Water is too cheap!
A little further down in the blog when I conclude that rain barrels are only the leading edge of a water public relations campaign and that they only make sense if they are given away free, I made a casual comment that water is cheap. "Tap water costs next to nothing" is the exact quote from my most recent Rain barrel vs. soil rant. A comment from Diane of Food, Fun and Life in the Charente was that tap water was too expensive to see extensive outdoor use in France and the UK.
Wikipedia supports this, citing 6% of total residential water used outdoors (lawn watering and washing cars) in France. This is much lower than California (The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California estimates that, "in hot, dry areas, landscape irrigation can account for as much as 70 percent of the summer water use in single-family homes." This is probably a histrionic upper limit for PR purposes, but it can still serve as a point of comparison: 6% is a factor of 10 less than 70% so the real numbers are probably not in alignment either.) But is it really a cost issue that keeps outdoor water use in France much lower than in southern California or is it a cultural and horticultural issue?
A little Googling turned up a survey of U.S. water prices at Circle of Blue from earlier this year. It's an interesting read. Such surveys are complicated to synthesize data for because in addition to water use costs, there can be meter charges and other fixed monthly or bimonthly charges as well as water disposal costs (sewer fees) that are based on use. In response to a query, the author responded that sewer costs were not addressed in his article. I assume that it included the other fixed costs of water service.
I computed averages for California cities listed in the article and compared them to four European nations (I actually computed two California averages: one for Fresno, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego and a second that excluded San Francisco because it has such a high urban population density and high rainfall that it is markedly different in water use pattern.)
Data for average residential prices for water in four industrialized European nations is contained a 2006 report titled "VEWA Survey Comparison of European Water and Wastewater Prices" that I found online. These numbers do not include sewer charges, so ignoring the several year difference in freshness of the data, it's fair to make the comparison directly to Circle of Blue numbers. More Googling turned up average rainfall on a per region or per country basis. Those are very rough numbers, since within Great Britain, for example, rainfall averages can vary between 65 and 447 cm. Nonetheless, comparison of California vs. European water rates and annual precipitation is interesting.
Diane was right - costs are higher in industrialized Europe. Not only that, but we also have much scarcer precipitation in California, and we still charge less, whereas one might intuit that we would charge more for a scarce commodity. The flip side of average costs is average use. I didn't tabulate water use numbers, but it's 125 gallons per day for the five California cities in the average and 159 gallons per day excluding San Francisco. European water use might be well below half of ours, given France's 6% use rate cited for outdoor water use versus our much larger average. However, they would have to supplement normal rainfall much less on average to maintain a green lawn since they get more rain in the first place.
Would nearly a factor of two increase in water price result in Euro-style water usage patterns in California? Maybe. This data won't lead us to a definitive answer, but people are funny about prices - consider gas prices changing from 2.50/gallon to 3.50/gallon and remember how many people it drove to better fuel economy cars.
A better comparison would be water costs and patterns of use between coastal southern California cities and other Mediterranean climate cites.