“Social engineering.” I hear this term a lot. It’s used by people to describe any policy they don’t like. Most recently it came up in a radio interview about water conservation here in California. It’s been a hot topic since the governor declared a statewide water emergency with a mandatory 25% reduction in usage. After four years of drought reservoirs are critically low. The snowpack in the Sierras is at 9% of normal levels so there will be no spring runoff to recharge the system this summer. The speaker on the radio was the victorious lawyer representing the residents of San Juan Capistrano who successfully sued the town and prevented it from using a tiered pricing system. Evidently forcing people to pay incrementally more for the additional gallons of water they use was unconstitutional under California law. This points out the difficulty of conservation in a state that mandates a cut, but then makes rationing by price illegal. Keep in mind, for the last four years the state has been urging people to voluntarily reduce water consumption yet water usage hasn’t changed much.
The tiered billing system was the town’s way of protecting people with low incomes from being hit with a high water bill while implementing a de facto tax on lawn irrigation in the desert. If you turn off your sprinklers you can effectively avoid the additional cost of water. If you convert your lawn to a drought tolerant garden you can avoid the additional cost of water. If you install a gray water system and water your garden with recycled shower and laundry water you can avoid the additional cost of water. But this was perceived as government “social engineering” and an attack on the traditional American family (I’m not making this up) and was therefore morally repugnant and worthy of litigation – successful litigation as it turns out.
Water tiers in San Juan Capistrano are measured in increments of 100 cubic feet. That’s 748 gallons. At the lowest tier you could fill a volume the size of a small bedroom with water for $3.18. At the highest rate that same 100 cubic feet of water would cost you $11.67. Keep in mind, this is a desert environment. In a good year San Juan Capistrano will get 13 inches of rain in the winter. For the last four years there has been effectively zero rain. Water tables are dropping across the state, wells are going dry, and water from distant sources is becoming harder to secure.
The median home price in San Juan Capistrano is $716,000. This particular group of people could afford a very expensive lawyer to defend their lawns, but they aren’t willing to pay more for water in a severe drought. I just don’t get that… Or rather, I do understand the philosophical parameters that are at play here, but ideology is beginning to hit up against external reality. When the reservoirs go dry your god given right to a cheap green lawn isn’t going to hold up very well in court.
Right about now I should mention that in addition to conservation failures the state has an equally troubling track record with cultivating additional water storage. For sixty years in the first half of the Twentieth Century California built massive dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs that actually made our large coastal cities possible. San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco wouldn’t exist without them. But there’s been a forty year pause in such infrastructure construction. In fact, Californians haven’t even been very good at maintaining the water systems we inherited from previous generations. On the one hand, well intentioned concerns about environmental degradation made building new water infrastructure politically unpopular. The old style systems were tone deaf to nature and sucked entire lakes and rivers dry. On the other hand, that destruction was used profligately to recreate a Scottish landscape in the desert – and the folks who enjoy that lifestyle are unwilling to pay the full cost (including environmental tolls) of the water they use. The argument is that some tiny fish or bird is of no consequence compared to their need to let their kids run around in the grass or play golf. It’s a false choice. Both conservationists and water users need to come to a common center where more sensitive infrastructure is developed while the resulting water is used more thoughtfully.
That takes me back to my own home. I recently had a dinner conversation with a friend who has lived through the droughts of the 1970’s and 1980’s. As I complained about the San Juan Capistrano people she asked what I was doing to conserve water myself instead of complaining about other people. My first reaction was to say that San Franciscans on average use 49 gallons of water per person per day which is radically lower than the rest of the state. She stopped me and said I need to stop thinking that way. “Take responsibility for your own action first.” And she was right.
I went out and bought a water saving shower head that uses 1.9 gallons of water per minute. Shorter showers are in order these days as well. I also put a rubber bucket under the tub faucet so I could collect the first flush of cool water as the shower initially warms up. That bucket water can then be used to flush the toilet, water the plants in my light well garden, or wash down the front steps. We replaced our old toilet with a 1.6 gallon per flush model years ago, but we’re now only flushing for “number two”. Urine can sit there without a flush. And finally I’ve put a rubber pan in the kitchen sink so I can wash dishes with less water. We already replaced the common clothes washer in our building with a water saving front loading machine last year. These steps should let us reduce our household water use by 25%. Now let’s hope the rest of the people in the state get with the program.