Tag Archive for: water

California Water Facts for Legislators

Everyone in California agrees that water policies need to adapt to changing times. There is even growing agreement that enforcing draconian reductions to farm water allocations (which will eliminate all but the most powerful corporate agribusinesses) and outlawing household outdoor watering will not only fail to solve the problem, but is a tough and undesirable solution. And so the debate over more rationing versus more water supply projects goes on.

Missing from the debate over water policy in California, however, especially among the state legislators who need to do something about it, are some basic overall metrics regarding how much water we need, what various types of water projects cost, how much potential capacity each type of project delivers, and how much energy is involved. Here’s a summary.

When quantifying macro variables of this nature, first it is important to note that for any project category, costs are not uniform. A wastewater recycling plant, for example, will cost more to construct and more to operate depending on the type of wastewater it has to process. The cost to build and operate a conveyance to deliver water from a recycling plant or desalination plant direct to the consumer or to a storage facility will vary depending on the length of the conveyance and any necessary elevation changes. So these are rough numbers. They are nonetheless vital to begin a more informed discussion of water policy options in California.

The primary measurement used to describe large amounts of water are units of one million acre feet (MAF). To provide an overall perspective, in a wet year, up to 300 MAF of rain falls within California’s borders. With the exception of the upper Klamath Basin, and a few lesser examples, California’s geography is such that our watersheds are roughly congruent with our state border. In a dry year, as little as 100 MAF of rain falls in California. This rainfall either percolates, transpirates, evaporates, or runs down the streams and rivers to the ocean.

Also each year, Californians currently divert about 75 MAF as follows: about 8 MAF to urban water consumers, 34 MAF to farmers, and 34 MAF of “environmental water” to maintain wetlands, river ecosystems, and the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These numbers represent the seven year average between 2011 and 2018 as reported by the California Dept. of Water Resources.

During these same seven years, to divert 75 MAF each year, California got 5 MAF from the Colorado River, 19 MAF from groundwater extraction, 15 MAF from reuse and recycled water, 6 MAF from federal projects, and 7 MAF from local projects. For much more details on what’s behind these numbers, refer to the 2018 update of the California Water Plan.

To harvest more water from increasingly unpredictable rainfall, to recycle more water that would otherwise be treated and released into the Pacific, and to desalinate brackish water inland and ocean water on the coast, here are some cost estimates. As an aside, this is a hypothetical plan. Do not be alarmed. Plans change. Let’s all work together.

The total amount noted here, $118 billion, is not chosen by accident. The 1957 California Water Plan had a total estimated construction cost of $11.8 billion.  In early 2022 dollars, $11.8 billion is worth $118.5 billion. The state budget in 1957 was $1.9 billion, with capital outlay of $440 million, 23 percent of the entire budget. Through a combination of bonds and general fund allocations, back in 1957 the California state legislature resolved to spend an amount equal to six times their annual budget to build water infrastructure. Yet $118.5 billion is only 40 percent of today’s $286 billion state budget.

When evaluating the economics of water supply projects, the construction cost divided by the annual output (or “yield” in the case of a reservoir) is a useful ratio. For example, the projected cost to build the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir divided by its expected annual yield is equal to $20,000 per acre foot, exactly the same as the cost/output ratio to build a desalination plant.

One may argue that Temperance Flat is on the extreme end of the cost equation – which by the way should not eliminate this critical south-of-the-delta reservoir opportunity from consideration – but desalination costs are also overstated.

For example, raising the height of the Shasta Dam is an extremely cost effective way to secure more water supply, at $4,000 of construction cost per acre foot of yield. But that cost-effectiveness is matched by desalination projects in Israel today that are not subject to California’s insane regulatory environment, protracted permitting process, needlessly inflated materials costs, and endless and very costly litigation. Desalination projects cost one-fifth as much to build per unit of capacity in Israel as they do in California, and as with all infrastructure in this state, most of the difference is the result of political choices.

Surprisingly, surveying various proposals for urban water recycling to potable standards yielded a range of costs much higher than anticipated. These costs, however, also displayed the widest range of variation, depending on every imaginable factor – differing topography, real estate values, labor costs, design standards, the local political and legal environment, and the character of the wastewater being treated. In general, expect construction costs for wastewater treatment to cost less than desalination in most cases, but not much less. The $18 billion cost cited above to treat 2.0 MAF/year is based on a proprietary study examining a statewide solution. It’s a lot of money, but worth every penny.

