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California Dreaming: You Can't Have Cheap Water Forever


By Raj Aseervatham

“You guys in Australia have water?”

It’s an odd question from a Los Angeles cab driver, I muse, but I answer him affably. I tell him there is enough for showers and cups of tea, and that the people of Sydney are happy and they generally smell okay, except at 6 p.m. on crowded buses or trains.

“We got one more year then we’re out of water in California,” he tells me grimly.

We’re about two miles from the Pacific Ocean on this fine Sunday. And when my Qantas flight landed this morning the reserve still looked pretty full, so his dour comment isn’t entirely accurate. But I get what he’s saying. California is in a bit of a drought-induced crisis. The tone of newspapers borders on the hysterical, and is generally unhelpful. So, the papers are basically doing their job just fine.

"California has one year of water left," screams the Los Angeles Times.

Climate change aside, we still have to solve that problem. It’s a crisis not because molecules of H20 have mysteriously vanished but because the cheaper sources of H20 are depleting or have depleted. As Leon Kaye recently pointed out in an article on TriplePundit, the state needs to get serious about a long-term water plan.

So, when people say there’s no more water, what they mean is there’s not a lot of cheap water left -- which means water prices are going up.

Shorter showers aren't the answer

This isn’t great news for LA, whose water use has reduced from 172 gallons to 129 gallons per person, per day since 1980 (Newsweek). My cab driver, one of the 3.9 million people in LA who presumably contributes to this excellent per-capita water reduction with his efficient showering and clever lawn-watering practices, deserves to be miffed. From his viewpoint, he tells me, his sustainable behavior is not being rewarded – it’s being punished.

The truth is, it’s just being ignored. Most of California's water is used for power generation and irrigation. This is the overall trend in the U.S. -- as you can see below, courtesy of the USGS in their 2014 publication Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2010. That means that all of us saving 10 percent on our showers and lawn watering has less than a 1 percent impact all round. Bummer, dude.

For this post, I’ll leave out the obvious discussion about coal-fired power stations, those thirsty little pesky carbon emitters (and you'll be glad to know that in California most of their water is from saline sources). Let’s look at irrigation, because it illustrates an important point.

Water price structures and agriculture

Irrigation is used by Californian farmers to provide most of America’s lemons, nectarines, broccoli, plums and a few other fruits and vegetables, as well as a healthy supply of dairy products. It’s productive use. The subsidizing logic is that, with such an input to U.S. agricultural productivity, water prices for farmers should be low. Fair enough, bring on a discount.

So in agricultural regions, Californian users pay about 0.007 cents per gallon. For agriculture, the cost is calculated in acre-feet. (One acre foot is the amount it takes to put an acre of land under a foot of water.) This sounds like a unit of measurement our Biblical friend Noah would have used. There isn’t much incentive to use less agricultural water, at these costs.

In Fresno, California, according to the New York Times, the average household uses around 400 gallons of water per day pays 0.24 cents per gallon, which is about 38 times the unit cost of water for agricultural producers. So, maybe cost structure is one part of the problem. (And yes, a higher water cost structure in agriculture will likely flow on to many other commodities, if you’ll pardon the pun).

What about water use and frugality? Even if Californians did use less water, there is another insidious problem: The aquifers and rivers that provide fresh water depend on rain to top them off, and there hasn’t been much of that in the last few years. If that’s a continuing trend, my cab driver ain’t seen nothing yet. So, an excessive reliance on cheap traditional resources that are inexorably depleting is another issue to tackle.

Facing facts about water pricing

There was never really a question about whether water costs should rise significantly. The only question is when and by how much. For example, desalinating Pacific Ocean water might hike unit rates twofold or so. For most residential customers, this would add the cost of a daily iced latte to their water bills.

Arguably, the later we leave our access to more costly sources, the more the increase in cost will be, and the more regrettable the legacy we leave behind, with depleted aquifers and weaker rivers -- our cheapest sources – taking the brunt of our poor past decisions. It’s not a human right to have near-free access to water. It is probably our right to have affordable access to water, and this total cost is made up of two things – how much we use, and where we get it from. Both are within our power to considerably influence.

You, like me, will probably point out that our water costs have already been going up, at eye-popping rates. Global Water Intelligence estimates that recent per-unit water prices have increased by between 7 and 8 percent annually, but a lot of that is due to the upgrading of aging infrastructure, not smarter water sourcing. We’ve been largely paying to solve a servicing problem, not a sustainability problem. D’oh.

Albert Einstein, who by all accounts was a pretty smart person and a canny philosopher outside of his chosen field of quantum physics, once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

For the better part of a century, we’ve used reasonably static thinking all around the world: first believing in the infinite elasticity of scarce resources like cheap fresh water, and then hoping that feel-good initiatives like shorter showers create the quantum of water-smart impacts we need.

California is, unfortunately for it, becoming perhaps our planet's first poster-child for the outcomes of this type of uninspired thinking about water. That's a Sigalert for a better water policy, bro.

Image credit: 123RF/Chris van Lennep

Dr Raj Aseervatham has worked extensively in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas in various roles in government, consultancy and private industry. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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