California's Drought and California's Response

Last month, listening to NPR, I learned that Sacramento, California is struggling with the installation of water meters on homes. There were two things I learned, both ungood: 1) Sacramento was installing water meters on homes, meaning, that they hadn't been there all along. I found that astounding because water meters are the first line of defense in controlling water use. Charge people for the water and they'll pay attention to the drippy faucet, they'll be more likely to remember to turn off the sprinkler, maybe they'll think about investing in more efficient water-using appliances. Or maybe they'll just throw a brick in the back of the toilet. 2) The way they were installing the water meters seemed to guarantee that it would take the longest possible time to complete the job. I wondered if this was a deal, tacit or otherwise, between the contractors and the city, because the way they are doing it involved a lot more work for the contractors. Seemed to me that getting the water meters in place would be urgent, and dealing with other aspects of the infrastructure could be handled later.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to use less water. They didn't. That is surprising because I thought everybody in California was a tree-hugging ex-hippie liberal, the sort of person who would come up to the plate to save the earth any day of the week, not just on Earth Day. Turns out, that's only the people I know in California. Now, California is imposing mandatory water restrictions, which include fines. Now the Libertarians will have to pay if they want to be all Libertarian about using water.

In the meantime I've had a few conversations, on Twitter and Facebook mainly, but also here, about this. My friends and I found ourselves grumbling about California. Hey, I live a few miles from the Mississippi River on a glacial lake covered with a sand sheet. Couldn't get much better aquifer than that; the rain falls, goes straight underground with minimal evaporation or runoff, and sits there ready to pump into the ubiquitous water towers that define most upper Midwestern and Plains cities. But we have mandatory water restrictions, usually for several weeks starting in mid summer, every year. Also, I've lived in several sates and there were always water meters. Always. How is it that California, suffering a severe to extreme drought statewide, has entire cities (at least a couple) without water meters, and only now has considered serious water restrictions? What gives, we grumbled? Why should we feel sorry for California when they seem to have brought at least part of this water shortage problem on themselves?

The whole thing made so little sense that I guessed that there was more to it. There must be context I'm unaware of, nuance I'm missing. And, a colleague of mine, it turns out, is one of the world's leading experts on water in California. So, I sent him, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a note asking him if he could 'spain all this. (Peter also blogs here at Scienceblogs.) He wrote back that I had just ruined his weekend by adding the last straw to the camels' back; this is an issue he'd been thinking about writing a blog post on, and now he was going to have to do it.

So he did: Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

I couldn't find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas. I couldn't find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas.

Peter's post contextualizes and adds nuance to most of my questions. I still think we have an open question that applies generally, not just to California: Why is it that we humans are so bad at doing what we already know is the right thing? Or, in some cases, don't know but would if we only looked around a bit. As a New Yorker (who also lived in Boston for quite a while) this question has troubled me since the day I moved to Minnesota. I see so many problems here that are developing (or in some cases well developed) with the undirected evolution of our infrastructure, cityscape, sub- and ex-urb layout, and other things that, I think, could be avoided if only those in charge of planning, and local political and economic leaders, would spend a year or so living in the East Coast Metropolis. Apparently, California isn't as coastal as often claimed. It is a former frontier, a frontier not so long ago, settled by people who forgot their roots the moment they pulled them up.

Years ago I visited the Las Vegas History Museum at the University of Nevada. Among the many displays there was a post card that blew my mind. The post card sported a photograph of dozens, possibly hundreds of artesian wells that had been tapped and let blow. It was a large, very gently sloped plain (the part of the city that today slopes down towards Lake Mead, east of the main core of the city) and each of the wells was sending up what looked like a geyser but was really just water spewing out of the ground. The point of the photograph, said to have been widely distributed back east, was to show that there is unlimited water here in the middle of the desert. Don't let thoughts of aridity dry up your plans to come here and build! The water spews out of the ground!

The think is, not long (weeks?) after the artesian wells were tapped, tapped entirely for one purpose, to make this photograph of unlimited water, the wells ran dry. The marketing effort caused the demise of the local aquifer, right then and there. And Las Vegas, with its fountains, golf courses, extensive unchecked development, is as stupid today as it was then. This poignantly exemplifies the true frontier spirit that facilitated the settling of the west. That and a lot of guns.

Go read Peter's post before you get mad at California for the reasons cited above, for only now metering and only now restricting water. Don't worry, you can still be mad at California, but with the additional context supplied by Peter, your annoyance will be appropriately nuanced and informed. They are still doing it wrong. They are just doing it wrong in ways more complex and, in some cases, depressing, than you may have been thinking.

