A Free-Market Energy Blog

Rebutting NRDC on California’s Drought

By -- April 27, 2015

“Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of warmer winters and low snowpack.”

– Ben Chou (Natural Resources Defense Council), “California Needs Proactive Ways to Deal with Drought,” EnergyNewsData.com, April 3, 2015.

“Nature makes drought; man makes water shortages. Government water conservation policies, misinformed by the environmentalist ideology of the NRDC, are worsening the water shortage.” (below)

Ben Chou’s March 31, 2015 column on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Switchboard” website, cross posted on April 3rd at EnergyNewsData.com, requires rebuttal if we are going to deal with the California drought empirically and not ideologically.

Chou correctly writes that California’s April 2015 snowpack is indicative of the amount of water that can be carried forward into the hot summer months. Even so, water supplies are measured in California over a 5- and 10-year meteorological cycle. Looking at one year, after three increasingly drier years, doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. Even a broken clock can be right twice a day.

California typically gets one, or sometimes two, wet years about every 5 years (see bar chart of California snowpack from 2005 to 2014 here). The intervening 3 or 4 years are normally dry years called drought.

What is missing in Chou’s snowpack status report is that the average snowpack over the past 10 years from 2005 to 2014 is 92 percent of normal! California should have had enough carryover water supplies and conservation savings to weather the current drought with only an 8 percent average annual shortfall over the past decade. Where did all the water go? This is tentative evidence of farmers’ contentions that the surplus water was diverted to wildlife and fish.

Chou infers that the shortfall can be attributed to evaporation due to unusually warm temperatures. He attributes this to “climate change (that) is likely to increase the frequency of warmer winters and low snowpack.” But such a climate change prognostication is a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy because California already has warmer winters and lower snowpack during normal dry years! You can’t predict the present.

Admittedly, 2014 has been the hottest year on record in California, as Chou asserts. But not that much more so than in 1900, the late 1970s, and the early 1990s when California had similar droughts (see here).

Once again, you have to look at a moving average, not one isolated year. Droughts are normal, wet years and snowpack are abnormal in California. As droughts are inevitable, they have to be planned for, by storing up and conserving water. What happened from 2012 to 2015? We can venture a hypothesis of what happened that is counterintuitive to Chou’s assertion that we need to take “stronger action to conserve water.”

Iatrogenic Water Conservation

A new UCLA study of urban outdoor water use, “Free to Choose: Promoting Conservation by Relaxing Water Restrictions,” found: “customers who adhere to the prescribed schedule use more water than those following a more flexible irrigation pattern.” Watering lawns two or three days per week on prescribed days resulted in up to 25 percent greater water usage than flexible conservation efforts. Such rigid schedules force homeowners to over-water and to water on hot or windy days when evaporation rates are much higher.

In other words, we could conserve more water if we were more flexible and not so “proactive” about water conservation as Chou advocates. Chou states that “In recent months, urban water-conservation efforts have declined.” But he doesn’t recognize that it is plausibly due to a combination of hotter weather and self-defeating water conservation policies.

So now we have what might be called iatrogenic water conservation (iatrogenic means “doctor-created disease”). Outdoor watering restrictions result in avoidable, conservation-created waste. This is counterintuitive because watching people watering lawns focuses our attention on the visible and not the invisible of watering on hot or windy days or over-saturating lawns on assigned watering days. And of course, conspicuous watering must be punished!

“Proactive” Conservation Measures Worsening Drought?

Chou advocates a number of “proactive” water conservation measures such as “turf removal…water recycling, stormwater capture, improved irrigation, urban water-use efficiency, groundwater cleanup, and conjunctive-use projects can create millions of acre-feet of new water supplies.” The only criteria Chou uses for evaluating these measures is that more conservation is always good with only lip service about cost-effectiveness.

The City of Pasadena’s 2011 Integrative Water Resources Plan contains an estimate of how much each of Chou’s advocated conservation measures would cost and how much water each measure could produce, as shown below:

City of Pasadena Water Supply and Conservation Options

Supply Measure Percent of Water Potentially Produced Range of Cost Per Acre Foot of Water
1. Conservation 21% to 38% $545 to $787
2. Local Surface Water Reservoirs 0.5% to 6.7% $1,200 to $1,650
3. Recycled Water 1.2% to 12.2% $946 to $3,126
4. Imported Water 6.3% to 93.8% $811 to $1,404
5. Graywater 2.5% $5,947
6. Stormwater Capture 0.1% to 0.2% $4,914 to $46,080
7. Ocean Desalination 15.6% $2,650
Data Source: City of Pasadena Integrated Water Resource Plan, 2011

To give an idea of how unrealistic Chou’s proposals are let’s consider Stormwater Capture, which would produce miniscule water (0.1 to 0.2%) at a cost up to 32 times the cost of imported water; or 58 times the cost of reducing outdoor watering! Reducing outdoor watering is the most cost effective option during drought. But once again assigning watering days results in 25 percent over-watering as pointed out above. And imported water, when available, can produce up to 93.8 percent of the City’s needs at a cost competitive with conservation.

The Metropolitan Water District’s (MWD) turf removal program for replacing all lawns in Pasadena’s 25,374 single-family-detached homes at $2 per square foot, and assuming 2,000 to 3,600 per square foot irrigated area per home, and a 28 percent water reduction mandate, would cost $28,418,880 to $51,153,984.  Replacing lawns for 25 percent of Southern California’s homes would cost $4.045 to $7.28 billion.  In a Feb. 25, 2015 Drought Response Workshop, Grace Chan, Resources and Planning Manager for MWD, stated that its turf removal program was conducted mainly for visual effects.

During drought conditions, there is no other urban option except for curtailing outdoor watering. Turf removal, recycled water, gray water, stormwater, and desalination take too long to implement in a drought and are not cost-effective in the short or long term.

A “diverse portfolio of water supplies – as opposed to a relying solely on a single source of water like the Delta or groundwater” results in “being better positioned to handle drought” says Chou. But the only water self-reliant cities in Southern California rely on 100% groundwater! Moreover, how are farmers going to diversify their water portfolio other than by conservation when they have already spent $2 billion in the last few years for drip irrigation systems?

Nature makes drought; man makes water shortages. Government water conservation policies, misinformed by the environmentalist ideology of the NRDC, are worsening the water shortage.

If we had to build the Colorado River Aqueduct or California State Water Project over again we couldn’t, due to environmental lawsuits and water conservation policies that would roll back California to pre-1900 living standards. Outdoor landscaping merely transfers the “environment” to one’s front yard.

And Californians need to be reminded that it was the bogus NRDC lawsuit over the Delta Smelt fish that resulted in the 2007–2010 man-made water shortage.


Wayne Lusvardi worked 20 years for a large, regional water agency in Southern California. He writes on water and energy policy for Calwatchdog.com and MasterResource.org.

Leave a Reply