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The Grass Isn't Necessarily Greener: Water Rationing and Fairness

As Published in the San Diego Daily Transcript; April 9, 2009

W. Erik Bruvold

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Last week California water managers assessed April’s snowpack readings, an important measure of our statewide water supply. While the news wasn’t as dire as some had feared, the readings confirmed what had long been expected – our state is experiencing its third consecutive year of below normal precipitation. When the Southern California Metropolitan Water District meets later this month, the readings are very likely to lead them to require water districts throughout Southern California to institute mandatory conservation measures. Unlike the opinions of some there is no ideal response to this crisis and policymakers throughout the region will face a menu of unappetizing choices. The key is building consensus and going the extra mile to acknowledge that there is no solution that will please everyone or which can’t be criticized as being “unfair” in some way. 

One policy response is the one adopted by many agencies during the last major drought – restrictions on behavior. Long-time residents of the Golden State may remember restrictions that prohibited watering on certain days and the shuttering of carwashes that did not recycle their water. The challenge with this option is that it is costly, requiring a slew of additional staff members to go out into the field to catch those breaking the rules. Given low staffing ratios and the challenge of enforcing irrigation restrictions in inaccessible backyards, get ready for news stories about districts letting water scofflaws “go free” and the resulting frustration of rate payers who are adhering to the new rules.

Another kind of approach, likely to be adopted by the City of San Diego, asks for across-the-board percentage reductions. Those that don’t meet conservation goals would pay rapidly escalating prices for water used over their base allotment and, if they repeatedly failed to meet rationing limits, would find flow restrictors placed on their water meters.

Such plans are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, an important consideration for a City struggling with a growing budget crisis and which relies upon an aging and cumbersome computer system. These plans also require that everyone, irrespective of how much they are willing to pay for water, to participate in the conservation efforts. However, because they require a uniform percentage reduction, they end up requiring more pronounced changes from those already using a small amount of water as compared to those users who are presently using a large amount of water. They have also been criticized because they don’t equitably treat all those ratepayers who have previously cut back, seeming to reward wasteful users over conservationists.

Much has been written recently about a third approach, reportedly used by at least one water agency in Orange County, that uses specific data about each customer to construct water budgets with price penalties for exceeding them. This approach arguably is more equitable to those that have been actively conserving as they already are under the baseline water budget. However, where these approaches run into problems is that it is impossible to construct a plan that takes into account every particular circumstance that might make conservation difficult. In the case of the Orange County district, homeowners that fall on the wrong side of the dividing lines for the various micro-climates, who have more than four people living at their homes, or which have more than 1,300 square feet of landscaping need to apply for a variance to get a larger water budget. Those customers that need a variance for reasons that the district does not consider valid are completely out of luck. Allotments become, in part, a function of bureaucratic rules, a situation sure to cause complaints and frustration by customers caught up in “catch-22s.”

Still other agencies are likely to use price increases to encourage conservation efforts. The research suggests that this will be effective as most people will cut back when the price of water increases. However, policy makers in these districts have to accept that the sensitivity to increased marginal costs varies. Thus while some users will respond by letting their lawns go brown, there will be other users that nonchalantly water their tropical landscaping everyday. Critics are likely to see those outcomes and cry foul.

This overview of possible responses suggests that we are dealing with an issue in which there are no ideal choices. Irrespective of what policies water managers make, critics will cast aspersions on the plan and castigate it as “unfair.” Therefore what is critical is consensus building and public buy-in. Water districts throughout the county owe it to their residents and themselves to go the extra mile and increase their outreach efforts. In turn, ratepayers should remember that there is no silver bullet, that any plan is likely to be “unfair” to someone, and that it is easy in this situation to think that “the grass is always greener” in the other water district. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.