How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion

The megapolis on California’s southern coast stretches from Ventura County on the northern end, through Los Angeles County, Orange County, down to San Diego County on the border with Mexico. It also includes the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Altogether these six counties have a population of 20.5 million residents. According to the California Department of Water Resources, urban users consume 3.7 million acre feet of water per year, and the remaining agricultural users in this region consume an additional 700,000 acre feet.

Much of this water is imported. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in these Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

California’s Plumbing System
The major interbasin systems of water conveyance, commonly known as aqueducts

California’s Overall Water Supplies Must Increase

Californians have already made tremendous strides conserving water, and the potential savings from more stringent conservation mandates may not yield significant additional savings. Population growth is likely to offset whatever remaining savings that may be achievable via additional conservation.

Meanwhile, the state mandated water requirements for California’s ecosystems continue to increase. The California State Water Board is finalizing “frameworks” that will increase the minimum amount of flow required to be maintained in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers order to better protect fish habitat and reduce salinity in the Delta. And, of course, these rivers, along with the Owens and Colorado rivers, are susceptible to droughts which periodically put severe strain on water users in California.

At about the same time, in 2015, California’s legislature began regulating groundwater withdrawals. This measure, while long overdue, puts additional pressure on urban and agricultural users.

California’s water requirements for healthy ecosystems, a robust and growing farm economy, as well as a growing urban population, are set to exceed available supply. Conservation cannot return enough water to the system to fix the problem.

How Can Water Supplies Increase?

In Southern California, runoff capture is an option that appears to have great potential. Despite its arid climate and perennial low rainfall, nearly every year a few storm systems bring torrential rains to the South Coast, inundating the landscape. Until the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic culvert starting in 1938, it would routinely flood, with the overflow filling huge aquifers beneath the city. Those aquifers remain, although many are contaminated and require mitigation. Runoff harvesting for aquifer storage represents one tremendous opportunity for Southern Californians to increase their supply of water.

The other possibilities are sewage recycling and desalination. In both cases, Southern California already boasts some of the most advanced plants in the world. The potential for these two technologies to deliver massive quantities of potable water, over a million acre feet per year each, is now predicated more on political and financial considerations than technological challenges.

Recycling Waste Water

Orange County leads the United States in recycling waste water. The Orange County Sanitation District treats 145,000 acre feet per year (130 million gallons per day – “MGD”), sending all of it to the Orange County Water District’s “Ground Water Replenishment System” plant for advanced treatment. The GWRS plant is the biggest of its kind in the world. After being treated to potable standards, 124,000 acre feet per year (110 million GPD), or 85 percent of the waste water, is then injected into aquifers to be stored and pumped back up and reused by residents as potable water. The remainder, containing no toxins and with fewer total dissolved solids than seawater, is discharged harmlessly into the ocean.

Currently the combined water districts in California’s Southland discharge about 1.5 million acre feet (1.3 billion GPD) of treated wastewater each year into the Pacific Ocean. Only a small percentage of this discharge is the treated brine from recycled water. But by using the advanced treatment methods as are employed in Orange County, 85% of wastewater can be recycled to potable standards. This means that merely through water reuse, there is the potential to recycle up to another 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Needless to say, implementing a solution at this scale would require major challenges to be overcome. Currently California’s water districts are only permitted to engage in “indirect potable reuse,” which means the recycled water must be stored in an aquifer or a reservoir prior to being processed as drinking water and entering the water supply. By 2023, it is expected the California Water Board will have completed regulations governing “direct potable reuse,” which would allow recycled water to be immediately returned to the water supply without the intermediate step of being stored in an aquifer or reservoir. In the meantime, it is unlikely that there are enough uncontaminated aquifers or available reservoirs to store the amount of recycled water that could be produced.

Desalinating Seawater

The other source of new water for Southern California, desalination, is already realized in an operating plant, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County. This plant produces 56,000 acre feet per year (50 MGD) of fresh water by processing twice that amount of seawater. It is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is co-located with the Encina Power Station, a facility that uses far more seawater per year, roughly ten times as much, for its cooling systems. The Carlsbad facility diverts a portion of that water for desalination treatment, then returns the saltier “brine” to the much larger outflow of cooling water at the power plant.

Objections to desalination are many, but none of them are insurmountable. The desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, for example, will not have the benefit of being co-located with a power plant that consumes far more seawater for its cooling system. Instead, this proposed plant – which will have the same capacity as the Carlsbad plant – will use a large array of “wet filters” situated about 1,500 feet offshore, on the seabed about 40 feet below the surface, to gently intake seawater that can be pumped back to the plant without disrupting marine life. The outgoing brine containing 6 percent salt (compared to 3% in seawater) will be discharged under pressure from an underwater pipe extending about 1,800 feet offshore. By discharging the brine under pressure, it will be instantly disbursed and immediately dissipated in the powerful California current.

While desalination is considered to be energy intensive, a careful comparison of the energy cost to desalinate seawater reveals an interesting fact. It takes a roughly equivalent amount of electricity to power the pumps on the California aqueduct, where six pumping stations lift the water repeatedly as it flows from north to south. To guarantee the water flows south, the California aqueduct is sloped downward by roughly one foot per mile of length, meaning pump stations are essential. The big lift, of course, is over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the only way to import water into the Los Angeles basin.

Barriers to Implementation – Permitting & Lawsuits

The technological barriers to large scale implementation of water recycling and desalination, while significant, are not the primary impediments. Permitting and financing are far bigger challenges. Moreover, financing costs for these mega projects become more prohibitive because of the difficulties in permitting.

The process necessary to construct the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is illustrative of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get construction permits. The contractor has been involved in the permitting process for 16 years already, and despite significant progress to-date, still expects approval, if it comes, to take another 2-3 years.

One of the problems with permitting most infrastructure in California is that several agencies are involved. These agencies can actually have conflicting requirements. Applicants also end up having to answer the same questions over and over, because the agencies don’t share information. And over the course of decades or more, the regulations change, meaning the applicant has to start the process over again. Compounding the difficulties for applicants are endless rounds of litigation, primarily from well-funded environmentalist organizations. The failure to-date of California’s lawmakers to reform CEQA make these lawsuits potentially endless.

