California's lengthy drought has prompted state, regional and local officials to take a series of steps in recent years to restrict water use. One of the first measures lawmakers adopted was an urban conservation plan to ensure that future consumption in California's cities would not outstrip a dwindling supply. Modeled on tough goals that had been passed to reduce energy use and limit the release of greenhouse gasses, the 20 x 2020 Water Conservation Plan aims for a 20% per capita reduction by 2020.
That's not as big a leap as it might sound. With a little planning and some modest lifestyle changes, most residents ought to be able to do just fine on 100 gallons a day, well below the target of the 2020 plan. Many Californians get by on less than 60 gallons a day already with no obvious hardship.
As the drought intensified, Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency and ordered immediate cuts of 25%. Then we got last winter's rains — an overabundance in the northern part of the state, a more modest moistening in the south — and Brown declared the drought over. The emergency cutback order was withdrawn in April.
So we're good, right? Re-seed the lawn and wash down the driveway? Start modeling ourselves on the Wet Prince of Bel-Air, that as-yet unidentified homeowner who used about 32,000 gallons of water a day during the drought?
No. Californians north and south know that those days are over and that perhaps we ought not to have indulged in such profligate water use even when we had an excess. The 2020 plan is still appropriate and still in place. But it's not enough. We're conserving — sort of — but we're still inefficient.
Although at first it may seem like an excessively fine distinction, conservation and efficiency are two different things. Conservation means reducing water use. That can include wasting less or simply doing without — for example, by dropping a tissue in the garbage after sneezing instead of flushing it down the toilet. Efficiency means using a smaller amount of water to accomplish some task, typically with the help of better techniques or technology — for example, by replacing the toilet with one that uses a fraction of the water per flush to get the job done.
The 2020 plan allows cities and their water agencies to choose how to reduce water use. Efficiency is seen as just one way to achieve conservation goals. In other words, it's optional. It shouldn't be.
California's most recent dry streak lasted a decade, broken only by the wet winter of 2010 to 2011. For all we know it is with us still and will go on for many more years, having merely been broken one more time by the wet winter of 2017. Water efficiency is a necessary element of the state's survival and ought to be part of the state's framework.
A bill by Sens. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would help get us there. SB 606 would set efficiency standards across California, appropriately adjusted for local climate and other conditions and potentially backed by penalties for non-compliance. It would begin the process of curbing the excesses of Wet Princes in every part of the state. Yes, they do pay for all the excess water they use, but that water is a common, and limited, good.
Some utilities that have invested an enormous amount of resources in supplements or alternatives to efficiency, such as recycling, object that they are being cheated. Shouldn't they get credit for the water they have saved as well? Why reward efficiency over recycling?
This bill wouldn't do that — managing the state's water supply isn't a zero-sum game. Recycling will be an integral part of California's water future, along with stormwater capture and reuse and, in some cases, desalination. But it's worth noting that those technologies are energy intensive, and if relied on exclusively could seriously undermine the state's recent progress in reducing emissions and the other downsides of increased energy use.
In fact, the decline in water use during the drought also produced energy savings — more in the summer of 2015 than all the energy efficiency programs offered by every utility in the state, combined, during that same period, according to a UC Davis study. Water and energy efficiency are both essential components of Californians' environmental stewardship and a sustainable future.