Doubt about making 20% per capita water reduction mandatory.

One big complaint about last week’s water legislation is that it is pricey; a second complaint is that the 20% water use reduction is voluntary. Those are linked. A fair bit of the $11B bond measure goes to grants to districts for conservation and infrastructure improvements. If you don’t meet the 20% by 2020 goal, you can’t get state grants. The legislature is essentially offering bribes that are too good to turn down. This is sortof fine, if you don’t mind that the taxpayers as a whole are supplying the money for those bribes*. But some object to the bribery method at all. Make the conservation target mandatory, they say.

As a bureaucrat, I have an insatiable demand for power and I love to meddle in people’s daily business, so I’m not emotionally opposed to making 20 by 2020 mandatory. But as I think more about it, I can’t figure out how I would make water conservation mandatory in urban California.  Who would I enforce against?  What is the remedy?

What would be the target unit of enforcement?  People?  Households?  Districts?  Cities, in places that aren’t served by a district?  Those all get hairy really fast.  I don’t know of any ways to track the 35 million individual water users, nor how to break them out from within a household, and how would you divvy up the household landscaping water use?  Households?  Every household should have a meter, and I’d like to see multi-unit places have meters too.  So that doesn’t bother me theoretically.  But how would the state receive and track and enforce against individual households, if their water consumption dropped 18% but not 20% by 2020?  What’s the reporting mechanism?  How is it validated?  The state could require that districts or cities do this, or simply that districts show an aggregate water level use that’s down by 20% on a per capita basis.  But that starts pooling crime in a way that we don’t generally do.  Punishing a water district (how?  fines?  And then the district raises rates to recoup funds (which I don’t think it can do under Prop 218)?) for not meeting a goal punishes the people in the district who did meet the goal along with the people who don’t.  Besides, we hold employers responsible for the criminal acts of their employees, but isn’t it a little strange to hold public municipal or administrative body responsible for the acts of its constituents?  I mean, a water district doesn’t have that much power over the people inside it.  If a bad actor inside a water district wanted to use 84% of her 2009 water use, the district can’t do more than levy fines.

If urban water conservation is legally mandatory, choosing the level to prosecute against gets complicated fast.  But assuming we worked that out, there are other stange aspects to it.  Using water isn’t a crime, and it is a little strange to think that it would become one in the next gallon after 80% of your 2009 water use.  Wasting water is currently a(n almost entirely unenforced) crime under the California Constitution, but most people don’t have a strong emotional sense that letting the shower run until the water gets hot, or neglecting a running toilet is a matter that is appropriately prosecuted.  Further, people are extremely attached to however it was when they were kids; we’re going to tell them that what they’ve done their whole lives is suddenly illegal?  I guess we’ve done that with smoking bans, but there you could point to the harms of secondhand smoke.  Any incremental water use, even a wasteful one, seems like a pretty benign thing to criminalize.

Then, what is the remedy?  Throw those wasteful fuckers in jail and throw away the key?  Naw.  I can’t imagine anyone is talking about criminal remedies.  I assume we’re talking about civil prosecutions, and a thought of an administrative system for that (district water courts?  Traffic courts handle water tickets on the side?) is also boggling.  I suppose the water cops could issue tickets and the household could either pay it or make improvements.  Or something.

Yeah.  I’m not emotionally opposed to making water conservation mandatory, but as a practical legal matter, I don’t how to do it.


*My personal guess? There is no fucking way that $11B bond measure will pass next year. I think it should. I think it is a huge amount of money relative to our current budget and in the current recession. I think it is a small amount of money relative to what it will cost to build infrastructure and restore the ecosystem enough to buffer us against climate change.


Filed under Districts, Water Markets!!!

8 responses to “Doubt about making 20% per capita water reduction mandatory.

  1. Nathan Williams

    Every household should have a meter, and I’d like to see multi-unit places have meters too.