Barriers to Implementation – Financing

Even if permitting were streamlined, and all technical challenges were overcome, it would be a mistake to be glib about financing costs. Based on the actual total cost for the Carlsbad desalination plant, just under $1.0 billion for a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year, the capital costs to desalinate a million acre feet of seawater would be a daunting $18.0 billion. On the other hand, with permitting reforms, such as creating a one-stop ombudsman agency to adjudicate conflicting regulations and exercise real clout among the dozens of agencies with a stake in the permitting process, billions could be shaved off that total. Similarly, CEQA reforms could shave additional billions off the total. How much could be saved?

The Sorek desalination plant, commissioned in Israel in 2015, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 185,000 acre feet of water per year. Compared to Carlsbad, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. While there’s undoubtedly more to this story, it is also undeniable that other developed nations are able to deploy large scale desalination plants at far lower costs than here in California.

Financing costs for water recycling, while still staggering, are (at least in California) not comparable to those for desalination. The GWRS water recycling plant in Orange County was built at a capital cost of $905 million – $481 million was the initial cost, the first expansion cost $142 million, and the final expansion cost $282 million. This equates to a capital cost of $7,300 per acre foot of annual yield. If that price were to apply for new facilities to be constructed elsewhere in the southland, one million acre feet of recycling capacity could be built for $7.3 billion. Until there is direct potable reuse, however, it would be necessary to add to that cost the expense of either constructing storage reservoirs, or decontaminating aquifers for underground storage.

It’s anybody’s guess, but with reasonable reforms to contain costs, and taking into account additional investments in aquifer mitigation, a budget to make California’s Southland water independent might look like this:

  • 1.0 million acre feet from water recycling – $7.5 billion
  • 1.0 million acre feet from desalination – $15.0 billion
  • 0.5 million acre feet from runoff capture and aquifer mitigation – $7.5 billion

Total – $30 billion.
How much again is that bullet train? Water abundance in California vs. high speed rail

While runoff capture, water recycling, and desalination have the potential to make Southern California’s coastal megapolis water independent, it will take extraordinary political will and innovative financing to make it happen. The first step is for California’s voters and policymakers alike to recognize that conservation is not enough, that water supplies must be increased. Once the political will is established, it will be necessary to streamline the regulatory process, so cities, water agencies, and private contractors can pursue supply oriented solutions, at realistic prices, with a reasonable certainty that their applications will be approved.

*   *   *

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared on the website of the California Policy Center.

How Much California Water Bond Money is for Storage?    

Drought water cropsCalifornians have approved two water bonds in recent years, with another facing voters this November. In 2014 voters approved Prop. 1, allocating $7.1 billion for water projects. This June, voters approved Prop. 68, allocating another $4 billion for water projects. And this November, voters are being asked to approve Prop. 3, allocating another $8.9 billion for water projects. This totals $20 billion in just four years. But how much of that $20 billion is to be invested in water infrastructure and water storage?

Summaries of how these funds are spent, or will be spent, can be found on Ballotpedia for Prop. 1, 2014, Prop. 68, 2018 (June), and the upcoming Prop. 3, 2018 (November). Reviewing the line items for each of these bonds and compiling them into five categories is necessarily subjective. There are several line items that don’t fit into a single category. But overall, the following chart offers a useful view of where the money has gone, or where it is proposed to go. To review the assumptions made, the Excel worksheet used to compile this data can be downloaded here. The five categories are (1) Habitat Restoration, (2) Water Infrastructure, (3) Park Maintenance, (4) Reservoir Storage, and (5) Other Supply/Storage.

California Water Bonds, 2014-2018  –  Use of Funds

The Case for More Water Storage

It isn’t hard to endorse the projects funded by these water bonds. If you review the line items, there is a case for all of them. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $200 million to restore Salton Sea habitat, a sum that joins the $200 million of Salton Sea habitat restoration approved by voters in June 2018 in Prop. 68. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $150 million to turn the Los Angeles River back into a river, instead of the concrete culvert that was completely paved over between 1938 and 1960.

Who would be against projects like this? But Californians are heavy water consumers in a relatively arid state. Habitat restoration and park maintenance spending must be balanced against spending for water infrastructure. And conservation mandates must be balanced with investments in infrastructure that increase the overall supply of water. Here’s how Californians are currently managing their water:

Total Water Supply and Usage in California

As can be seen on the above table, residential water consumption represents less than 6% of California’s total water diversions. Indoor water consumption, only about half of that. Yet conservation measures imposed on California’s households are somehow expected to enable more water to be returned to the environment. Even with farmers, where conservation measures have the potential to yield far more savings, putting more irrigated land into agricultural production easily offsets those savings.

Not only does conservation fail to return sufficient water to the environment for habitat maintenance, but there is a downside in terms of system resiliency. During the last drought, when households were asked to reduce water consumption by 20%, it wasn’t an impossible request to fulfill. But as these reductions in consumption become permanent, far less flexibility remains.

California’s climate has always endured periods of drought, sometimes lasting several years. Meanwhile, the population continues to increase, farming production continues to rise, and we have higher expectations than ever in terms of maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems throughout the state. We cannot merely conserve water. We need to also increase supplies of water. Ideally, by several million acre feet per year.

How Much California Water Bond Money is for Surface Storage?

Prop. 1, approved by voters in 2014, was called the “Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.” It was marketed as necessary to increase water storage in order to protect Californians against droughts, and was overwhelmingly approved by over 67% of voters. But only about one-third of the money actually went to water storage, and it took nearly four years before any of those funds were allocated to specific storage projects. It was only this month, July 2018, that the California Water Commission awarded grants under their “Water Storage Investment Program.”

A review of these grants indicates that only two of them allocate funds to construct large new reservoirs. The proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir will add 1.2 million acre feet of storage. Situated south of the delta, it will be constructed on the San Joaquin River above a much smaller existing dam. It is estimated to cost $2.7 billion, and the California Water Commission awarded $171 million, only about 6% of the total required funds.

The proposed Sites Reservoir is situated north of the delta, west of the Sacramento river. It is an offstream reservoir, meaning that it will be filled using excess storm runoff pumped out of the Sacramento river during the rainy season. It is designed to store up to 1.8 million acre feet of water and is estimated to cost $5.2 billion to construct. The California Water Commission awarded $816 million, a large sum, but only about 16% of the total required funds.

Two other surface storage projects were approved, expansion of the existing Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoirs. Both of these reservoirs serve water consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area, both are supplied water via the California Aqueduct, and both expansion projects are estimated to cost not quite a billion dollars – $795 million for Los Vaqueros and $969 million for Pacheco. The California water commission awarded Los Vaqueros $459 million, and they awarded Pacheco $484 million.