What about energy?

California’s average electricity consumption is 57 gigawatts. Very best case, to convert all end user energy to electric – transportation, heating, everything – would require California’s grid to expand its capacity to deliver on average just over 100 gigawatts. What about the energy needed to increase California’s water supply?

Using electricity to pump a million acre feet per year via the California aqueduct to Los Angeles consumes about 400 megawatts of continuous power, less about 100 megawatts that is recovered as the water flows back downhill into the Los Angeles Basin.

Desalinating one million acre feet of seawater per year requires 400 megawatts of continuous power, which is a mere 0.4 percent of California’s 100 gigawatts minimum targeted future generating capacity. Therefore to deliver five million acre feet of new water in either of these manners would consume less than two percent of 100 gigawatts.

The energy cost to reuse wastewater is typically less than half that, i.e., about 150 megawatts of continuous power per million acre feet per year. In the case of desalination and wastewater reuse, energy is also required to deliver the water, but because these facilities are typically located near municipal groundwater basins or municipal water systems, the required delivery energy is unlikely to ever require more than half-again as much power, i.e., no more than 75 megawatts of continuous power per million acre feet per year; depending on the topography, potentially much less. Water pumped via aqueducts will typically develop enough pressure as it is pumped over the hills from inland sources and then piped downward into coastal cities to not require additional power for final delivery to consumers.

Providing general information on any specific water project is fraught with controversy. But the energy costs for new water can be easily debunked. If California’s politicians are committed to an electric age, the energy cost for more water is trivial compared to what’s going to be necessary to electrify the state’s residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors.

Critics of building more water infrastructure are also on thin ice when they claim it will cost too much money. Capital investments in water supply infrastructure yield long-term economic returns and greatly improve the quality of life for every resident. Spending $100 billion or more on these projects is well within the capacity of California’s economy to sustain. And at the risk of committing conservative heresy, putting $100 billion into the pockets of skilled construction workers will stimulate the economy in the short term, just as having all this new water will stimulate California’s economy in the long term. So channel some of those public education bucks into vocational training. We need the workers, and skills pay better than BAs.

If heavy and perennial rains return to California, spending $100 billion on these projects will ensure perpetual water abundance. But if rains don’t come back stronger than ever, spending this money will create secure climate resilience. Either way, it’s a win.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

The Abundance Choice (part 8) – The Union Factor

The moment we met Robbie Hunter, then president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, we knew we were in the presence of a man who does not lose. Assemblyman Mathis had urged me to contact the construction unions before we finished our research to write the initiative and began an actual campaign, and through one of his mutual contacts, the meeting was arranged.

Three of us arrived at the SBCTC’s offices in downtown Sacramento back in August 2021, all of us dressed in our Sunday best; suits, ties, dress shoes. Hunter met us in their lobby, dressed like a man who does real work, wearing a t-shirt with a union logo on the front. As someone without experience meeting a union president, much less negotiating with one, Hunter, a burly man with a trace of an Irish accent, fit the stereotype I’d imagined. And that first meeting was encouraging.

We quickly learned that Hunter and his colleagues were very much in favor of more water infrastructure. They were interested in learning about our proposal and willing to assist with the language. Over the next several weeks we carefully included language that would protect the interests of this union, which has 450,000 members in California.

While nobody on our steering committee had any objection to us reaching out to work with a powerful private sector labor union, we had friends in the conservative community who were going to want an explanation. It wasn’t hard to provide one. All major state-funded major construction projects already use union labor. Why on Earth would we hesitate to guarantee to these unions various provisions that they already had? Our primary objective was to make sure our initiative language didn’t needlessly invite opposition from the construction unions.

All of us knew we were going to need support from construction unions, or at a minimum, neutrality. As we moved from the research phase of our initiative effort into the campaign to qualify it, we attempted to gather together representatives from the various interested parties to work together to support the initiative. There were three primary sources of possible support. The unions were one of those sources. And then there were the farmers.

