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California Water Rationing: Unintended Consequences (rural areas are next)

By -- February 7, 2018

“A [September 1, 2015] article in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Unintended Consequences of Conserving Water: Leaky Pipes, Less Revenue, Bad Odors,’ discusses the infrastructure problems faced by sanitation districts. Reduced use reduces wastewater flows, which means there is less water in the sewer system to move solids, which are then collecting causing corrosion, back-ups and odor problems – especially in areas like Sacramento where the system is flat, precluding any gravity-driven movement through the system.”

– Marta Weissman, California’s Water Conservation Regulations and the Law of Unintended Consequences, Part 1: Management Impacts, Nov. 2, 2015.

Could plans to ration urban and agricultural water in California result in a big stink of sewer plant odors that will do little to solve long-term drought cycles? What Marta Weissman identified above lies in waiting for what California water planners have in mind for rural areas.

One rural California County, El Dorado County, asks why it should have water rationing when Northern California only uses 9 percent of the state’s system water and rationing would only reduce water usage by 2 percent.  Moreover, this water savings would be mostly washed out by lost recycled water at the other end of the pipe.  Water ratepayers would end up with a choice each day of either bathing or washing clothes.  The way rural northern California users see it, water rationing would only cause inconvenience and “take their money” to “ship water south” to farmers and Los Angeles.

Urban water users would be equally inconvenienced with less water but pay the same, given that water and wastewater treatment rates are based on fixed costs of service. And urban water users are likely to be hit with a big stench of methane gas mixed with hydrogen sulfide (H2S) emissions from pipelines and sewer plants that do not have enough water to push the effluent through the engineered system.

Coming Water Rationing

There is a legislative bill currently marching through the California legislature – Assembly Bill 1668 Water Management Planning Act sponsored by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a film producer, D-Glendale – that would establish permanent water rationing in California.

Indoor water consumption would be limited to 55 gallons per day per person statewide, despite the fact that even some cities in dry Southern California are self sufficient for their own water supplies (Riverside, Costa Mesa, Downey, Needles, Santa Monica (2020) and Carpinteria (2020)).  Many northern California cities are also off the water grid of the State Water Project or Federal Central Water Project, and any water saved would not go back into some common pool of water.

This is a European-style water policy, as in Germany, which has too much water, but (because of the nation’s love of totalitarian conservation for its own sake) imposes a police-state water usage limit of 32-gallons per person per day, thus squelching most possibilities of recycling sewage water.

The largest urban “rivers” or reservoirs in Southern California are the gargantuan sewage treatment plants—the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in the Santa Monica Bay; the Los Angeles County Sanitation District sewage treatment plant in the South Bay area; and the massive Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System along the Santa Ana River (the world’s largest advanced water purification system for potable reuse). Could water rationing result in reduced revenues for wastewater treatment plants, higher water and wastewater rates, leaky pipes and mounting odor problems ignored in the environmental clearance process?

Unintended, but Foreseeable Consequences of Rationing

Marta Weissman foresees these emerging consequences:

“But the celebrated water savings (of conservation from the recent drought) mean that water sales fell and, therefore, so did revenue. With the water suppliers bound by the Prop 218 cost-of-service provision, which specifies that utilities can charge for a service only what it costs them to provide that service, they have little wiggle room to bear the impact of a revenue reduction.

Some fail to see the problem. Whether it is a myopic view of the impact on one’s own water bill or simply cynicism among the public, there is little tolerance for water managers’ attempts to use the only tool they have available to resolve their fiscal dilemma: increase revenue.

Why do reductions in revenue mean that ratepayers have to pay more for their water? The answer has become such a common refrain that it borders on truism: water suppliers have costs that are fixed (infrastructure costs) and costs that are variable (water supply costs)—but the water users pay a volumetric charge.

But hiking water rates to adjust for reduced water usage and revenues won’t solve the issue of declining wastewater volumes that scuttle water recycling or result in stinky wastewater plants. There is no miraculous drought solution with water rationing, only smelly trade offs.

The Coming Stench

Will water rationing result in unintended, or undisclosed and falsely advertised, expensive non-solutions to drought? Will voters seek relief of unwanted higher water and wastewater rates through voter initiatives or throw politicians out of office as happened with the 2001 Energy Crisis?  Not if the media and reigning politicians keep boosting water rationing as a drought panacea.  But the odor of sewer effluent may become hard to hide. Diversions of Colorado River water from the Salton Sea to urban cities have already resulted in a rotten egg odor 130 miles away, in Los Angeles.

Soon Southern California will have clean air and clean water but a 130-mile wide effluent odor corridor from the Salton Sea to coastal wastewater treatment plants. And Sacramento, the state capitol, may have an uncompleted bullet train to nowhere but may not be too far behind when it comes to stink.

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Wayne Lusvardi worked for California’s largest urban water agency for 20 years and is an independent public utility, water rights, and land appraiser in Rancho Mirage. His previous posts at MasterResource are here.

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