When you consider surface storage, the total capacity of a reservoir is a critical variable, but in many ways more significant is the annual “yield.” This is the amount of water that on average, over decades, the reservoir is planned to deliver to water consumers in normal years. While the Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoir expansions combined will add roughly 250,000 acre feet of storage capacity, most of this added capacity is to save for drought years. Los Vaqueros may actually yield up to 35,000 acre feet per year in normal years; Pacheco may yield around 20,000 acre feet per year in normal years.

With respect to annual yields, the case for the much larger Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs becomes more compelling. The Temperance Flat Reservoir is projected to yield 250,000 acre feet of water in normal years, the Sites Reservoir, a massive 500,000 acre feet. To put this in perspective, 750,000 acre feet represents 20% of ALL residential water consumption in California, or, put another way, each year these reservoirs will yield a quantity of water equivalent to 100% of the reductions achieved via conservation measures imposed on California’s residents during the drought. But will they ever get built?

According to spokespersons for the Sites and Temperance Flats projects, some federal funding is expected, but most of the funding will be from agricultural and urban water districts who will purchase the water (as well as the right to store surplus water in the new reservoir) as soon as its available. The projects still require congressional approval, and then will face a multi-year gauntlet of permit processes and the inevitable litigation. If all goes well, however, both of them could be built and delivering water by 2030.

How Else is Water Bond Money Being Used to Increase Water Supply?

All three of the recent water bonds had some money allocated to invest in water supply. Prop. 1 in 2014, in addition to investing $1.9 billion in surface water storage, allocated $1.4 billion to other projects intended to increase water supply. The projects they approved are either intended to store water in underground aquifers, or fund advanced water treatment and recycling technologies which have the practical effect of increasing water supply. While it isn’t clear from these groundwater storage proposals how much water they would then release in normal years, it appears that cumulatively the projects intend to eventually store as much as 1.0 million acre feet in underground aquifers.

At a combined cost total cost of under one billion, the aquifer storage projects just approved appear to be more cost effective than surface storage. It is also a critical priority to recharge California’s aquifers which have been drawn down significantly over the past several years, especially during the recent drought.

Prop. 68, the “Parks, Environment, and Water Bond” passed earlier this year, while mostly allocating its $4.0 billion to other projects, did allocate $290 million to “groundwater investments, including groundwater recharge with surface water, stormwater, and recycled water and projects to prevent contamination of groundwater sources of drinking water.”

The upcoming Prop. 3, the $8.9 billion “Water Infrastructure and Watershed Conservation Bond Initiative” that will appear on the November 2018 ballot, invests another $350 million to maintain existing, mostly small urban reservoirs, along with $200 million to complete repairs on the Oroville Dam. Prop. 3 also includes $1.6 billion to otherwise increase water storage and supply, including $400 million for wastewater recycling and $400 million for desalination of brackish groundwater.

It is important to emphasize again that all of the funds allocated in these three water bonds are paying for what are arguably worthwhile, if not critical projects. $6.3 billion for habitat restoration, $6.2 billion for water infrastructure, $1.6 billion to maintain our parks. But despite the worth of these other projects, Californians urgently need to increase their annual supply of water to ensure ecosystem health, irrigate crops, and supply urban consumers. And to address that need, out of $20 billion in water bonds passed or proposed between 2014 and this November, only $5.8 billion, less than one-third, is being used to increase water supplies.

What Other Ways Could Water Bond Money Be Used to Increase Water Supply?

Clearly the most important region to increase water supply is Southern California. Two thirds of all Californians live south of the Sacramento River Delta, while most of the rain falls on in Northern California. One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 120,000 acre feet of water per year.

Theoretically – because capital costs in California are far higher than in most of the rest of the developed world – desalination offers a cost-effective solution to water scarcity. Uniquely, desalination creates new water, not dependent on rainfall, not requiring storage for drought years, not requiring redirecting of water from other uses. Imagine if Californians invested in desalination plants along the entire Southern California Coast. Eight desalination plants the same size as the Sorek plant would cost $4.0 billion to build if constructed for the same cost as the one in Israel cost. They could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year.

The energy costs for desalination have come down in recent years. Modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water. This means it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one million acre feet of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 million acre feet. It is conceivable that desalination plants producing 1.0 million acre feet of new water each year, combined with comprehensive sewage reuse and natural runoff harvesting could render the most populous region in California water independent.

Why is Infrastructure so Expensive in California?

The Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego cost $925 million to build, and it has a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year. That is a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of $16,500. How is it that the Sorek desalination plant in Israel cost $500 million to build and has a capacity of 120,000 acre feet per year – a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of only $4,100? Why did it cost four times as much to build the Carlsbad desalination plant?

This is the prevailing question when evaluating infrastructure investment in California. Why does everything cost so much more? The Sites reservoir is projected to cost $5.2 billion. An off-stream reservoir of equal size, the San Luis Reservoir, was constructed in California in the 1960s at a total cost, in 2018 dollars, of $2.3 billion. That all-in cost includes not just the dam, but also includes pumping stations, the forebay, the intertie to the California Aqueduct, and conveyances to get some of the water over the Diablo Range into the Santa Clara Valley. All of these costs (in today’s dollars) for the San Luis Reservoir, compared to the proposed Sites Reservoir, cost less than half as much. Why?

It’s easy to become enthusiastic about virtually any project that will increase our resiliency to disasters and droughts, improve our quality of life, steward our ecosystems, and hopefully create abundance of vital resources such as water. But when considering the need for these various projects, it is equally important to ask why they cost so much more here in California, and to explore ways to bring costs back down to national and international norms. We could do so much more with what we have to spend.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president.

California’s Water Storage Failure is Another Example of Dysfunctional Political Leadership

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirIn 2017, when cracks appeared in the Oroville Dam’s spillway, more than 180,000 Californians faced the prospect of floods. The emergency came a few years after Californians had overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a ballot measure to spend $7.1 billion on water-storage projects. In the drought-stricken Golden State, where runoff from rain and snowmelt races uselessly into the Pacific Ocean, the proposition won wide support, with voters approving it, two-to-one. But four years after passage, the state water commission has yet to assign a dime of funding for storage.

California once performed miracles in building infrastructure to quench the thirst of its residents and agricultural producers. In the 1960s, Governor Pat Brown oversaw construction of the San Luis Reservoir, capacity 2 million acre-feet. Approved for construction in 1963, it was completed by 1968—five years from start to finish. Those days are long gone. Any surface-storage project now faces years of litigation from environmental groups such as the powerful Sierra Club. At every stage in the construction process, delays of months or years ensue to resolve well-funded lawsuits launched under every conceivable pretext, from habitat destruction to inundation of Native American artifacts.