We knew that California’s farmers could not be the only source of funding to qualify the initiative. Some of the big farmers were betting on scarce water to drive small farmers out of business so they could buy them out. We weren’t going to get any help from them. Other big farmers with the capacity to fund the whole qualification campaign were recognizing, probably accurately, that if they paid most of the money to qualify this, it would get branded as a giveaway to “big ag.” The small farmers, on the other hand, were already squeezed financially, trying to cover their fixed costs without enough water to grow crops on all their land.

The other source of potential support were the big construction contractors. With more time, we might have been able to reach out to more of them. With another dry year, we might have had them coming to us. But we knew that without at least three legs on the stool, the campaign would not have the support it needed. We contacted businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, pitching our idea to any of them that would give us the time. It is interesting to wonder how close we came, because in Sacramento, all of these interest groups – farmers, other business interests, and the unions – had lobbyists and trade representatives who talked to each other.

It was through our union contacts that we were introduced to one of the best polling firms in California, and we thought the polling results would help us. We learned that voter sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of water infrastructure from almost every angle. Voters didn’t mind spending tax revenue on water supply projects. They ranked the drought and water scarcity as top issues of concern. The only area where the results were disappointing was in response to questions about the environment. Most voters in California will not support anything if they’re convinced it will harm the environment. And this was a dilemma. Because every expert we spoke with agreed that without some relief from California’s strict environmental laws, it won’t matter how much money voters approve for major water supply projects. They won’t get built.

And then it rained. The consensus based on the polling was that if we had a dry winter, this initiative would be approved by voters who would be frustrated by severe restrictions on water use through the summer and fall of 2022. But in December 2021, it rained. And rained. And rained. By the time the deluge subsided, people were headed into the Christmas holidays and focusing on family and vacation. While we redoubled our efforts in January, the momentum was lost and we ran out of time. We also ran out of rain, and we now know there is going to be a fourth year of drought.

But why wouldn’t the unions support our initiative? What factors prevented them, this time, from getting behind this project? When asked by Paul Rogers, reporting for the San Jose Mercury, Andrew Meredith, who succeeded Hunter as the SBCTC president in early 2022, said the campaign did not gather enough momentum. “We need to be diligent and ensure that our contributions translate to a net benefit for our members,” he said.

Meredith was making an understatement. While more major state-funded infrastructure projects would immediately and directly translate into more jobs for SBCTC members, for them to have supported our initiative would have constituted a declaration of war against many of the special interests they have historically fought beside.

In particular, the SBCTC would have gone up against the California Teachers Association and other powerful public sector unions representing state and local government workers, which would view allocating two percent of the state general fund to construction projects as taking money away from the programs that employ their members.

The SBCTC would have also had to stand up to the environmentalist lobby, which if anything is more powerful than the public sector unions. As we have seen, environmentalists in California are against almost all forms of land development or big civil engineering projects, and they attacked our campaign relentlessly for as long as we were active.

If taking on these two political superpowers weren’t enough, it’s worth asking whether the SBCTC really needed more jobs for their members. If their membership was at or near full employment, where would the tens of thousands of workers have come from to fill the jobs needed to construct off-stream reservoirs, repair aqueducts, and build wastewater recycling plants and the distribution pipes? One might see managing that membership growth as a tantalizing challenge, but perhaps too much trouble if it meant going to war with the public sector unions and the environmentalist community.

These realities put California’s high speed rail project into a revealing context. Very few competent analysts are left who are willing to claim this project will ever make economic or even environmental sense. It will be a drain on the economy and it is a deplorable waste of natural resources. It’s even destined for technological obsolescence, as high speed smart cars, car sharing, ride sharing, passenger drones, and remote work will obviate the need for high speed rail. But the high speed rail project was endorsed by environmentalists. With high speed rail, the union goal of providing jobs for their members was fulfilled without a war. It does not help California.

There is a larger question here for the unions, however, a bigger one than whether or not to have supported the now dormant Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022. When are unions going to stand up to environmentalists? And when are private sector unions going to stand up to public sector unions, with whom they have almost nothing in common, apart from the fact that they’re both called “unions”?

If the SBCTC, with 484,000 members, wanted to put our water initiative on the ballot, they could have done it themselves, at relatively low cost. They could have mailed the initiative petition to each of their more than 450,000 member households in California, instructing their members to seriously consider signing and returning the petition, preferably after getting some of their neighbors to also sign it. If this had been done, it is quite possible that they would have collected close to a million signatures with just a few direct mail efforts. And if they had done that, other players on the sidelines, the construction contractors and the farmers, would at that point have certainly joined the campaign.

