CA may save enough to skip big water works

New Melones Dam (Wikimedia)

New Melones Dam (Wikimedia)

Demonstrating the simple power of reducing daily water usage, Californians have impressed regulators and policymakers by taking a huge bite out of statewide consumption. “The numbers reflect broad conservation success at a crucial time,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “Last year, Californians used more water in July than any other month, mostly because of lawn watering in the summer heat. This year’s urban conservation efforts resulted in a savings of more than 74 billion gallons in July compared with 2013, more than double the amount of water that the entire city of Sacramento will use in a year.”

Changing minds

The data lent some unexpected credence to what seemed like an outlandish prospect just a year ago. While many analysts presumed that huge new infrastructure projects would have to be undertaken to respond effectively to the drought, now some have begun to suggest that mere saving may be enough.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the sheer quantity of water saved — 414,800 acre-feet — measured favorably against some of the biggest and most expensive water storage facilities proposed to date. Both the expansion of Shasta Dam and a new Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River would open up around half that amount annually, the Times noted. Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for Stanford’s Water in the West initiative, told the Times “there are so many soft paths that we can take that might have a lot less environmental impact and be a lot less expensive, and still meet our future demand. This is probably a smarter tack than building more infrastructure, and moving more water around long distances.”

A massive new Delta tunnels project, promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown and set to cost at least $17 billion, has recently become the center of one of the Golden State’s several water-driven controversies. Meanwhile, predictions of a powerful El Nino storm season have done little to reduce ongoing jockeying between Northern and Southern California over water sources, water rights and water costs. And economists have begun to question whether California’s more limited access to water will begin to take a toll on the state’s pace of expansion, including many new housing developments authorized before the cutbacks began in earnest, according to the New York Times.

Unintended costs

The big savings have come with significant unanticipated costs, however — not always measurable in monetary terms. In what the Los Angeles Times called “a paradox of conservation, water agencies say the unprecedented savings — 31 percent in July over July 2013 — are causing or compounding a slew of problems.”

“Sanitation districts are yanking tree roots out of manholes and stepping up maintenance on their pipes to prevent corrosion and the spread of odors. And when people use less potable water, officials say, there’s less wastewater available to recycle. Water suppliers, meanwhile, say the dramatic decrease in consumption has created multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls.”

At the same time, California’s smaller cities have been thrown back on their heels by the stringent new regulations keeping consumption low. “State officials are starting to realize that some water mandates have the potential to cause serious economic problems for smaller communities such as Lemoore, Sanger, Hanford and Livingston,” the Fresno Bee reported.

The problem suggested a Catch-22, with the choice coming down to businesses in those areas making water cuts that result in cuts to jobs, or residents making up the difference by scaling back their consumption well in excess of the new mandates. “The cities are at or near the top of the state’s priority watch list to reduce water consumption, according to state Water Resources Control Board documents. All are missing the state’s reduction mandate by 10 percent or more.”


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  1. Hank de Carbonel
    Hank de Carbonel 10 September, 2015, 09:24

    Pardon my skepticism, but is it possible the State would fudge the numbers to justify doing nothing?

    Reply this comment
    • eck
      eck 11 September, 2015, 19:12

      Absolutely Hank. Anything to appease the enviro wackos. If we get thru this current drought we’re just lucky. With the huge increase (and climbing) in population it’s just plain obvious CA needs more water storage.

      Reply this comment
  2. fletch92131
    fletch92131 10 September, 2015, 09:59

    Many big cities will still have to go after water desalination.

    Reply this comment
  3. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 10 September, 2015, 13:25

    Time to give serious thought to desalization of the ocean water so it can be used for drinking and agriculteral use and Screw Greenpeace

    Reply this comment
  4. Loufca
    Loufca 10 September, 2015, 17:10

    To say that the water savings came primarily from people not watering their lawns is absolutely ludicrous. What you fail to understand is that grass is one of the best bio filters, CO2 sequesters and water purifiers available. The more important piece of your article is “unintended consequences”. Less water is used, as requested by governmental authorities and now there is a shortfall in the governments revenue. Basically, another rate increase is coming because the population did what it was asked to do. If this was an unintended consequence, someone, in Sacramento should be fired for having their head in the sand.

    Reply this comment
  5. Itachee
    Itachee 12 September, 2015, 08:18

    Anyone who really beeves this article and the claims it makes is out of touch with reality and knows so lilittle about water in CA as to be dangerous. Based on the first hand experience gained during my 35 years working on managing water in CA, water conservation is enviro code talk for retirement of 500,000 acres for ag land and further restrictions on urban and industrial development in CA. There simply isn’t enough water to be conserved for conservation to be a loing term solution to our water supply shortages.

    Reply this comment
  6. Larry
    Larry 15 September, 2015, 12:21

    I don’t know anything about this website but based on the previous comments it appears to attract old water buffalos or those that think increasing supply forever is possible. The world long since learned that the cost of efficiency is much less (in $$ and environmental damage) than new supply (both energy and water). And anyone who can say that desal is appropriate for agric. knows nothing about agric. economics. Complaining about rate increases due to drought inspired conservation also reflects a lack of knowledge of economics. If you want to see big price hikes for water wait until the costs of desal, the Delta tunnels and new reservoirs with very low yields are added to your bills..The best storage is groundwater basins. The cheapest source of energy and water is efficiency. I only have 30 years of water management in CA but it includes both urban and agric. Commenters – please vent your anger elsewhere and use water forums to share you knowledge. At the least you may discover that you’re ideas are not facts or truths.

    Reply this comment

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