Nevertheless, the California Water Commission has finally announced its plans to fund new projects with the money from Proposition 1. Many Californians were surprised to learn that the proposition’s fine print stipulated that only a third of the money was ever intended to fund water storage. The rest is earmarked for other projects, ranging from habitat restoration to levee upgrades. Neither the commission nor most of the applicant agencies offer clarity as to how much additional storage the projects will add to California’s normal water supplies in an average year.

Clearly, some of the projects will make a tremendous difference to California’s parched water economy. The proposed Sites Reservoir, to be built just west of the Sacramento River, promises a capacity of nearly 2 million acre-feet; it alone could contribute a half-million acre-feet or more to the state’s water supply even in drought years, and much more in years with normal rainfall. Similarly, the Temperance Flat Reservoir will expand an existing reservoir on the San Joaquin River. Propitiously located south of the delta, this 1.3 million acre-foot construction could contribute 250,000 acre-feet or more to California’s water supply, even in drought years.

To appreciate how much capacity these two projects would add, consider that California’s total residential water consumption — indoor and outdoor combined — is only 4 million acre-feet per year. None of the other proposed projects comes close to matching these two, but in any case, it will be years before this new infrastructure can capture one drop of rain or runoff. The Sites Reservoir application anticipates completion by 2029; the Temperance Flat Reservoir, by 2033. Constant litigation, combined with years of legislation empowering unions and state agency bureaucrats to slow construction, have quadrupled the time required to build — and sent costs soaring. In 2018 dollars, Pat Brown’s San Luis Reservoir cost $672 million; the Sites Reservoir is projected to cost $5.2 billion — seven times as much, for a nearly identical facility.

To eliminate politically contrived shortages, Californians should embrace an all-of-the-above strategy to increase water supplies. They should select projects that yield the best return on investment while they take a hard look at what’s driving construction costs out of sight. Proposition 1 was a mandate to solve a solvable problem — store runoff to eliminate water scarcity. But California legislators have dragged their feet on implementation, betraying their constituents and exemplifying the state’s dysfunctional political culture. When it comes to water issues in California, not just quality of life, but life itself, is at stake.

Water Rationing Laws Exemplify the Malthusian Mentality of California’s Legislators

As reported in the Sacramento Bee and elsewhere, on May 31st Gov. Jerry Brown “signed a pair of bills Thursday to set permanent overall targets for indoor and outdoor water consumption.”

After pressure from the Association of California Water Agencies and others, the final form of these bills, Assembly Bill 1668 by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, and Senate Bill 606 from state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, offers water districts more flexibility in enforcing the new restrictions. But the focus of AB 1668, limiting indoor water use to 50 gallons per resident per day, is a step too far. Way too far.

There’s nothing wrong with conserving water. But urban water consumption in California is already low, and squeezing even more out of Californians will be costly and bothersome without making much difference in the big picture. Here is a table showing California’s overall water consumption by user:

Total Water Supply and Usage in California

As can be seen, in a state where total human water diversions total around 65 million acre feet (MAF) per year [1], in 2010 residential customers only consumed 3.7 MAF [2, 3]. According to more recent data obtained by the Sacramento Bee from California’s State Water Resources Control Board, by 2017 the average California resident consumed 90 gallons per day, which equates to around 4.0 MAF per year. Slightly more than half of that is for indoor water, which means that on average, Californians are already consuming less than 50 gallons per day per resident!

So why the new law? We must immediately rule out the desire to save significant amounts of water. On average, Californians are already in compliance with the new restrictions on indoor water consumption, meaning only a minority of households, those over the new cap, will be forced to reduce consumption. And while AB 1668 also mandates individual “water budgets” for outdoor water consumption, even if they cut all outdoor water use by another 20%, that would only save 400,000 acre feet. But at what cost?


Here is a fairly recent analysis of what it costs to implement comprehensive indoor water savings [4]:

Cost to Retrofit a Home to Reduce Water Consumption

That’s a lot of money. But why? How many households are still “overusing” water, if the average consumption is only around 50 gallons per day?

For what it would cost Californians who are not taking their clothes to the laundry mat, who prefer to wash their dishes in the sink, who are not willing to stand under shower heads that cannot rinse soap out of long hair, who don’t want to purchase side loading dishwashers because it hurts their back to load and unload them, how much water will actually be saved? And how does one “overuse” indoor water? Doesn’t it flow down to the sewage treatment plant, where these plants release all that water back into the streams and aquifers, or even in some cases pump the water back uphill to be reused by residents?


For outdoor water use, the solutions are even more draconian, and, of course, are disproportionately aimed at people who happen to live in homes with yards. People with lawns where their children play, people with trees that provide shade, people with aesthetically pleasing hedges that offer privacy, people with who love to grow flowers and vegetables – people who love living things. In the short run, these people will be visited by water agency bureaucrats, who will assign a “water budget.” How much will that cost, forcing local water agencies to reach out individually to 12.5 million residential property owners?

In the long run, the costs to manage outdoor water use will get much higher. Every home will need to have two meters, one to measure indoor water use, one to measure outdoor water use. These meters, increasingly, will be “smart,” able to monitor time-of-day use in anticipation of variable pricing depending on when you water. (Don’t water your plants after 9 a.m.!) And eventually, first in new construction, and later in retrofits, every home will have two sources of water supply – one pipe to provide potable water for indoor use, and a separate pipe to provide marginally less potable reclaimed water for outdoor use.

This is epic folly. These conservation measures, as described, are going to cost consumers tens of billions of dollars. When fully implemented, the total annual savings might be around 500,000 acre feet. That’s less than one percentof California’s total human water diversions for agriculture, the environment, commercial, industrial, and residential use.

And not one dime of this money will be instead paying for water treatment, water storage, or desalination projects that could add millions of acre feet to California’s annual water supply.


Thomas Mathus was an English cleric and scholar living in the early 19th century who developed the theory that global population increases exponentially, while global production increases arithmetically. His theory, and the eventual collapse of civilization that it implies, has enjoyed lasting and ongoing influence. In California, it found its earliest expression in a 1976 speech by Gov. Jerry Brown, who announced that we had entered an “era of limits.” For over forty years now, Governor Brown, and like-minded environmentalists and the politicians they’ve influenced, have embraced the Malthusian vision. But there is an alternative.