The power of environmentalists in California is literally strangling the state’s economy. It is one of the primary reasons housing is unaffordable. It is the reason electricity and natural gas is so much more expensive here than in other states. It is the reason we can’t source our own lumber, gas and oil, fertilizer or aggregate right here within the state, and have to import most of it instead. It is the reason we are about shut down Diablo Canyon, a fully paid for source of cheap electricity. Environmentalist power is out of control in California, and private sector unions are one of the only forces in the state with the power to stand up to them, if they choose to do so.

The tendency in these discussions is to overstate each side of the case, so let’s pull back a bit. Nobody wants to destroy the natural environment in California. Nobody in their right mind isn’t grateful for environmentalist accomplishments, from phasing in unleaded gas and catalytic converters, to saving the California Condor. But environmentalists in California have succeeded, with the absolute complicity of the media and the education bureaucracy, in stigmatizing moderate views on environmental issues as extreme. There is nothing extreme about capturing runoff into a few more off-stream reservoirs, raising the height of the Shasta Dam, or, gasp, building one or two more desalination plants on the Southern California Coast. But to advocate these projects, or even to include them as we did as falling within project categories eligible for state funds, environmentalists did everything in their power to destroy our campaign.

The people running construction unions in California know better. They know that if you make it impossible, or nearly impossible, to build anything, the only people who benefit are the wealthiest owners and investors who control the limited and sanctioned means of production. You can put any label you wish on this model of political economy. Feudalism comes immediately to mind. But leave that to the intellectuals. For the workers on the street, what matters is the price of electricity, the price of natural gas, the price of gasoline, the price of housing, the price of food, and the price of water. And among those essentials, water is the enabling core. Water is life.

Our union friends can let California’s water become rationed and privatized, priced sky high to profit a small coterie of owners, and they can watch the ripple effect blow the roof off prices for every downstream essential including housing and food.

Or they can use their considerable power to help rein in environmentalist overreach, realign California politics, and save this great state for all working families.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

The Abundance Choice (part 5) – The Fractured Farmers

“We cannot support your initiative if you include the Delta Tunnel as an eligible project. And to be clear, we also cannot support your initiative if you do not include the Delta Tunnel as an eligible project.”

This statement, which I heard with my own ears sometime in early September 2021, was made by someone painfully aware of the paradox it expressed. It epitomizes how California’s farmers confront the existential threat of not enough water to irrigate their crops. They are bitterly divided over what solutions to support. If your farm is located north of the California Delta, you don’t want Southern Californians to build a giant straw that will suck the Northern Central Valley dry. And if your farm is south of the Delta, escalating restrictions on pumping water into southbound aqueducts from fragile Delta ecosystems makes a tunnel an elegant solution.

Disagreement over how to transport water through, around, or under the Delta is just one of many causes of gridlock in California over water policy, but the scale of the project and the effect it would have make it central to discussions over state water priorities. Taking an unequivocal stand on the Delta Tunnel—for or against—will immediately either alienate or attract about half of California’s farming community, along with every water agency, urban or rural, northern or southern, that is affected by it.

Not only are farmers in the Sacramento Valley to the north generally set against constructing the tunnel, while farmers in the San Joaquin Valley to the south generally support construction. There are also the farmers within the Delta, a vast area of reclaimed land, much of it lying slightly below sea level and protected by over a thousand miles of levees. These farmers, for the most part, oppose the Delta Tunnel because a tunnel will divert water north of the Delta, possibly leading to less available water to irrigate their fields. In this they share the concerns of Sacramento Valley farmers, but they also have an equally urgent concern regarding levee maintenance.

As it is, the Southern California water districts that receive water thanks to the Delta pumps are paying much of the cost to maintain the Delta levees. Once a tunnel bypasses the Delta, the incentive for powerful Southern California water districts to provide financial and political support for Delta levees, and by extension, Delta farming, will disappear. And if that happens, the Delta farmers will lose the allies they need to maintain their levees and resist pressure from environmentalists to systematically eliminate the levees and the reclaimed agricultural land in favor of turning the entire Delta back into a nature preserve.

