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The Drought: Shared Inconvenience, Shared Responsibility, Shared Solutions

Uploaded: Apr 16, 2015
Water allocation and pricing has always been a contentious issue in California and the drought has escalated both the need for solutions and the age-old conflicts.

The theme of this blog is "shared inconvenience, shared responsibility, shared solutions".

Here are some basic facts and website resources from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

One, urban water uses are about 20% of the state's total uses. The other 80% is split between agriculture and various environmental uses.

Two, about half of urban water use is for outside irrigation?lawns, parks, golf courses and the like.

Three, farmers and urban users have made reductions in their water use. Farmers have reduced acreage devoted to crops, focusing mainly on lower value crops. Urban users have installed low flush toilets, more efficient appliances and have made some progress in reducing other uses?full loads for laundry and dishes, shorter showers, less outside watering.

Here are a couple of recent PPIC articles and a link to their water website.

web link

web link

Here is a link to the Pacific Institute website?another perspective on water issues.

web link

The immediate economic impact of the drought is small but that does not mean that the need to adapt is small or that inconvenience is necessarily small. The farming sector will have small losses in output and jobs as farmers react to reduced supply and higher prices. But farming and food processing is less than 3% of the total economy and the cutbacks will be modest in relation to total output.

There will likely be continuing increases in water prices and some small increases in food prices. But overall the major components of consumer prices are housing (rising rapidly) and energy (falling as a result of oil price decline). Overall inflation is running below 2%.

But it does make sense to do the short term adaptations fairly and prepare for the best approach to a continuing drought.

Technology, broadly viewed, can help as it has in energy. Desalination may become economic. More efficient toilets and faucets are now required on new construction and we have more scope for improving efficiencies in existing structures. I am not an expert in water so there may be more technology/conservation measures.

Higher water prices will lead to adaptations. Farmers will continue to move production from low value water using crops to higher value crops. In 20 years we may produce little cotton, rice or hay. Urban users may find it economic to rethink outside water use by converting some green areas to less water using coverage.

It will be interesting to see if the drought brings forth more finger pointing and asking "the other person" to make all the adaptations or will, instead, the drought lead to a sense that we are all in this together with shared responsibility and seek shared solutions.

Thoughts on responding to the drought as individuals and as a society?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Apr 16, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The best response is tiered pricing like that which is done for electricity. The lowest tier is for a lifeline level at very low cost and then each successive tier get more expensive with the highest tier being very expensive. Individuals then get to decide how much water they want to buy and everyone has low cost access to lifeline amounts of water at low cost.

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 16, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Peter Carpenter,

But how is that fair when the people in the new gargantuan hotel nearby can afford to spend $500/night on a hotel room, they really don't care if they waste water, so it costs a little more, and meanwhile, my small patch of native fescue lawn in the back is already dead as well as a lot of my other plants. This is after there were dozens of days during construction when water was just running into the storm drain. I fell like my sacrifices are for less than nothing.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Apr 17, 2015 at 7:46 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Tiered pricing allows Neighbor to use the lowest priced water however he wants - it is called free choice.

Hotels would have the same tiers and would either have to impose use restriction on their guest or raise their room rates.

People who can afford to pay for more of anything have the freedom to do so - we do not live in a society where everyone has exactly the same income.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Apr 17, 2015 at 2:51 pm

"It will be interesting to see if the drought brings forth more finger pointing and asking "the other person" to make all the adaptations or will, instead, the drought lead to a sense that we are all in this together with shared responsibility and seek shared solutions."

I've seen several rounds of drought. For the duration of the drought we will have both. When the rains return we will still have the former, but with a different focus.

"Thoughts on responding to the drought as individuals and as a society?"

It's a hotter topic than Kim Kardashian at the moment, but people will soon get bored with it and move on to some other fad, like Kim Kardashian's latest whatever.

"Desalination may become economic."

Heard that before, too. Trouble is, the lag time between talking about desalination and allocating the construction money has always been longer than the drought that forced the issue, and without an ongoing drought the economics don't look so good. Unless you can't get adequate water for your burgeoning population even in wet times, like San Diego.

Bottom line: human nature will prevail.

Posted by Thoughts, a resident of another community,
on Apr 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm

It's not so easy to give a flat breakdown in water usage 80%-20% split. Are you just talking about annual surface water? Which year? With the reduction in available surface water, agriculture has been forcibly cut back, so it's not a voluntary reduction. This automatically decreases their proportion of available surface water. They kvetch about the fraction that is kept in the environment, for example to keep the Delta from grown salty, making up for the withdrawals of delta water by adjacent farmers.

