Back to water

BadMomGoodMom often writes on weather issues, and an email from her reminded me that I hadn't written about water or rainfall in some time. We didn't have our hoped-for rainfall this year, so we're back to drought. This blog post started off with the goal of talking about the rainy season just past, but quickly veered into policy issues.

While we're in the long, dry, summer months it's useful to look back on the year in water. California's water year does not coincide with the calendar year. Our water year is offset to start and end during our dry season, in order to capture an entire winter's rainfall.

Progress in reducing water consumption seems glacially slow, but governments work at that sort of pace. Conservation efforts are targeted at outdoor water usage.

A key [Los Angeles] City Council committee voted Tuesday to approve Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's new crackdown on excessive water usage, doubling fines for residents and quadrupling them for businesses.

The "drought buster" plan crafted by the Department of Water and Power seeks to punish people who water their lawns between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., or wash their cars without "shut-off devices" on their hoses and restaurants that serve water without being asked.

Because of questions from the council's Energy and the Environment Committee over the last few weeks, the plan probably won't go into effect until September.
The proposal is expected to reach the full council later this month.

LA's reform pace can be contrasted to the nearby City of Long Beach, which has had drought rules in place for at least six months, even prior to the failure of the 07-08 wet season to replenish reservoirs, and my hometown of Hawthorne which is currently considering a "green yards" ordinance and has no plan in place. Why the difference?

Some of the difference in how Cities approach water use and regulation may be driven by the fact that large municipalities tend to have their own water districts. Rising costs at the LA Dept of Water and Power, the largest municipal water district in the nation, have an effect on the bottom line of the city's budget. Los Angeles City is therefore incentivized to reduce costs if, for example, their water district has to purchase expensive water from outside.

My water comes from American States Water Company which is not associated solely with one municipality.

Furthermore, there is an intrinsic conflict between conservation and the fact that AS Water is a publicly traded company; revenue is linked to consumption through the rates we pay. If conservation is successful, revenues fall. Officers of a publicly traded company have a duty not to drive their company out of business. For this reason, AS Water has taken as its first conservation action the action of decoupling revenue from sales. They note that other companies have done so successfully with a WRAM, or water revenue adjustment mechanism. What this appears to mean is that although you might use less water due to successful conservation efforts, you won't see a savings from it. There are already "water service charges" which are a fixed part of my current monthly bill. Expect those to increase.

Simultaneously, they also want to provide a greater level of distinction between the current rate structure (fairly flat no matter how much water you use) and a conservation-oriented rate structure which would charge significantly more money for higher levels of water usage and do so with a finer-grained approach than is currently used. Since this change in the rate structure is expected to reduce consumption at the high end and they want to stay "revenue neutral" it has to be implemented at the same time as the previously described change. link

Rate changes have to go through the one or more Commissions for approval, a slow process, which might be one reason why these changes, publicly released in July 2006, haven't yet been felt. They also don't have much of an idea of how elastic demand is for water, so the ultimate pricing structure is going to be determined by a process of successive iterations.

Lawn Alternatives

According to conservation advocates, the place to look for water savings in 2008 is outside. This is in comparison to the last drought, when the push was for low flow toilets and low flow faucets which were deemed broadly successful in reducing per capita demand. These are still the primary conservation recommendations of my water company, but they do list behavioral changes (navy showers, water off when brushing teeth, etc) and a few landscaping changes as viable conservation measures.

Among other conservation measures my water company advises, "When landscaping, use plants that require little water. You can decorate creatively with interesting objects that need no water at all, such as rocks, bricks, benches, gravel, and deck areas."

Our free market has spawned solutions too. This blurb is interesting in that it quotes some consumption figures for typical and atypical lawns:

Miriam Goldberger, the president of Wildflower Farm says, "Eco-Lawn produces a thick, handsome turf, and it requires minimal effort and resources to maintain. It's the right lawn for an environmentally stressed world."

A standard Kentucky bluegrass or perennial rye lawn requires one to two inches of water a week. For a 1,000 square foot lawn, that amounts to more than 100,000 thousand gallons of water a year. Eco-Lawn, however, requires minimal watering. In central and southern California, no more than 17,500 gallons of water are necessary for a 1,000 square foot Eco-Lawn from April through October, and only 25,600 gallons for the whole year.

Another Kentucy bluegrass alternative is UC Verde, developed by the University of California. This is a cultivar of a north American native grass, Buffalo Grass, which I do not believe is native to California.

I've written elsewhere at length in this blog about lawn alternatives.

This has been a somewhat meandering blog post and didn't end up where I thought it would. I'll follow up in another post with some locally pertinent water data. Unanswered questions from this post: Total water consumption versus per capita water consumption: How are we doing?, Are water consumption figures quoted in the Eco-lawn blurb reasonable?

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