On May 31, Governor Brown signed into law two more unnecessary laws that once again fail to promote the responsible development of drought-proof water supplies in California. Instead, they continue to push tighter and tighter restrictions on household water use, with programs that are both highly regressive and highly negative as “investments." In short, they tax households to not use water when there are alternatives that are far superior from an ROI perspective that invest in new supply.
For some people of limited imagination, the only approach to water management is to (1) penalize its use and (2) write and enforce onerous, complicated and unnecessary regulations to dictate how citizens use water. This approach focuses mostly on households and (non-farm) businesses, which use only a small share of the total water used in the state.
This approach fails on many levels:
- It drives up water costs in a way that harms the poorest the most.
- It fails to acknowledge the diminishing marginal returns of spending on conservation (that is, they spend more and more with less and less benefit). Indeed, there are already many programs for which you are being charged in your water bill, to pay people to use less water, that have a highly negative return (e.g., rain barrels).
- The worst part of this approach is that it fails to understand that this is not just a demand problem; it is also a supply challenge. Why not, instead of penalizing use, incentivize supply? Indeed, it would be irresponsible to do otherwise. We must invest in diverse sources of supply, and sources that do not depend on whether it rains or not in a particular year (or years). And we must invest based on the long run, which means folks must stop misleading the citizens with false comparisons about the cost of, say, Colorado River water today, and the cost of recycled water in the future. The proper comparison is the cost of alternative sources over time.
What are those sources? In San Diego, we are moving forward with a large-scale pure water program to greatly reduce our reliance on less-reliable sources. We already have in operation a state-of-the-art desalination plant in Carlsbad that delivers water throughout the county. The lion's share of water on the planet is "stored" in the oceans, and it is there, come rain or shine, in perpetuity.
Finally, remember that most of the precipitation that falls in California, or comes to us from larger watersheds in rivers on their natural course to the sea, is never captured for the use of our households. In fact, the great majority just flows out to sea, or is used to grow food and other agricultural products that are then consumed by people in other states (that is, most of that water is in effect used by non-Californians who consume food grown in California).
Next time someone tells you that we have to spend more and more and penalize you to use less and less, remember that they are just plain wrong. There are better ways forward.