One of the most thoughtful and bipartisan visions to counter the Malthusian mentality is offered by the so-called EcoModernists, who in April 2015 published the “EcoModernist Manifesto.” The powerful premise they offer to confront the Malthusians is this: “Both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”

The devil is in the details, of course. What “real processes” are they referring to? One of the authors, Michael Shellenberger – who just ran as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in this week’s primary – offers concrete examples. Shellenberger, who runs the nonprofit “Environmental Progress” in Berkeley, is a progressive Democrat. And yet he strongly advocates nuclear power, desalination plants, and permitting suburban housing developments on California’s vast tracts of cattle rangeland.

There is a convergence possible here, of pro-growth progressive Democrats joining independent voters and Republicans to embrace ecomodernism instead of malthusianism. In practical terms, this would mean rejecting rationing of water, energy, land and transportation, and instead investing in infrastructure for the 21st century.  In ideological terms, it would mean rejecting environmentalist extremism rooted in pessimism in favor of economic growth rooted in optimism.


California’s voters have not questioned Malthusian policies, partly because they’ve been oversold the environmentalist agenda, and partly because too many of them have been convinced that nothing matters more than the color of their skin or the consequences of their gender. As a result, leftist oligarchs have been left free to consolidate their interests. Water rationing is just one manifestation of policy-driven artificial scarcity. This Malthusian policy also informs suppression of energy development, land development, and sensible investment in road and freeway upgrades. Public money is diverted to preposterous projects such as high-speed rail, while private investment in energy and housing is proscribed to exclude all but the wealthiest players. And those politically connected billionaires then make outrageous profits when their products – energy, utilities, housing – are produced at constant costs but sold at scarcity driven sky-high prices.

The reason Malthusian ideology constitutes the conventional political wisdom in California has little to do with the environment. It has to do with power and profit. These spectacularly wealthy special interest billionaires have coopted politicians, mostly Democrats, to spew the rhetoric of environmentalism and identity politics because it makes them richer, at the same time as it has made everyone else poorer. Everyone knows that California has the highest cost-of-living in the United States. But less understood is where all that money is going. It is going into the pockets of left-wing billionaires. To ensure government complicity, government unions get their cut, in the form of staggeringly over-market rates of pay and benefits.


Permanent water rationing sets a horrific precedent. It also is just the wrong way to solve water scarcity. Let farmers sell their water to cities without losing their grandfathered water rights. For that matter, reform the water rights that allow farmers to buy water for next to nothing. Invest in more surface and ground storage to harvest storm runoff. Build desalination plants on the coast of Los Angeles County – BIG ones like they use in the Middle East, producing millions of acre feet per year – using less energy than the Tehachapi pumps.

Water is life. People should be able to use as much water as they are willing to pay for, and if they are required to pay a slight premium for overuse, that can fund investment in more water infrastructure. But the law as written will impose punitive fines for overuse. For less money than the cost of implementing water rationing, Californians could experience water abundance. From fragrant lawns to a rejuvenated Salton Sea, to not having to choose between taking a shower or doing the laundry, Californians can enjoy a better quality of life.

We don’t have to live in a society defined by Malthusian struggle. We can create abundance of water and energy in ways that are largely if not completely decoupled from environmental harm. Conservation has its place but when it is the only solution and is not accompanied by increasing supply it reveals its hidden agenda: Greed for money on the part of the firms that manufacture the instruments of conservation, greed for power on the part of the politicians that enforce conservation, and a contempt for the aspirations of ordinary people on the part of environmentalists who have let their principles run amok.

Nobody should have to submit to monitoring of how they use water and submit to punitive fines if they use more than our ration. The idea that everyone has to submit to draconian restrictions on their water use is ridiculous. It comes from a Malthusian mentality that is admirable in moderation and tyrannical in the extreme.


Permanent Water Rationing is Coming to California, January 17, 2018

Increasing Water Supply Must Balance Conservation Measures, February 21, 2017

California’s Misguided Water Conservation Priorities, August 27, 2016


(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”

(4) Cost for water efficient appliances:

Water Saving Potential of water-efficient appliances (Source: USGS)

California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3 – Urban Water Use Efficiency

Cost to purchase and install various water-saving appliances:

Cost (including installation) for a tankless water heater

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient dishwasher

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient clothes washer

Cost (including installation) for a low flow toilet

California’s new water restrictions send residents fleeing to saner states

Water Drought Sprinkler“Please sir, I want some more,” is no longer a sentiment just for Oliver Twist in the orphanage. A new law in California limits how much water can be used by each household. Now their showers, how many flushes, and how often they can do their laundry will be under the watchful eye of the state government.

This from politicians who have pushed policies creating homeless and drug abuse crises throughout the state. They have now decided to clamp down on the use of the most basic needs of civilized living.

As the blog Zero Hedge put it, “it’s now against the law to do laundry and shower on the same day in the Sunshine State,” and they’re not exaggerating. Under the guise of addressing “climate change,” the new bill rations water to a degree that makes it impossible to maintain a healthy home environment.

Perhaps the state wants everyone to feel like the drug addicts living in California’s ever-expanding homeless tent cities?

Zero Hedge reported, “Assembly Bill 1668 is where it gets personal. This establishes limits on indoor water usage for every person in California and the amount allowed will decrease even further over the next 12 years. …”

Click here to read the full article from the Washington Times

Daunting obstacles remain for Gov. Brown’s ‘WaterFix’

Delta TunnelsJust six weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown’s hopes for a huge, difficult legacy project to solidify California’s statewide water distribution system – one funded by water districts, not directly by taxpayers – appeared in bad shape.

Years of lobbying for what the Brown administration dubbed the WaterFix project had produced more indifference and outright opposition than support. The $16.7 billion plan would build two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-high tunnels to take water south from the Sacramento River to the State Water Project pumps in the town of Tracy. The governor argued that this would sharply reduce the intermittent heavy pumping that played havoc with endangered species in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and would firm up supplies both for Central Valley farmers and the 20 million-plus residents of Southern California.

But in September, the board of the Westlands Water District – which serves 600,000 acres of farmland in King and Fresno counties and is the largest U.S. agricultural district – voted 7-1 against providing about $3 billion for the project. Westlands officials trashed claims made for WaterFix, questioning whether it would actually stabilize the Delta ecosystem and predicting cost overruns.

In November, the Trump administration announced that the federal government would not provide any financial assistance to get the project built. While the Interior Department statement was not unexpected, it contributed to the sense the WaterFix proposal was foundering. By February, Brown administration officials had put the word out they would accept building only one tunnel under the delta and adding a second later.