These conjectures serve just to offer a glimpse into the complexity of the issues affecting whether or not to construct a Delta tunnel. The gridlock over the tunnels has a negative impact on many other projects. For example, if the Delta tunnel is built, the Sites Reservoir—a proposed off-stream reservoir that would capture storm runoff in a valley west of the Sacramento River and north of the Delta—would be able to release its water to customers south of the Delta with none of the pumping constraints currently in place. Without the Delta tunnels, runoff pumped into the Sites Reservoir would be more likely to be reserved for use north of the Delta.

The Many Ways California’s Farmers Are Divided

The distinct and often conflicting interests between northern and southern farmers is further exemplified by the separate peace negotiated between environmentalists and California’s rice farmers, who are nearly all operating north of the Delta. The historical treatment of rice fields in the off-season was to burn the rice straw. From the perspective of modern sensibilities this was a rather unenlightened practice. Every year, smoke and soot from nearly 500,000 acres of burning fields would foul the air for hundreds of miles. But starting in the 1990s, in cooperation with environmentalists, California’s rice farmers began to flood their rice fields after the harvest instead of burning the straw, creating winter season wetlands. The practice spread, and by 2010 open field rice burning had been reduced by 90 percent. From October through February, the fallow fields become wetlands for migratory waterfowl.

This is a laudable accomplishment. Storm runoff is diverted, helping to prevent flooding. Aquifers are replenished as the sequestered water percolates. Rice straw decomposes and enriches the earth, instead of fouling the atmosphere. Migratory waterfowl along the legendary Pacific Flyway are given massive areas of new habitat. Along the Sacramento River, these flooded areas are now even being experimented with as potential habitat for salmon hatchlings.

This is a win-win, but it also may serve to further divide the farming community between north and south. Farming interests in the north, where the rice farmers are very influential, have less incentive to rock the boat. Environmentalists are powerful. They don’t want new water infrastructure and they believe farming at the current scale in California is not sustainable and must be reduced. Meanwhile, California’s rice farmers have made a deal with environmentalists, which could be in jeopardy if they support anything that environmentalists oppose. When they’re not coming after you, that is a rational business decision.

The problem with all of this becomes clear when you adopt a statewide perspective. And as we have seen, conservation is simply not enough to solve California’s challenge of water scarcity. There are solutions that can preserve farming in the San Joaquin Valley that ought to constitute reasonable compromises environmentalists can accept. But these solutions aren’t as obvious or as affordable as letting fallow rice fields accept winter floodwater in the water-rich north. A lot is at stake.

The Sacramento Valley, for all of its vast agricultural capacity, is only 40 percent as big as the San Joaquin Valley. North of the Delta in the Sacramento Valley there are 2.1 million acres of irrigated farmland. That’s a lot, but it is dwarfed by the San Joaquin Valley, where there are over five million acres of irrigated farmland. Finding a way to preserve this industry, which is the reason Californians consume affordable food and export food all over the nation and around the world, is something that ought to unite California’s farmers to work towards solutions for all of them, not just those north of the Delta.

Another geographic schism occurs within the San Joaquin Valley, where the impact of water allocations and regulations affect farmers on the west side much differently from farmers on the east side. This is evident when viewing a satellite image of the San Joaquin Valley. All of the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are reliant to some extent on groundwater, to which access has also become problematic for them. And all of the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley also rely on northern water from the aqueducts. But the older, smaller farms on the eastern side of the valley are also able to tap surface runoff from the Sierras, which has been their historical source of water for farm irrigation. To the west, the much larger farms have no option but to rely almost exclusively on water from the California Aqueduct.

It isn’t just geography that divides California’s farmers. They are divided by what crops they grow, with rice only the most obvious example among many. In each case, the economics differ. Farmers growing crops that, for the same water input, have a high value, such as pistachios, can adapt to water restrictions that would put farmers specializing in row crops such as tomatoes out of business. On the other hand, farmers growing perennial crops in orchards and vineyards cannot skip a year of irrigation, or their trees and vines will die. Farmers planting annual row crops can choose which fields to leave fallow in a dry year.

