australians' widespread abandonment of irrigated landscaping. (Australia also reformed its water rights into a market system that allows farmers to efficiently buy and sell the scarce flows they receive.)
It would be much cheaper, efficient and fair to reduce Californians' demand for water before engaging in expensive supply augmentation.
David Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College in the Netherlands, blogger at aguanomics.com, and author of "Living with Water Scarcity."
Stop sucking the aquifers dry
By Giulio Boccaletti and Brian Stranko
Under the surface of our state is a vast network of groundwater basins, like underground reservoirs, that sustain our rivers and streams.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of wells are sucking water out of these aquifers faster than nature can replenish them. Normally, about 40% of California's water supply is from groundwater. In drought, that rises to about 60%. Since 2013, we have used more than 63 trillion gallons of groundwater. How much is that? Imagine 4 inches of flooding across the entire U.S. west of the Rocky Mountains.
Our over-reliance on groundwater is like having a hole in the state's water bucket. This giant leak needs to be fixed.
Last fall, historic groundwater reform was signed into law, making California the last state in the West to regulate groundwater. Its implementation will be rolled out over decades. But we must monitor rates of depletion now and craft sustainable plans to refill these depleted aquifers.
Giulio Boccaletti is the global managing director for water and Brian Stranko is the California water program director at the Nature Conservancy.
Take a systemic approach to storage
By Ellen Hanak
We rely on water storage in California, not just to survive drought, but also to get through our dry summer and fall every year. We have about 1,400 surface reservoirs that hold as much as a year's worth of water. The state's 515 groundwater basins, however, can hold at least three times that amount.
We have extra storage capacity right now; what's missing is the water itself. But we should be trying to capture more water in wet years and storing more to replace what we used to get from our shrinking snowpack. State voters in November approved $2.7 billion in bonds to co-finance storage projects.
People often assume that the priority should be new surface reservoirs, but improvements in groundwater storage — which is less visible, but often much cheaper — will often prove more effective. Moving water from surface storage to groundwater basins is an especially great way to save water in anticipation of future droughts.
Ellen Hanak is a water economist and director of the Public Policy Institute of California's Water Policy Center.
When water counts, accounting matters
By Jay Lund
Droughts inevitably reveal the weaknesses in a water system. This one has highlighted California's shortcomings and inflexibility in managing groundwater, water rights, the environment and rural community water supplies. But before we can improve on any of these, we need better statewide water accounting.
Accounting is the boring foundation of effective water management. Just like last year, California is suffering unnecessary confusion, controversy and delayed decisions because we lack a common water accounting system.
There is a saying: "A man with one watch knows what time it is, but someone with two watches is never sure." California has six watches. The state currently uses six different frameworks in two separate state agencies to track water. Having multiple fragmentary and incompatible systems needlessly confuses policy and allocation discussions.
California needs a common accounting system. The state's Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board should work with stakeholders, agencies and water experts to create this new framework so it has broad legitimacy and transparency as well as accuracy. We need all those attributes to reach crucial decisions on supplies, the environment and future storage needs.
Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.