What has been happening that is the unseen threat is that the agricultural uses alone have depleted underground aquifers markedly over the last 5 and 10 year periods. This is not reported anywhere, as only surface water is tracked to any extent. The draw down of the aquifer has been extreme as farming has been forced to switch to that source to keep their consumption needs filled, with the drop off in surface water. It hasn't been urban users who have been drawing down underground resources.

Farmers change their mix of crops over time, and they have switched in many cases to crops like Almonds and Walnuts which need water year around, including at times when surface water resources are normally unavailable. They're backing themselves into a corner, because there is not going to be any underground resource soon.

This year Governor Brown has conspired with the Governor of Nevada to draw down Lake Tahoe to historical lows never seen before, and direct that water through rivers to California and Nevada farmers making available a surface resource they have never had before. That's billed as temporary but it will go on forever. What needs to happen is that farmers need to stop getting subsidized water. They need to see some savings to pay for costs like drip irrigation and covering crops to prevent evaporation. These are things they can do to get along with way less water, but it costs them to take the effort, and most don't.

Posted by Jesse Luftkopf, a resident of Ventura,
on Apr 18, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Farmers may be a luxury we cannot afford anymore. As Mr. Levy points out, their total contribution to our state GDP is negligible. Close them down and let that water support our substantive value-adding economic sectors.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 10:28 am

Alan is a registered user.

"Farmers may be a luxury we cannot afford anymore." Uh, we have to eat, Jesse?

Granted, maybe the agricultural sector should be less export driven, given the water resources. The reasons the agricultural sector is so big in California is, while it's short on water resources, it's possible to have up to 3 growing seasons for some crops in the fertile soils. It seems to get lost on some people that if it weren't for the drought, California has some fantastic advantages.

Agriculture needs to make dramatic adjustments, there's no question. Less water intensive crops, more efficient water use, more flexibility to adapt in dry years. But people should expect the majority of human water use to go into growing food. (I've heard that the water used to grow food that California imports is greater than the water used by food exported from California.)

If someone complains about water use by agriculture in California, if they don't adjust their food choices to reflect that, they're hypocrites.

One thing that irks me is pointing the finger at agriculture all of the time. At least in San Francisco and the upper Peninsula, the main water source is Hetch Hetchy, which is not used much for agriculture. There are two independent problems: One of conserving *our* residential water source and one of conserving the water in agricultural regions. Cutting back water use in areas that grow almonds isn't going to result in Hetch Hetchy draining any more slowly. Sure, people can point valid problems with agricultural water use; but that's a distinct problem.

I do agree with Peter Carpenter's thought about tiered pricing, or some similar mechanism. (It's probably too complicated to have individual households trade water allotments - like carbon credits.) You want some economic mechanism that does not restrict choice, but economically benefits people who conserve. If that mechanism works well, this will result in conservative goals being met, minimizing pain and taking advantage of individual ingenuity.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 12:35 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Tiered pricing IS an example of shared solutions. We know that pricing is one important component of allocating scarce resources. Tiered pricing is an attempt both to discourage high use by individual users and allow lower usage customers to pay a lower rate per unit of water. Of course there will always be people who are not price sensitive but I do not think it is worth the effort to target mandatory or invasive programs for a few users.

We do at some point need to deal with watering of parks and golf courses and where they stand in the priority list if the drought persists.

As for farming, it is absolutely true as the previous poster noted that the ag sector will need to make more adjustments. But it is also true that farmers have been reducing the production of water intensive lower value crops already and are continuing to reduce further in 2015.

There are also issues about the best use of public investment monies as to storage, more efficient water transfer, delta ecology protection and the like.

One of the challenges for decades is that groups point fingers at each other and block solutions. Hopefully now is the time for working together.

I do think if pricing does not work to reduce farming water use (I think it will), the state may need to face the question of looking 30 years ahead, why it make sense to grow some not specialty crops in a scarce water environment.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 5:50 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

[Web Link web link]

Apparently a judge just upheld a ruling that tiered pricing without a basis in differential cost is illegal.

The Governor's reaction is in the article.

Posted by SRB, a resident of Mountain View,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Given the appealate court's decision, tier based pricing is not going to help for the mandated reductions to be implemented in the next couple of months.

Following your tiered-pricing argument, maybe these reductions should be tiered: 5% for the lower water users, 50% or more for the water guzzlers?

Cities should also probably look into ways to prevent non-essential water usage in any new development (no lawns, no pool, no decorative fountains...); it would at least help the problem from getting worse.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 8:09 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

The new water reduction plan announced by the Governor does give more credit to cities that have reduced the most so far and has higher reduction targets for high use communities.