Finally, farmers in California are divided by the scale of their operations. As regulations and restrictions have increased relentlessly over the past few decades, the size of the farming operation that can bear the overhead cost for compliance has grown proportionately. Wayne Western, Jr., who farms row crops in the San Joaquin Valley, said that a 10,000 acre farm used to be considered big, certainly big enough to apply economies of scale sufficient to adequately spread the cost of capital equipment and compliance overhead. Now a 10,000 acre farm is considered economically marginal. Many agribusiness holdings today are in excess of 100,000 acres, and consolidation is ongoing.

When it comes to which water policies and solutions to support, this division between big and small farmers is possibly the biggest source of disunity. The financial interests of large farms are not furthered by a thriving, diverse, and decentralized farm economy. To the extent very large agribusinesses supported, or considered supporting our initiative, it was not just an act of pure self interest. An environment of scarce and expensive water, and other inputs which have also seen sharp increases in price, are an opportunity for large farming corporations to buy out small farmers and increase their holdings. An operation with economies of scale and a strong balance sheet can withstand financial hardships that put the small farmers out of business. At the same time, as will be seen, scarce and expensive water makes speculation on land for its water rights an attractive proposition.

Failed Attempts to Increase Water Supply Infrastructure

If California’s farming community is divided over what to do about water, they are also frustrated by several recent attempts to increase their supply of water. All of them failed, or, in the case of Proposition 1 in 2014, are failures to-date. When Proposition 1 was approved by over two-thirds of California voters, the expectation was that the storage projects it specified would be funded and built. Not only have none of them been built so far, the Temperance Flat Dam proposal—which would have captured storm runoff on the San Joaquin River, above an already existing dam—was all but killed by the bureaucrats in Sacramento. How they performed this sleight of hand is illustrative of why many farmers feel betrayed by their own state government.

When the California Water Commission began to evaluate the projects approved by voters in Proposition 1 for funding, they came up with a scoring system whereby they awarded points based on “beneficial use.” But they defined beneficial use in a manner that overemphasized environmental benefits versus benefits to farm and urban water consumers. They then awarded funds to each voter-approved project based on the points each project earned. Temperance Flat, under these manipulated criteria, did not score very well, and the amount of money it was awarded was only a small fraction of what was needed.

By the time we began speaking with farmers about our water initiative, Proposition 1 in 2014 was just one recent example of how their efforts to affect water policy via an initiative had been thwarted. In 2018, proponent Jerry Meral had succeeded in putting Proposition 3 on the ballot. This expansive proposition, which Meral spent several years cobbling together in consultation with every interested party he could possibly identify, had something for everyone. In the $8.9 billion bond package, there was $855 million to repair aqueducts, $685 million to develop groundwater storage, and $472 million to develop and repair dams. The big bucks, $2.9 billion for “watershed and fisheries improvements,” and $3.0 billion for “safe drinking water and water quality,” may not have increased California’s water supply, but could be supported based on the improvements they would deliver to water quality in the state. Farmers supported Proposition 3 with donations and endorsements, joining a coalition that included every major environmental organization except for one—the Sierra Club. In a very tight race, Proposition 3 failed by only 155,000 votes out of nearly 12 million votes cast, a losing margin of only 1.3 percent.

There was yet another attempt to go to voters to fund water supply improvements in 2020, the “Dams Not Trains” initiative, led by proponent Aubrey Bettencourt. As its title indicates, this initiative would have redirected funds allocated for high speed rail to funding water storage infrastructure. This innovative bill also called for a redefinition of “beneficial use,” something we emulated in our initiative, and it took responsibility for approving water projects away from the California Water Commission, something we decided against. Once again, and for the third time in six years, many of California’s farmers stepped up with their donations and endorsements, but this time, the initiative failed to qualify for the ballot.

No wonder finding support from farmers proved to be problematic. They’ve been betrayed and they’ve been frustrated with initiative efforts three times in the past eight years, and many of them feel all that money was wasted. But the reality for most of them is only going to worsen. They face a hostile, do-nothing legislature, a hostile press, and an environmentalist movement that wants to eliminate most of them. California’s farmers will either successfully advocate for massive investment in new and upgraded water infrastructure, or, taking into account how many small farmers still operate in California, most of them will go out of business. But it isn’t as if, collectively, they don’t still have the resources for another fight.

