On October 4 the California State Water Board held a hearing to discuss how it will implement Senate Bill 1157, passed by the state legislature in 2022, which lowers indoor water-use standards to 47 gallons per person starting in 2025 and 42 gallons in 2030. The title of the hearing was “Making Water Conservation a Way of Life.” Rationing would be a more apt term for what’s coming for California’s households.
It isn’t as if conservation hasn’t been a way of life in California for decades. Despite the growth of the state’s population to over 39 million today, total urban water consumption in the state has been falling each year since the mid 1990s. At just over 7 million acre-feet (MAF) per year in 2022, urban water consumption hasn’t been this low since 1985, when the population of the state was only 26 million.
That’s not enough, however, for California’s water bureaucrats, and the environmentalist organizations they answer to. As they move toward implementing S.B. 1157, their officially stated goal is to reduce total urban consumption by 400,000 acre-feet per year by 2030. Put into the perspective of California’s total water withdrawals per year, this is small potatoes. Diversions for agriculture average 30 MAF per year, more than four times the urban use, and diversions — captured rainfall that is released from reservoirs during the summer and fall — to maintain ecosystem health range between 20 MAF in dry years to over 60 MAF in wet years. A reduction of 400,000 acre-feet in urban water consumption represents barely more than one-half of 1 percent of the amount of water California diverts and manages even in its driest years.
To implement such a massively intrusive regime of rationing for such a meager result is perhaps a textbook example of diminishing returns. Anyone living in California, or visiting from out of state, has seen evidence of what has already been done. Faucets in commercial buildings and airports that squirt out barely enough water to get your hands wet and automatically turn off before you’ve rinsed away the soap. Washing machines that use almost no water, violently tossing and damaging delicate clothing, taking hours to complete a cycle, and requiring multiple cycles to get clothes clean. Dishwashers so ineffective that dishes have to be hand washed prior to being loaded into the dishwasher. Flow restrictors on shower heads that make it impossible to rinse shampoo out of long hair. Yet according to the state legislature, these measures don’t go far enough.
Next on the list are lawns, and by extension, trees. It is a fact, perhaps willfully ignored by environmental activists masquerading as responsible investigative journalists, that when lawns are allowed to die, the mature trees growing on those lawns also die, because the root system is adapted to surface watering. And what’s the matter with lawns, anyway? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, turf lawns are on average 30 degrees cooler than asphalt and can be as much as 40 degrees cooler than artificial turf. Lawns not only lower the urban heat-island effect, they absorb runoff during storms to reduce flooding and recharge aquifers. As for toxic fertilizers, widely applied to lawns, these can be regulated or restricted. But instead, California’s legislature is banning lawns on commercial properties. Expect water agencies, faced with draconian mandates to reduce their supply, to impose similar bans on homeowners.
None of this is necessary. California’s original water plan, written in 1957, called for an eventual statewide system capable of delivering 40 MAF to farms each year, and 10 million acre feet to cities. As it has turned out, what they envisioned was never completed, but it is nonetheless the most remarkable system of interbasin water transfers in the world, delivering around 30 MAF per year to California’s farmers and around 7 million acre feet to the cities. Compared to the magnificent projects completed in the 1950s and 1960s, it would not take much additional investment to bring the total for cities back up to 9 million acre feet, which is where it was in the 1990s.
Skeptics will point out that California may be experiencing more severe droughts, but they will also acknowledge that there will in some years be winters such as the one we just lived through, where the entire state is inundated with prolonged and heavy rains. In the water season just ended in California, over 25 MAF of water passed through the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific. This is easily more than twice what is required for the health of delta ecosystems, and if that water had been stored it would have offered enough supplemental supply to easily withstand several years of drought. There are many ways to store this water that fulfill reasonable environmentalist sensibilities.
For example, channels cut into delta islands can have gravity-fed French drains that move water without harming fish. Engineering studies indicate that a 200-acre site could move 15,000 acre-feet per day during storms, and this water could be stored in vacant underground aquifers that are, just in the San Joaquin Valley alone, conservatively estimated to have a capacity of 75 MAF.
Other proposals also offer large-scale solutions to achieve water abundance. In a 2022 study, the Pacific Institute estimated that just through capturing urban runoff, up to 3 MAF could be stored each year, and that by recycling urban wastewater, capturing another 2 MAF per year is possible. And despite environmentalist objections, desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean has the potential to augment other local sources and render California’s massive southern coastal cities completely independent of imported water.
One of the trump cards wielded by environmentalists who want to ration California’s water is the connection between water and energy. They’re not wrong about the connection, but they overstate the problem. While energy is required to heat, treat, recycle, desalinate, and pump water, most of that energy is used for water heating. Overall, about 20 percent of California’s total energy consumption is allocated to water operations, but 80 percent of that is for heating. To put this in perspective, consider desalination, which is the next most energy-intensive water operation. Desalinating 1 million acre-feet of water per year would require a 400-megawatt input. That represents a 1.25 percent increase in California’s total electricity consumption, which in 2022 averaged 32 gigawatts. If California goes electric, something the state legislature is also determined to accomplish, they’ll have to find around 100 gigawatts, and allocating enough to desalinate a whopping million acre-feet of ocean water per year would require less than one-half of 1 percent of that.
Californians who are serious about climate change, unless they’re completely dominated by special interests and environmentalist extremists, need to take away the state’s many regulatory barriers to nuclear power and lobby the federal government to do likewise. They need to consider a more reasonable all-of-the-above approach to energy development, utilizing their abundant reserves of natural gas and oil, and commit to achieving energy abundance, which is a prerequisite to water abundance. As it is, the California legislature is doing the opposite.
What is being put in place today in California is a misguided set of laws that are removing the incentive for water agencies to invest in more water supplies. These laws will actually fine water agencies if they deliver too much water to their urban customers. To achieve the resilience that Californians are going to need in the future, whether it’s to adapt to prolonged droughts or to cope with other potential disruptions to a precarious network of pipelines, pumping stations, and aqueducts, precisely the opposite policy should be California’s legislative priority. Water agencies need to be incentivized to increase their supply capacity, not reduce it to a fragile minimum that lacks any margin for error.
An entirely new mentality must inform California’s voters and policy-makers, one that rejects rationing and embraces abundance. It is out of character for Californians, blessed with an innovative culture that inspires the world, to impose extreme restrictions on their residents. Water is life. Having as much as we need, affordable and abundant, is a goal that is achievable and sustainable. It’s time for Californians to reject extremist mandates and restore the quality of life that is in keeping with their heritage.
This article originally appeared in the National Review.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
To help support more content and policy analysis like this, please click here.