I do not think the tiered pricing debate is over.

Think about what will happen. My mom has high use (the Homeowners Association required lawns) and pays a very high rate on the last units of water. If this is made illegal in LA, the water department will raise rates on low users including many lower income households. That will cause an uproar (I hope) and may end up changing the laws.

I agree that cities, residents, and farmers need to examine their less essential water uses and cut back if we are to pull together in the short term.

Posted by SRB, a resident of Mountain View,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 8:54 pm

Sorry, I was suggesting tier based reductions (per capita) within each jurisdiction.

I agree that the tier based pricing will not be over, but with the court decision it's unlikely to be resolved before that wave of state mandated reductions.

Posted by Facts, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Apr 20, 2015 at 9:14 pm

The top 3 users of water in our state, in order, are Alfalfa (for beef), Almonds, and Rice.

So Americans that consume any of those crops (or the the animals that eat them) are contributing to the problem unless their source is from out of state.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 21, 2015 at 3:43 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.


Thanks for the clarification.

If there is an easy and generally agreeable way to do that based, say, on the past year's usage from administrative records, your suggestion sounds fair.

It is another example of using prices but trying to bring fairness into the system of reducing use.

What I don't want is some invasive "water police" system akin to what is going to happen re enforcement in the residential permit parking program here (that may be unavoidable).

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 21, 2015 at 3:48 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ facts

cotton is right up there with almonds.

Almonds are a specialty crop pretty unique to CA while alfalfa (and beef) and rice and cotton are grown worldwide.

In terms of value and exports/income, I would prefer almond water use over those other crops and farmers are making that choice cutting back on rice, cotton and alfalfa.

While it is true that our eating habits relate to water use, the water intensive crops in CA are large export crops so changing our domestic eating habits for that reason (there are other good reasons possibly) will not be as effective as other policies.

Posted by Water Tiers, a resident of another community,
on Apr 21, 2015 at 5:37 pm

The ruling only affects municipal water suppliers. Cal Water for example provides a lot of service, and can use its existing tiered water pricing because this is no way a government service fee.

Interestingly, Cal Water users number 92,000 for the "Los Altos Suburban" region which includes parts of Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Mountain View, Los Altos Hills and most of Los Altos. The pricing tiers in this area are already tiered very differently than Mountain View for residences. They are $3.20 for the first 10 CCF, then $3.40 for the next 17 CCF, then $4.08 for all use over 27 CCF per month. Contrast to the City of Mountain View. $3.80 for the first 3 CCF, then $5.06 for the next 12 CCF and for all over 15 CCF $8.10.

MV is charging way more than Cal Water, more than double the rate for everything over 12 CCF, and about 25% more below that, or 10% more for the first 3 units. But MV has a $6 lower per month meter charge than CalWater for most people, and if the house has a 3/4" full on connection, MV charges $16 less than Cal Water.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:14 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I'll be more enthusiastic about "shared inconveniences" when in fact we are all sharing the inconvenience. There are still CA residents who pay a flat fee for all the water they want to use. Sacramento still has 10% of its users without any meters, although they are trying to add meters.

Web Link

As of last November, "Sacramento holds by far the largest body of unmetered water connections in California ? about 62,000. These customers are allowed to consume all the water they want and pay only a flat monthly rate of about $41 for an average home"

Read more here: Web Link The good news is that Sacramento is on track to have everyone metered by the end of 2015. However, there are still many other water districts that don't meter water:

Web Link

Apparently, California water districts have until 2025 to install water meters. This is ridiculous. And I am outraged at the idea that we may be fined if we do not reduce our water usage to 70% of last year's volume, I use less than 50 gals per person in my household. I already have watersaving toilets, showers, a front loading washer. no lawn, drip irrigation and a drought resistant landscape, etc etc. Why penalize those of us who have successfully reduced our water usage, when irresponsible residents, businesses and the city itself, still have lawns, fountains and other water wasting landscapes. Why is the city still allowing residents to dewater lots for months at no charge? If we are sharing responsibilities, why do they have none?

Instead of tiered pricing, Palo Alto Utilities has been adding flat fees so that I, with 2600 sq. ft. of land around my house, pay the same amount for service as someone with half an acre. Where is the fairness in that? It reminds of of George Orwell's Animal Farm, where "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

Why am I being asked to conserve more, and pay more to make up for those who are not. What sharing responsibility is that? At a minimum, make sure everyone in CA has a water meter, and then come and ask me for more sacrifices.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace,
on Apr 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I sympathize with Marie. Why are the historical water saving citizens being forced to reduce even more? One way to approach this issue is to have a baseline usage established over a period of years (e.g. 10 years). This is not a perfect answer, but it would be more fair to those who started to conserve over the past few years.