Agribusiness in California directly employs over 800,000 people, with agricultural cash receipts estimated in 2020 at $49 billion. The indirect employment and GDP contribution as agricultural products are distributed and retailed, and as farm employees participate in the economy, multiplies those amounts. California’s farm industry may be fractured, but each of its constituent sectors have trade associations, with annual lobbying and political campaign budgets in the tens of millions and marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions.

Without more water infrastructure in California, i.e., without a comprehensive statewide plan to spend $50 billion or more, right away, on an all-of-the above program of water investments ranging from new reservoirs and reservoir upgrades to recycling all urban wastewater, the future for most of California’s farmers is grim. California agribusiness needs to think big, identify what it is they agree on while taking into account the needs of the entire state, pool their resources, form stronger alliances with urban water agencies and others; they need to identify, expose and resist environmental extremism, and they need to unite and fight for the changes necessary for all of them to survive and thrive.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

The Abundance Choice (part 2) – The Problems With Indoor Water Rationing

Perhaps the biggest example of misguided water policy in California are the escalating restrictions on indoor water consumption. As will be seen, the savings these restrictions amount to are trivial in the context of California’s total water consumption, yet are imposed at tremendous cost both in quality of life and in the required economic sacrifice. Despite alternatives that are objectively more cost-effective, California’s water policy continues to go down the path of rationing indoor water use.

In 2018 the California Legislature enacted laws to restrict residential water consumption, in the form of Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668. For urban water districts, the laws “establish a standard of 55 gallons per person per day until January 2025, and then to 50 gallons per person per day in 2030.”

It is fair to point out that some of the more alarmist reactions to these mandates are unfounded. For example, the laws will only measure aggregate use within a water district, which means that how individual users are treated if they exceed the per person indoor water limits is left up to the local utilities. That’s hardly reassuring, but at least it leaves some wiggle room. On the other hand, it creates a powerful disincentive for water agencies to invest in developing an increased, more resilient water supply, because with aggregate maximums limiting how much water the agencies can sell, they’ll think twice before adding capacity. One of the dangerous consequences of this, yet again, is a system that is less equipped to withstand serious disruptions to supply.

In any case, enforcing these mandates will not have a significant effect on overall water consumption in California, and the cost of implementing them does not make financial sense compared to other ways those funds could be invested.

To estimate the statewide savings that could be achieved by imposing a 55 gallon per person limit on indoor water use, first consider the current statewide indoor water consumption as estimated by the California Department of Water Resources. This total has been fairly consistent over the past ten years at around 2.5 million acre feet per year. This yields somewhat surprising results. Based on a population of 40 million, as shown in the calculations on the chart, Californians are only using about 60 gallons of water per day, per person, indoors.

This indoor use varies by region, of course, but in aggregate, Californians have already nearly achieved what the state legislature has imposed on residential consumers as a new water conservation mandate. Perhaps that explains what’s next. Built into AB 606 was a provision to lower indoor water use from 55 gallons per day to 50 gallons per day by 2030. The next chart shows the statewide savings pursuant to this legislation. At 55 gallons per day, total statewide indoor water use is only reduced by 233,996 acre feet per year. At 50 gallons per day, total statewide indoor water use is reduced by 458,178 acre feet per year. To put this amount into perspective, based on the most recent data available, total urban water use in California has averaged 7.8 million acre feet per year. Which means that cutting the average residential indoor use by 17 percent (60 gallons per person per day to 50 gallons per person per day) will only yield a 5.9 percent reduction in overall urban use.

This realization has led to more ambitious proposals, such as Assembly Bill 1434 proposed by Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) in 2021. Friedman’s bill would have accelerated the pace of imposing restrictions on indoor water use and would have further reduced the allowed amounts. It would have lowered per person indoor water use to 48 gallons per day by 2023, to 44 gallons per day by 2025, and to 40 gallons per day by 2030. The bill did not pass, but a similar version will surely resurface in 2022. But how much does reducing residential indoor water use per person from 60 gallons per day to 40 gallons per day end up saving? Again, the results are unimpressive. In exchange for a 33 percent reduction in residential indoor water use, 906,542 acre feet per year of water are saved. This equates to an 11.6 reduction in total urban water use, and it must be noted that urban water use as a whole only represents 11 percent of total water diversions in California. Which is to say, a reduction of 906,542 acre feet of residential indoor water use equates to a reduction in California’s statewide water consumption of 1.2 percent. But at what cost?