MWD backed scaled-back project, then changed mind

The death of the original plan appeared confirmed on April 2 when officials with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the giant, politically powerful water wholesaler serving 19 million people – issued a memo expressing support for the one-tunnel option. The rationale: a lack of a consensus for the two-tunnel plan among the water districts south of Sacramento that would need to pay for the project.

But after intense lobbying by the Brown administration, on April 10, the MWD board voted by a 3-to-2 margin to endorse the two-tunnels project and to agree to pay for about two-thirds of the tab – about $10.8 billion. The weighted vote, based on the size of individual agencies, came over the objections of the MWD board’s single largest member, the San Diego County Water Authority.

Momentum continued to build last Wednesday when the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District – the biggest water agency in Silicon Valley – voted 4-3 to commit its 2 million ratepayers to pay up to $650 million for the project, or nearly 4 percent of the total tab. Santa Clara officials had previously narrowly opposed providing funding.

On Thursday, Brown hailed the decision in a speech to a conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento. But the governor also warned that the project still had big obstacles that went beyond getting more water districts to agree to share construction costs. He noted that state and federal regulators still had yet to issue required permits.

On this front, WaterFix may face more skepticism in Brown’s backyard than in Washington. As CalWatchdog reported last year, the Trump administration gave a key senior Interior Department post to Colorado lawyer David Bernhardt, a veteran of California water wars and a critic of the federal government’s traditionally high-profile role in land-use decisions in Western states.

Meanwhile, the California Water Resources Control Board has sided with environmentalists in a long list of previous decisions. In filings with the state board, Restore the Delta and several other environmental groups have challenged the governor’s project on its central claim: that it improves the health of the Delta ecosystem.

Even if the state and federal permits are granted, the tunnels plan still faces hurdles. The Bay Area News Group reportedlast week that more than two dozen state and federal lawsuits had been filed against the project.

This article was originally published by

Recent Years Prove We Need More Water Storage

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirThe first thing to remember about precipitation in California is that it’s unpredictable, as the past several winters have once again shown us.

Several years of severe drought ended in the 2016-17 winter with near-record rain and snow storms that filled the state’s badly depleted reservoirs.

The 2017-18 “water year,” as hydrologists call it, began with what seemed to be a return to drought but then, in March, the state experienced a steady stream of storms that added to the Sierra snowpack upon which Californians are so dependent.

It may not have been a “March Miracle” on the scale of 1991, when the mountains were virtually bereft of snow until one month of heavy storms ended the deficit. But what happened last month was at least a minor miracle, increasing the snowpack to more than 50 percent of average.

Combined with leftover storage from the previous year, California will enter the warmer months, when precipitation is rare, with fairly healthy water reserves.

Not only have the past several years demonstrated anew that “normal” is alternating periods of wet and dry, they also underscore just how dependent California is on its massive array of reservoirs, canals and other waterworks.

It collects water during the wet periods, as it did in 2016-17, and releases its reserves to maintain human life, wildlife and economy when conditions turn dry. Life as 39 million Californians know it would be impossible were it not for the state’s water system that federal, state and local governments maintain.

The state’s hydrologists believe that climate change will have a massive effect on our water supply in future decades, perhaps making the peaks and valleys of precipitation steeper and deeper and likely making more of it rain and less of it snow.

If, indeed, we will be getting more rain and less snow, it will degrade the snowpack as the state’s largest and most important reservoir. And that means we need to replace the snowpack with more manmade storage, allowing us to capture more winter rains that otherwise would flow to the ocean.

The need for more storage has been evident for decades, and although Southern California’s water agencies, particularly the Metropolitan Water District, have been diligent about adding it, Northern California, where most of the rain falls, has been negligent.

The last state water bond issue contained several billion dollars to jumpstart planning for new storage projects, particularly the off stream Sites reservoir on the west side of the upper Sacramento Valley and the Temperance Flat project on the San Joaquin River.

Together, they would add just over 3 million acre-feet of storage, or almost the equivalent of a new Lake Oroville.

However, state water officials have been somewhat lackadaisical about moving these projects along for reasons best known to themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s some movement on a long-standing proposal to raise Shasta Dam and expand Lake Shasta’s storage, now 4.5 million acre-feet – a project that is much more controversial because of its effects on land local Indian tribes consider to be sacred.

The recent drought was by no means the first. Gov. Jerry Brown’s first governorship four decades ago saw a very severe one. And it won’t be the last.

If we continue to drag our feet on building more storage, we will pay the price, and it will be a steep one.

olumnist for CALmatters

Loss of local control a big issue in new water tax fight

Shower head water droughtThroughout his tenure as governor, Jerry Brown has consistently pursued new revenue for transportation, housing and water. The Legislature, whose default reaction to any problem is to raise taxes on middle-class Californians, has only been too happy to oblige. As a result, California drivers were hit last year with an annual $5 billion gas and car tax and property owners were burdened with a new tax on real estate recording documents to fund affordable housing. As if those tax hikes were not bad enough, now comes the third in a trifecta of tax insults: a new tax on water used by homes and businesses. That’s right, the Legislature is preparing to tax a public good that is essential to life, a precedent-setting tax that is unheard of anywhere else in the nation.

Supporters of the bill will argue that the tax is needed because roughly one million people (mostly in the Central Valley) don’t have access to consistently clean drinking water. This is a legitimate problem due to decades of neglecting basic infrastructure, contamination of water supplies and the failure to make access to water delivery the priority it deserves.

But raising taxes is the wrong solution to this problem. It is unconscionable that California, which has a record-high $130 billion General Fund budget with a $6 billion surplus, can’t provide clean drinking water to a million people using existing resources. Is this not the first role of government, providing a public good essential to life? Moreover, why should taxpayers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have to pay higher water bills for a problem that is mostly limited to groundwater contamination in the Central Valley?

Most Californians haven’t even heard of this proposed tax hike. But that’s only because the Legislature is going out of its way to keep it hidden. Originally introduced as Senate Bill 623, the bill failed to advance last year because of widespread opposition. Nearly all residential homeowners would pay a dollar a month if this tax went through. The tax works on a sliding scale based on meter size — heavy commercial and industrial water users could pay up to $10/month. Not content to just abandon the bill, the governor has now decided to drop this tax in a budget trailer bill. These bills, often dozens of pages long with multiple topics, is the perfect place to hide a tax. If the bill moves forward, taxpayer advocates will watch carefully to ensure that the two-thirds vote requirement for tax hikes is enforced. Because most budget bills only need a majority vote, a lawsuit will quickly follow if the higher threshold is not met.