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In part, government support of suburban development after WWII was a means of distributing populations away from center cities in case of atomic warfare. Those who favored nuclear disarmament were concentrated (if only temporarily) in prisons.

By david formanek (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

The problem is the ability to monitize future use of resources (even when they can't be used).

The appearance of abundant water increased the value of the land because people imagined that there was enough water so it would be inhabited. The people who sold the land took their profits and moved elsewhere. The people who bought the land didn't buy "land", they bought a place to live that had certain properties.

This is the same problem with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels in the ground have been monitized, they have been sold, assuming that they can be extracted and burned as fuel.

It is the same with people who buy land near a river, in the flood plain. When the floods come, they want to be bailed out.

It will be the same problem with sea level rise.

By David Whitlock (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

Exactly. One solution to the Carbon energy problem would be this: Get a few trillion dollar (I have no idea how much) . Take 100% of the fossil fuels from those who control them now, the stuff in the ground, and pay them well. Don't let them have any more. The energy companies that are currently doing everything from fracking to running coal plants to running nuke plants to building windmills and solar plants will simply shift their investments and activities to non Carbon fuel.

Don't need a Carbon tax, don't need insentives, don't need nothin'. Just make the value of what is in the ground zero, compensate, and the windfall will turn into windmills.

#5 altogether too sensible Greg so we know it won't happen.

I live 2 blocks away from the Columbia River and yet we have water restrictions here every June through September. It's not because we are short of water in the river, but the city (or regional districts) have to pay to pump water out of the river and then clean it for use and with the very hot summers here as the use for gardens and lawns goes up so does the cost to the city to process that water.

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

Doug: I assume that is what happens here too. But apparently in California, all that processing of water is free!

Just got my water bill today. It includes a $2.85 surcharge. In the Austin, TX, area, we have conserved water so well that the water company is going broke. The surcharge is necessary to keep them afloat (so they say).

If you are making a living selling a necessary commodity, and people are using less, it follows that you have to charge more for what you can sell.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

As I understand it the huge water projects in the 30s that channeled water to Las Vegas and LA were promoted, in part, because they claimed it would make water so plentiful that the cost would be too low to economically meter and charge for.

It seems to be part of human nature to look at something beyond the scale of our understanding and to declare the resource "inexhaustible". When the colonists came to the continent they saw to many trees to count, too many fish to consume, entirely too many resources to contemplate limiting use. And one by one each of those inexhaustible resources has been depleted.

Too many undocumented and their anchor babies, anchor grandbabies, anchor great grandbabies, etc. Scientist please quantify.

By Isadore Sony (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

@Art #9

"What do you mean we're running out? That can't happen! There will always be more! That's what more means!"

"Dinosaurs" tv show. Even Disney gets one right, now and again.

I remember reading, many years ago, an article in Readers' Digest which predicted free electricity produced by nukes. Just a small fee for maintenance and infrastructure. Hasn't happened.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 22 Jul 2014 #permalink

Doug @6: I live in an area with relatively mild summers, more annual precipitation on average than Seattle, and rain typically occurring throughout the year (unlike most of the western US, where summer is the dry season). We don't always have water restrictions in my town (but the next town south usually does), and when we do they are typically only in effect starting mid to late August until mid to late September. But when we do have water restrictions, it's for the same reasons your town does. Rainfall amounts fluctuate widely here, and some years are drier than others.

Many residents here don't have meters because they are on private wells rather than municipal water systems. They have a different incentive to conserve water: there's no backup plan if your private well runs dry. Fixing that problem costs thousands of dollars (maybe even tens of thousands; I'm on municipal water, so I don't have to worry about my well running dry), and your life is miserable until you do. My town has three or four different water sources, so if one fails they can make do on the others until the rain comes. OTOH, if you have a private well you don't think twice about installing a backup generator, because you need electricity to run your well pump; townies like me, especially those with dry basements (like mine), don't always install generators, which can be bad if an ice storm knocks out power for an extended period.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jul 2014 #permalink

As Peter's article points out, 80 percent of the water use is agriculture. Even if the cities were to cut their use completely, the vast majority is outside the control of most people. In ag, there are senior rights holders. These people get an allotment and get to use it first. And they use it. A normal person would say why not cut everyone's use by...oh 10 percent? Well you can't. The senior rights get their's first.
The Sac Bee also did an article showing that coastal cities actually use less per capita than anywhere else in the state, That makes it harder to conserve when you are already conserving.
One would think an obvious thing to is plant crops which use less water. In some cases this is happening and not by choice. Junior rights holders who planted almonds are ripping up the trees as their water supply has been cut.