It isn’t the intent of this analysis to disparage the achievements already made in indoor water conservation. But most of them have already been made, and the ones swiftly moving from recommended to mandated in many cases do not work very well. Most people would agree that low flow toilets, for example, are a good idea. If they don’t work on the first flush, it’s easy enough to flush them twice. But low flow shower heads and kitchen faucets cross the line into genuine inconvenience. The inadequate flow in a shower head makes it nearly impossible – especially with soft water – to rinse shampoo out of long hair. The constrained flow in a kitchen faucet means waiting sometimes several minutes before hot water arrives. Circulating pumps to remedy this don’t work very well, and the cost of flash water heaters is beyond the reach of most households. But it’s with washing machines that the misanthropic cruelty of mandating unproven appliances is clear for all to see. These machines damage fabric, they don’t clean very well, and their cycles take too long. The reality of owning and maintaining water efficient washing machines is the antithesis of the legendary Maytag television advertisement, where a repairman sits by the phone that never rings, because the machines never break. The ad was true back then, but not today. Not only do many of these machines have useful lives measured in years instead of decades, but the newest models are being marketed as “connected” appliances.

Volumes could be reported on the rapidly diminishing returns that currently accrue to water efficient appliances, once they reach beyond practical and reasonable limitations. But why are we having this debate? Doesn’t all that water flow down the drain, through the sewer mains, and into a water treatment plant where it is purified and returned to the rivers and aquifers? And in the case of California’s massive coastal cities, why isn’t treated wastewater, which currently is discharged into the ocean, instead treated to higher standards and pumped right back upstream? Existing treatment processes allow up to 90 percent of urban wastewater to be be reused. As will be seen, this solution is already being implemented in Orange County, where next year, what is already the world’s largest wastewater treatment facility for indirect potable reuse will complete its final expansion to recycle and reuse 100 percent of their wastewater. But this solution should be implemented in every county in California, starting with the coastal counties.

Current policies aimed at cutting urban water use are misguided with respect to indoor residential water use not only because the water savings are insignificant when compared to total statewide water use, or because indoor residential water can be reused over and over again merely by upgrading the treatment of the wastewater. They are also misguided because the economic cost of indoor water rationing is more than the economic cost of constructing upgrades to urban water treatment plants. This isn’t immediately obvious, since if urban water treatment plants aren’t upgraded, consumers don’t have to foot the construction bill through higher rates. But they will pay anyway. To accurately monitor indoor water consumption, urban water agencies are planning to install a second meter on every residential property. That cost will appear in the rates they pay. Moreover, water utilities only spend about 0ne-third of their budget on water, with the other two-thirds going mostly to pay overhead. This means that as residential water consumers use less, their water bills will not go down. They can’t. It would break the water utilities.

Another significant economic cost to ratepayers is that even if the utility manages to deliver less water without raising rates too much, there is still the burden imposed on every household to retrofit their appliances to conform to the new water mandates. It is not possible to reduce residential indoor water consumption by 33 percent without buying every gadget the major appliance manufacturers can possibly come up with. These new “connected” water appliances will cost every California household thousands of dollars, with new and ongoing payments for software updates and maintenance and earlier replacement that the old appliances never imposed on their owners. And those residents who cannot afford these appliances will be subsidized by the ones who can, with that cost reflected either in higher water rates or higher taxes.

There is an alternative. Instead of rationing residential water use, direct this economic value to investment in infrastructure. If the State of California subsidizes the construction of wastewater recycling upgrades, reducing indoor water consumption no longer has to be a legislative priority. This principle, that state investment can reduce the capital cost to local and regional water agencies, has applicability across all areas of water infrastructure. It is based on the idea that if a society must bear an economic cost to overcome water scarcity, that cost can either be borne on the front end by upgrading water infrastructure, or on the back end by imposing rationing and punitive costs on end users.

The premise of the initiative we developed was to adhere to the first option: Let the State of California again build a water infrastructure that solves the challenge of water scarcity, capitalizing on everything we’ve learned since the marvelous system we rely on was first constructed in the past century.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.