My regional water agency, East Bay Municipal Utility District, is commendably anticipating shortages with a conservation program. Whether the program itself is commendable is not so clear; the story in the paper paper is headlined with the word rationing, and this always makes me reach for my revolver.
The proposals under consideration are a hodgepodge of tools, including across-the-board price increases (good), price increases only on use above some percentage of recent years’ levels, with the percentages different for different users (not so good), behavioral regulations like no car washing or sidewalk swooshing (probably symbolic, but maybe not ‘merely’ so).
The differential reduction schemes are the ones I’m most diffident about. EBMUD contemplates assigning (for example) targets of 30% reduction to golf courses and parks, 19% to single-family homes, and 5% to industrial users like refineries and manufacturers, each below the user’s average use over the last three years. If you go over the target, you pay super-high rates on the excess. The first thing that bothers me is the implicit moral judgment that the benefit of water use per gallon varies in this way, and the second is that EBMUD is equipped to discern the variation. I myself deplore golf courses and I hope they all turn brown, but I’m not authorized to implement judgments like that and neither is EBMUD; in any case, I think green public parks are an excellent use of precious water and nothing like golf courses both environmentally and sociologically; at least EBMUD could be more discriminating if they have to go down this route.
The second problem is the injustice across similarly categorized users, and the associated perverse incentives it puts in place ( I have carefully not looked at my water bills to see if I’m especially at risk here, so the following has the moral purity of ignorance.) Some people have been very careful about their water use for a long time, and others act as though moving to the desert of California entitles them to live as though they were still east of the 100th meridian. We have a front-loading washer, a dishwasher, a gallon jug in every toilet that’s not extra-low flow, drip irrigation all over the yard except a couple of very small patches of turf, and take only showers (no baths). But we have neighbors who have xeriscaped yards with cacti, gravel, and succulents, and some who collect grey water and use it for their gardens. Asking for the same percentage reduction from all of us punishes the early conservers, and signals everyone that being careless with water now (at least after this crisis) will protect us from future rationing hits, a result that is both unfair and unwise.
Price signals have a very spotty record – especially in the short run, and especially for things you pay for in one lump after a month or two of making a zillion little decisions to turn off the tap or shorten your shower – of getting individuals to serve their own interests, never mind being noble and communitarian, so I can understand EBMUD’s fear that putting water prices up to the right level won’t save enough. (I assume business and institutions are few enough and aware enough of their financial realities that they can be educated and will respond properly.)
What about invoking what the Mormons call ‘fellowship’: if water has some collective significance, shouldn’t every house be required to display a tasteful little sticker, visible from the street, indicating the total water consumption at that meter last month, and its zip code’s average for (as appropriate) apartments or houses? Big water user? feel free to point out your beautiful lawn and roses to your guests; perhaps one of them will hip you to the benefits of a drip system. Stingy user? feel free to bask in their appreciation of your ingenuity and good citizenship.