Alternatively, the utilities dept., can just establish a water use plan based on the number of residents in the household. This would favor the current savers and punish the profligate users. Scofflaws should face heavy fines.

Those who have already sacrificed, should not be asked to make up for those who have not.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 22, 2015 at 12:35 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I think fairness is important and is the cornerstone of a shared responsibility approach.

But I also think finding fairness is sometimes not easy and I would prefer not to see some invasive system of enforcement.

So if there are easy and agreed upon metrics for discovering relative amounts of water reduction among users and basing future reductions accounting for past behavior that seems a good approach.

The Governor's plan is a step in that direction by city basing future reductions on relative water usage.

But I would also not want water conservation to stall in an endless fight over "fairness" which can also be in the eyes of each individual.

Posted by Slow Down, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 22, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Jesse Luftkopf - "Farmers may be a luxury we cannot afford anymore." If you stop thinking about farmer's output being GDP, and realize it is the food on everyone's table, then you realize farmers are a necessity we can't live without. Should they be growing cotton and rice? Probably not. Just price the water accordingly (tiered or not), and we'll get the appropriate crops.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace,
on Apr 22, 2015 at 3:21 pm

In order for water rationing to be effective, it must be seen as fair. Profligate users must not be seen as sacrificing less than conservative users. That is why a simple percentage reduction from last summer does not pencil.

I don't want the water police to have extraordinary powers, but another year or two of drought will make it inevitable. Let's start off with a fair system, before we get to more drastic measures.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Apr 22, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Alan is a registered user.

I had a thought about the court's ruling ... apparently, the government can't charge for a service an amount different than its cost, if I understood this correctly. Water is a commodity, not a service! Typically, the cost of a commodity is based on the balance of supply and demand, not directly on the cost of extraction. It just doesn't seem as if the rules should work in the same way ...

Even if the price is the same per gallon regardless of household usage, they could simply adjust the price per hundred cubic feet upward until the conservation goals are met. The supply is set at 25% reduction, the demand sets the price. If a municipal utility has extra money, they could redistribute the "profits" to each of the citizens on an equal basis (treating them as if they were equal stockholders). You would find which forms of water demand are elastic, and which ones are inelastic very quickly.

Posted by Water tiers, a resident of another community,
on Apr 23, 2015 at 1:10 am

Palo Alto surely has a violation of the appeals court ruling. It charges businesses $6.15 per unit of water, but for residential it charges the first 6 CCF (slight variation by days per month) at $4.99 and then all over 6 CCF is charged at $7.58.

Why the big break for business? Doesn't this encourage that they waste water? Surely many use quite a lot of water.

The source for all is the same. Someone's paying above or below cost.

Posted by Connie Kettendorf, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 30, 2015 at 6:39 pm

I am not well read as of yet as to all the issues surrounding the drought, so I am hoping someone can help me understand what I see. Why is Palo Alto allowing the building of residential basements in south Palo Alto? 1) We have a high water table which is drained to build the basements. 2) We are in a flood zone. If a catastrophic event such as bay rise, winter deluge,or levy failure occurs, the basements are vulnerable. 3) We live in earthquake country. 4) Don't the large trees depend on the ground water? Won't draining the ground water precipitate a die off of our trees in the next decade? 5) Isn't the building process of digging the basement lowering the water table thereby undermining the neighbors' properties and contaminating the water? 5) We are in the middle of the worst drought in 1000 years as evidenced by tree rings. Shouldn't we be preserving our ground water as a precious public resource,a resource to be protected for the near future?
A house on my street is draining a river of ground water night and day to build a basement. There was a beautiful 30 year old house on the spot, but the city has allowed the new construction of a basement. Look at all the houses on Ross who were required to RAISE their houses up 30 years ago to remodel because we were in the flood zone, but now the city allows basements. I'd be pretty angry now if I were those property owners who were forced to spend tens of thousands. The ground water keeps draining from the property nearby and the many other properties in north Palo Alto which are also under construction, building basements.
Help me understand this.........

Posted by Connie Kettendorf, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jun 1, 2015 at 3:16 pm

In response to my own posting, my engineer family members tell me that the city should be requiring builders of basements and pools to pump the water into trucks to be reclaimed.
I am told that excessive ground water is being drained in north Palo Alto, as there is a great deal of basement and pool construction there, draining thousands of gallons of ground water, night and day. Neighbors' driveways, foundations and big trees have been undermined by the process.
If there is anyone who can give me a different perspective, I welcome it.

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