    Please tell me this is about metering and reporting individual wells, not buildings attached to a utility. Otherwise, I’m going to be thoroughly boggled that something I pretty much take for granted, the building water meter (and quarterly bill for the owner) is not standard somewhere where it really matters.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    You can go ahead and be boggled. Apartment buildings often do not have individual meters for each apartment. You are right. We are basically unevolved beasts.

  3. Wes

    Your comments regarding Prop 218 are very pertinent. The Santa Clara Valley Water District does require most operators of wells to report volume of water pumped from the aquifer. However, in a recent case brought by the private Great Oaks Water Company, the judge ruled that raising the rates was subject to Prop 218 and had been illegal.

  4. Nathan Williams

    Do apartment buildings have to have a per-building meter, though? It’s the idea of totally unmetered buildings that boggles me. Whether it’s per-unit or per-building is a smaller detail (though I realize it affects the ability to incentivize individuals about their water use).

    Out here in MA, it was only in 2004 that it became legal to separately meter apartments and bill tenants; before that, water bills were the landlord’s responsibility, period. I don’t think a lot of landlords have retrofitted per-unit water meters yet. (Current water+sewer rates are about $10-$12 ccf out here; how does that compare?)

  5. ho for coho

    Nathan, lots and lots of houses, apartment buildings, and places of business do NOT have water meters in CA. Sacramento, for example, is almost completely un-metered. I let my shower heat up for 5 minutes every day, don’t fix leaky faucets, and water my lawn to my hearts content and pay a flat rate for water. Apparently, I deserve this freedom.

  6. Doug Obegi


    A couple of thoughts about this post. As always, a thoughtful read.

    First, the 20% mandate applies to urban water districts, not to individual households or businesses. The district has the authority and expertise to create the right incentives (pricing, funding for technological improvements, education on best management practices) for their customers, in order for the district to achieve its overall mandate in the most cost-effective and efficient way.

    Second, I’d slightly disagree with your characterization of this 20% efficiency mandate as “voluntary.” It’s not punitive, but withholding state grants and loans for water projects creates a very powerful incentive for water districts to comply with the mandate. Using carrots and incentives, rather than (or in addition to) sticks and regulations, isn’t such a bad thing.

    And finally, there are always sticks available. Although you’re right that the reasonable use doctrine and forfeiture of wasted water (Water Code 1241) haven’t been used much in recent years, it is a very big stick. And there is, at least in some cities, administrative liability for violating municipal code provisions on specific water use practices (witness the water cops in some cities enforcing local ordinances restricting days or times when you can water your lawn, restrictions on washing cars, etc.).

    But it seems to me that using carrots to get cities and water districts to best figure out how to get the job done is the right way to approach this problem. And if they don’t… well, that’s what sticks are for.

  7. ho for coho

    I think it’s good to use the stick a little bit first to let people know you are serious. Otherwise, people start expecting the carrots for doing less and less. A good way to start would be to use the stick on say the San Juan Water District where per capita water use is 550 gal/day/person. People in LA who use I think about 120 gal/day/person want to know that when they are doing what they can to increase efficiency that those people who are not following the reasonable use doctrine are getting hammered. That’s how you get buy in for your efficiency grants.

  8. dfb

    “Wasting water is currently a(n almost entirely unenforced) crime under the California Constitution”

    I’ve often wondered where the State Water Resources Control Board has been in all of the latest battles of the water wars. It has the power to identify and bring enforcement actions against wasters but has been seemingly absent and not explicitly targeted by any lawmaker or advocacy group.

    On another note, I looked into installing individual meters in about 2002 for a three unit apartment building. It was cost prohibitive. First, the building would need to re-piped because it was designed with a shared network of pipes that does not allow for separate metering. Ok, this probably needs to be done at some point in the near-enough future but not until the useful life of the pipes is gone. Second, the city that supplies the water wanted to treat each unit as a new hookup and demanded its regular multi-thousand dollar hookup fee for new units despite the fact that these were units already served by the city. In addition, the city wanted a separate sewer hookup fee for each unit. Throw in the permitting process and inspections, metering the triplex is not a simple or affordable task (I hate to think of the larger or newer buildings). Needless to say, it will result in a rent increase.