Our concern is that the governor has become so obsessed playing the “hide the tax” game that he hasn’t bothered to look at other alternative funding sources to solve this problem. If using a $6 billion surplus is off the table, there’s an option to tap into federal funding which is available for precisely this purpose. Or there are billions of dollars of unspent bond funds, including the recently voter-approved Propositions 1 and 84 that can be used to provide clean drinking water. Bond dollars are perhaps the best vehicle to provide major infrastructure improvements needed in the Central Valley. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Allowing Markets To Allocate Water Can Stave Off “Day Zero” in California

Drought water cropsCape Town, South Africa, a city of 450,000 in a metropolitan area of 3.7 million, is experiencing a catastrophic drought. Capetonians have been dreading the arrival of July 9, or “Day Zero”— when taps in private homes will be switched off and residents will have to go to collection points for rationed allotments of water.

Some version of Day Zero could one day come to parts of California, where water woes continue to bedevil government officials and citizens. From 2011 to 2015, the state experienced the driest four-year period in recorded history (though geologic evidence indicates there have been worse droughts in the past). A robust rainy season in 2017 replenished many reservoirs, but the winter of 2018 has been dry. As of February 1, the snowpack, which provides much of the state’s water during the dry season, was only 21 percent of its normal size. The 2011–2015 drought led Governor Jerry Brown to mandate a 25 percent reduction in water use, but mandating it doesn’t mean that it will happen. Mandated reductions that require homeowners to spend money and time irrigating with non-potable water and replacing old toilets are unlikely to meet their targets, given the low nominal cost of water.

A number of remedies have been suggested, one of which is to allow markets, rather than politics, to allocate water. At a recent conference at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, scholars focused on the importance of market signals in getting people to change their behavior in the face of climate uncertainty. Economist Gary Libecap noted that when prices signal the real value of water, they encourage “agricultural users to switch to water-saving irrigation technologies or to water-saving crops.” (Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water consumption.) The same is true for urban users, who pay much more per unit of water than agricultural users.

In the absence of water markets, prices don’t reflect the full cost of using this precious resource, resulting in inefficient use. The best example: organic farming. Organic agriculture produces lower yields than traditional agriculture and uses disproportionately more inputs—especially low-cost, high-value water. Lower yields in organic farming mean less output per unit of water used.

Plant pathologist Steve Savage analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which measures productivity from most of the nation’s certified organic farms, and compared them with those at conventional farms, crop-by-crop and state-by-state. His findings are extraordinary: of the 68 crops surveyed, organic farms showed a “yield gap”—poorer performance—in 59. Many of the shortfalls were large: organic strawberries yielded 61 percent less than conventional farms; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less. “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land,” Savage concludes. “That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”

One reason that inefficient organic agriculture uses more water is that it excludes the cultivation of crop varieties crafted with molecular genetic-modification techniques—so-called GMOs—that can be made to withstand droughts and to be irrigable with brackish water. For example, more than a decade ago, Egyptian researchers showed that transferring a single gene from barley to wheat allows the wheat to grow with far less irrigation than conventional wheat; it can survive on meager rainfall alone. Similar genetic modification has created drought-tolerant corn varieties, and more such crops are in the works.

Genetically engineered crops also conserve water by allowing cultivation in salty soils. Fully one-third of irrigated land worldwide, including much of California, is unsuitable for growing crops; every year, nearly 500,000 acres of irrigated land are lost for cultivation due to salt accumulation. Scientists have enhanced the salt tolerance in crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola, and made them irrigable with brackish water, thus conserving fresh water for other uses. Another innovation: by making no-till cultivation possible, the genetic engineering of crops for herbicide tolerance helps trap soil moisture (and also releases less CO2into the atmosphere). Under drought conditions, this can mean the difference between a harvest and a crop failure.

The best solution to California’s water problems would be to encourage water markets and end water subsidies for farmers. A second-best approach is to tax the most egregious examples of waste—and organic products are at the top of the inefficiency list. Placing a tax on already outrageously priced, water-wasting organic products would lessen the demand for them and alleviate some of the pressure on California’s uncertain water supplies. And such a tax would be progressive, falling disproportionately on wealthy consumers. In short, reducing California’s organic agricultural production in favor of more efficient, modern techniques would deliver “more crop for the drop.”

Permanent Water Rationing is Coming to California

Shower head water droughtHave you experienced water faucets that spray tiny jets of water onto your hands? You know, those eight tiny jets of water, each about 1.0 millimeter in diameter, that are emitted with so much pressure that the paltry quantity of water bounces off your skin before you can get it wet enough to apply soap, and makes rinsing the soap off nearly impossible? You can find these water faucets in airports and other public places, where they constitute a minor annoyance. But wait. Thanks to California’s state legislature, they’re on their way into your home.

You’ll just love your personal space filled up with these expensive gadgets. For example, these faucets will probably require voice-activation, turn off after ten seconds, and send a report to your utility in order to help you manage your usage patterns. Smart faucets. Smart washers. Smart dish washers. Smart shower heads and smart toilets – all coming your way, thanks to the California State Legislature and their partners, the scarcity profiteers of Silicon Valley.

You’ll love how all these water-sipping, next-generation durable goods can go “down,” get hacked, don’t work very well, and require annual warranty payments. You’ll also love purchasing bargain basement annual software upgrades, but only affordable, barely, if you join their green team club for life special VIP program. You’ll love how the control panel on your washer will look like the bridge of a starship, and can only be operated after you’ve mastered the virtual version of a two-inch thick instruction manual.

California’s ruling coalition of government employee unions, extreme environmentalists, and high-tech billionaires are at it again, this time with a water conservation bill, AB 1668, that is going to impose a mandatory limit of 55 gallons per person per day on indoor water consumption. Bring on the gadgets.

To put the impact of this bill into perspective, consider what it would cost to retrofit a household to reduce indoor water consumption:



The biggest cost on this table is the cost for a tankless water heater or a hot water circulation system, necessary if we don’t want to waste water while waiting for it to get hot. Because there’s no good solution to that problem, this is a significant source of water waste that is blithely ignored by water conservation activists. It’s reasonable to expect people in a developed, wealthy nation like America to wait until they have warm water before washing their hands, shaving, hand washing dishes, or showering. And there is no way a person is going to bring their indoor water usage down to 55 gallons a day without either performing all these tasks with cold water, or by installing a system to deliver instant hot water.

