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.