Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Drought-Proofing California by 2020

• July 29, 2009 • 7:30 PM

Higher water bills spark ratepayer revolts but may also dampen Californians’ proclivity to use more wet stuff than necessary.

California lawmakers are working on a historic plan — the first of its kind in the United States — to require a 20 percent reduction in per-capita urban water use by the year 2020. It signals the end of cheap water for water wasters, a change that’s bound to come as a shock to some residents in the Golden State.

This spring, more than 2,000 people living in and around the populous High Desert community of Palmdale — 60 miles north of Los Angeles — wrote letters of protest after their water district, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, dramatically raised hikes in rates and service charges. Residents are just now getting their bills, and the district’s phone is ringing off the hook with customers asking for waivers.

The city of Palmdale announced drastic cuts to irrigating local parks in response to what it said were “extreme hikes in water rates.” And it filed suit against the Palmdale Water District, arguing that the increases were illegal and the formula for computing customers’ bills was incomprehensible.

“They perceive that they’re being the champions of the people,” district General Manager Randy Hill said of city officials, “but we don’t have sufficient water supplies. We’re at the point that our demand is dangerously close to our supply. We should have been raising rates all along, and we didn’t.”

It’s a conservation rule of thumb that if a resource is underpriced, it will be overused. And California needs every drop, experts say, to cope with recurring droughts, serve the growing population and restore the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the source of much of the state’s fresh water, including Palmdale’s.

“Sooner or later, California will be hit with the same kind of prolonged, severe drought that Australia is facing now,” said Rick Soehren, assistant deputy director for water use efficiency at the state Department of Water Resources and co-chair of the “20×2020″ planning team. “Either we’re going to be ready, or the economy takes a terrible hit and people lose a huge investment in landscaping.”

The draft plan was made public this year by a state and federal team under a directive from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It opens with the statement that California’s “overall demand for water has exceeded our reliable developed supply.” In just over a decade, it proposes to reduce California’s urban water use — residential, commercial and industrial — from an average 192 gallons per person per day to 154 gallons. That would be an annual savings of about 1.7 million acre-feet, equivalent to more than a two-year supply for Los Angeles. (The national urban per-capita use is 101 gallons per day, reflecting the higher average rainfall in many states.)

Palmdale residents use 200 gallons per capita daily. John Mlynar, a city spokesman, said the city has been trying hard to cut water use on its own property, reducing it 27 percent in recent years, even installing artificial grass in front of city hall.

“We have gone to great lengths to conserve water,” Mlynar said. “The district needs to look at cutting some expenses before passing on costs.”

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge declined to temporarily halt Palmdale’s water rate increases this month, but the city’s lawsuit is going forward. In the meantime, the water district is spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal costs — money that Hill, the general manager, said he could be using to pay residents to put in low-flow toilets and take out grass.

Statewide, experts say, water districts like Palmdale will have to change the way they do business to meet the proposed 20 percent reduction in urban water use. It’s an average: State Assembly bill AB 49 would allow water districts to use different formulas for meeting the goal, taking into account differences in climate and levels of conservation already achieved.

“In areas where there has been more aggressive conservation, the reduction could be 17 percent, whereas in other areas it could be as high as 30 percent,” said Chris Brown, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a nonprofit group that helped develop the plan.

After some fine-tuning by a joint committee of the state Assembly and Senate, AB 49 is expected to go to vote this fall. It is sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, and the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It also has the support of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and numerous other business and environmental groups and water agencies.

Proponents of the 20×2020 plan say it means cutting back on water waste, not lifestyle — fixing leaks; installing low-flow toilets, showerheads and washing machines; adjusting irrigation; and putting in drought-tolerant plants.

“Most homeowners in California still have grass,” Soehren said. “We’re starting to chip away at that, either by persuading people to water their lawn more efficiently, or convincing them they don’t need a lawn in the front where no one plays on it. There definitely is a water crisis, and it’s hard to justify using all you want just because you can get a hold of it.”

Bob Wilkinson, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor who serves on the technical advisory committee for the California Water Plan, believes residents could easily achieve as much as a 30 percent reduction in just a few years.

“The No. 1 source for new water is urban water use efficiency,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not a sideshow, and it’s important that people not think of this as a sacrifice. It wouldn’t take draconian measures. We just need to get price signals in place to help people understand the real price and cost of water.”

That’s what’s happening in Montecito, a wealthy community on the coast northwest of Los Angeles, where residents were paying three times as much for water as in Palmdale but didn’t care about the cost because they could afford it. Newcomers who had no memory of the drought of 1986-91 tended to build big homes with big lawns.

While water demand flattened out in the rest of Southern California, including Los Angeles, Montecito’s grew until it reached a local record in 2007 of more than 350 gallons per capita per day. That’s one of the highest per capitas in the state, equivalent to that of people living in California’s Sonoran Desert, near the border with Mexico.

“Everybody put in their lush landscaping,” recalled Tom Mosby, the Montecito Water District general manager. “Money wasn’t an issue. I would see trucks going up the street with sod and I was just having a heart attack.”

Suddenly, Montecito was confronting the possibility of a chronic, long-term water shortage. In the short term, the district spent nearly $900,000 buying surplus water from the state aqueduct to make ends meet. For the long term, it set a limit on water for new development and restored a tiered rate structure similar to the one it had implemented during the last drought. Now customers are charged progressively more for each successive tier or “block” of water they use — a pricing method recommended by the state.

Montecito is on track to achieving a 10 percent reduction in water use by this October, a year after the new rates went into effect, Mosby said.

“At first, the bills were a major shock for everyone,” he said. “The community’s got the message, and we are very pleased.”

Yet even with a 10 percent reduction, Montecitans would still be using nearly three times as much water per capita as the residents of Goleta, a suburban community just 12 miles up the coast. At 111 gallons per capita per day, the customers of the Goleta Water District are among the most conservationist in the state.

During the last drought, Goleta gave out $50 rebates for 15,000 low-volume toilets, importing them from Sweden. It was the first toilet rebate program in the country: The slogan was, “You’re Sitting on the Solution.” In addition, the district gave away 40,000 low-flow showerheads. It implemented water rates that went up steeply in the highest tiers. Many homeowners took out their lawns. Water demand dropped by 40 percent, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency singled out the district as a model in conservation.

After the last drought ended in 1991, Goleta’s water rates stayed high. Although not as high as Montecito’s new rates, they are easily twice the average rate in California today. Goleta faces no water shortages today, even in the current drought. Residents here are on the lookout for waste: Every week, someone calls the district to report a neighbor who’s letting water run down the street.

“Historically, this district has been preaching conservation and, in my humble opinion, doing a damn good job,” said Jack Cunningham, a member of the Goleta Water District board of directors. “It’s taking hold and being retained by a lot of users because they can remember the last drought. We don’t feel an urgent need for ’20×2020.’ I do my own rationing as a house owner in Goleta.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.