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Wealthy Have Means to Avoid Dry Seasons

There are dangerous times ahead, going by a conversation recently overheard in a Los Angeles restaurant. Everyone was discussing ways of conserving water and avoiding stiff surcharges in the current drought, when one diner, wealthy and well-landed, exclaimed, “But I have beautiful lawns! I’ll just have to pay whatever they charge!”

Pressed further, the diner said it would be impossible to get the gardener to cut down on watering: He doesn’t even speak English. Finally, and in exasperation: “Oh well, I’m not even here most of the year! What will be will be. . . .”

Water rationing in California could precipitate a revolution. Some people will keep their lawns green because paying more for water is no problem. Others will have to give up lawns and more. To most people, a lawn is pure luxury, representing several thousand baby baths, many hundred toilet flushes, dozens of wash loads.

In most California communities, residential consumers are given a goal--a percentage cutback from what they used in some previous period (10% of their 1986 consumption under the Los Angeles system) or a set allotment of water per person per day (50 gallons apiece in Marin County). In either case, they’ll be charged higher and higher rates each billing period for any extra water used. Ultimately--in some places only after 10 to 12 months of increasing surcharges--their water could be “restricted” or briefly cut off.

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It doesn’t seem fair that those who can pay for it can use more water. And it doesn’t seem effective if the community goal is to save water, not make money.

It’s certainly not rationing, which generally means manipulating supply rather than price to limit consumption. Rationing was what we had in World War II when everyone got coupons for a certain amount of sugar and meat and milk and gas and rubber tires. Rationing is what some communities still apply to liquor purchases in an effort to limit alcohol consumption.

California prefers to discourage water usage by “economic disincentives"--pricing. For starters, it’s feasible. Real rationing would require changing all water meters (or constantly monitoring them) so each customer’s supply could be cut off when it reached the designated allotment.

Many also consider a surcharge system fairer. Rationing allows each customer so much and no more; tiered pricing lets them have more if they think it worth paying for. It gives them some choice, says Henry Vaux, professor of economics at UC Riverside. “It’s not possible to devise a rationing rule flexible enough to cover millions of users, each with a different situation. The individual is the best judge of the urgency of their needs,” Vaux says.

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Where choice is involved, psychology is important. The system depends on everyone’s belief in the need to conserve and their trust that everyone else will do likewise. There’s also a specific advantage in tiering prices, rather than just raising the price overall. It gives people a sense of the “cliff edge” ahead, says Jan Acton, an economist at RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. “People tend to overreact to their sense of how close they are to the cliff, and they over-conserve.”

But that’s normal people, with normal finances. Then there are the lawn-lovers, well-heeled, who point up a major problem with the system. If they just don’t care and have the money to be uncaring, the system accommodates them.

If the individual allotment is a percentage of past use, the rich are favored from the outset. With bigger homes and grounds, they start with higher usage, highly discretionary. Their 10% cutback may save more water (“Ten percent of a lot is a lot more than 10% of a little,” says Los Angeles Water and Power Department spokeswoman Mindy Berman), but they’re also left with more.

A choice system that allows some people greater water allotments can’t ignore for too long how that allotment is used. Some lawns deplete not just water but goodwill. But the distinctions won’t be easy to make: In California, some lawns need water so the hills don’t burn away.

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There may be no problem. The drought emergency and the attendant conservation measures may be mercifully short, as in 1977. What’s more, says Acton, “A lot of people in the top 10% of usage will be responsive” to the emergency. As for the others, the system will let them eat cake, but only for a while.


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