But if every Californian did their best to comply with AB 1668, could they reduce their water usage to 55 gallons per day? The next table shows how much they could save, using USGS data. Please note the USGS data is for America, not for California, where decades of conservation incentives have already yielded tremendous reductions in use. Per capital indoor water use in California isn’t anywhere near 139 gallons per day. More on that later.



Apart from water efficient toilets which save water and don’t require lifestyle changes, there’s not much here that isn’t expensive and inconvenient. Notwithstanding the fact that Silicon Valley moguls are salivating over the prospects of subsequent mandates that will require all these retrofit appliances to be “smart,” they aren’t going to make life better. Low flow shower heads require longer duration showers, especially if you have to rinse shampoo out of long hair. Consumer reports offer mixed reviews on low water consumption dishwashers and washing machines. Some of us like to wash our dishes by hand – in many cases because it’s less time consuming. And who wants to pull wet clothes out of side loading washers? As for waiting for hot water to make it to faucets, there’s no inexpensive and effective solution.

Enforcing the 55 gallon indoor limit will also be costly not only for California’s residents, but for every water utility in the state. After all, to regulate indoor water consumption, you have to measure indoor water consumption separately from outdoor water consumption. And, of course, residential outdoor water consumption is also in AB 1668’s cross hairs. To accomplish this, AB 1668 calls for dedicated outdoor water meters, separate from indoor water meters, and it calls for water utilities to prepare a water “budget” for each customer parcel based on the size of the parcel and other factors such as the local climate.


Since AB 1668 proposes to effectively ration residential water consumption, at staggering expense, it’s worthwhile to explore the cost and benefit of this policy. If we assume that five million of California’s 12.5 million households still have legacy appliances, just the retrofit would cost these unlucky homeowners $37.5 billion. But it doesn’t end there, because the water utilities would have to install indoor/outdoor meters on around 10 million households (some households are in multi-family dwellings with no yard or a shared yard). Assuming the cost to install these meters and conduct site visits to assign individual outdoor “water budgets” at $1,000 per household means another $10 billion will have to be spent – i.e., implementing AB 1668 will cost $47 billion.

But how much water would actually be saved, for $47 billion? According to the most authoritative study available on current indoor water consumption, the average Californians uses 62 gallons per day. (ref. California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3, page 12, 1st paragraph “Indoor Residential.”) This means that if California’s 40 million residents got their indoor water use down to 50 gallons per day from 62 gallons per day, it would save 537 thousand acre feet per year (0.54 million acre feet). This is a minute fraction, less than 1%, of California’s total water diversions for environmental, agricultural, and urban uses.

AB 1668 is not about saving water. It’s about control. It’s about power and profit for special interests. Otherwise we could just expand sewage treatment plants, which we should do anyway. How can you waste indoor water if it can go down the drain, to be treated and pumped right back up the hill for reuse?

Let’s keep this in perspective by imagining best case scenarios whereby indoor and outdoor residential water use is dramatically reduced. If Calfornia’s 40 million residents reduced their household water consumption by another 20%, it would only save 0.74 million acre feet per year. An impossible 40% reduction? Savings of 1.5 million acre feet per year. For one-tenth the cost, the proposed “off-stream” Sites Reservoir could easily capture over 2.0 million acre feet each year in storm runoff. Just one good storm dumps ten times that much water onto California’s watersheds.



So what could Californians do instead with $47 billion? We’ve looked at this before. Limiting ourselves to water infrastructure, here’s a list:


First of all, market-based incentives can eliminate water scarcity at almost no cost. For example: Allow farmers to sell their water allotments at market rates without losing their vested rights. Or permit utilities to engage in mild price hikes that encourage people to use less water, instead of resorting to punitive tiered pricing or rationing. These alternatives, to some extent, have already been tried. They work. But if you accept the premise that increasing the absolute supply of water in California is desirable – here are the capital costs for water infrastructure that would create water abundance in California for decades to come.

  • Desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater  –  $15 billion.
  • Reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage  –  $10 billion.
  • Build the Sites Reservoir for off-stream storage of 2.0 million acre feet of run-off  –  4.4 billion.
  • Build the Temperance Flat Reservoir for 1.3 million acre feet of storage  –  3.3 billion.
  • Aquifer recharge to store runoff – there isn’t even a good study exploring this option at a statewide level.

As can be seen, all of these water infrastructure projects could be built for $32.7 billion. They could be financed via infrastructure bonds, increased rates to consumers, redirection of funds currently being squandered on high-speed rail, or even redirection of proceeds from carbon emission auctions.

What California’s ruling junta prefers, however, is to create a surveillance state defined by expensive scarcity. In the 1950s and 1960s, California’s legislature approved and implemented what remains the finest system of inter-basin water transfers in the world. But today, after over 30 years of neglect, at the same time as California’s population has doubled, California’s water infrastructure is crumbling at a time when it should be expanded. The reasons for this are plain enough. Special interests have replaced the public interest.


Instead of building water infrastructure to increase supplies of water, public employee unions want to see tax revenues pour into their pockets and into the pension funds. High-tech billionaires want contracts to build “smart” appliances and monitoring systems to enforce water rationing. Extreme environmentalists, and the trial lawyers who get incredibly wealthy representing their organizations, want more legal bases upon which to file lucrative lawsuits. Sadly, major corporate agribusinesses often acquiesce to this abuse of residents because they’ve decided that a bigger slice of a smaller pie is all they can hope for from this legislature.

Until Californians realize there will be no end to these encroachments on their freedom and prosperity until they resist, California’s ruling junta will prevail. California will be a harder and harder place to live. If ordinary Californians value their freedom, they will form a coalition with farmers, energy companies, civil engineering firms, and construction unions to demand water abundance. They may rediscover the vision and leadership that built a water infrastructure that is still one of the wonders of the modern world.


Assembly Bill 1668, “Water management planning” Text (Source: California Legislative Information)

Residential Water Use in California:

Water Saving Potential of water-efficient appliances (Source: USGS)

California Water Plan Update 2013 Chapter 3 – Urban Water Use Efficiency

Cost to purchase and install various water-saving appliances:

Cost (including installation) for a tankless water heater

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient dishwasher

Cost (including installation) for a water efficient clothes washer

Cost (including installation) for a low flow toilet

Total precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:

California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)

California water use by sector:

California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005

California urban water use by sector:

California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”

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