A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.

When money is tight in NYC, cut spending on critical water infrastructure

All big cities need water but when budget priorities were determined, New York City chose to delay building some key water infrastructure:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has postponed work to finish New York’s third water tunnel, a project that for more than half a century has been regarded as essential to the survival of the city if either of the two existing, and now aged, tunnels should fail…

But last year, Mr. de Blasio’s administration, eager to keep a lid on water and sewer rates that had grown by an average of 8 percent annually under Mr. Bloomberg, moved financing for the third tunnel to other projects, Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said.

The city intends to finish the remaining portions of the tunnel sometime in the 2020s, but it has not set a date for completion nor allocated money in the budget to carry out the work. For the foreseeable future, the $6 billion tunnel will remain dry in the two largest boroughs, where well over half the city’s population lives.

“You look back over the last 50 years, whenever there were fiscal pressures, the unseen world of the municipal water system is where weak city leaders turned to cut spending,” said Kevin Bone, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union and an editor of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.” “I’m disappointed to hear that they’ve deferred it. It is symptomatic about planning for the future in America.”

Let’s hope that this doesn’t lead to disaster: imagine Queens and Brooklyn without water for three months (which would happen if aging Tunnel 2 fails). This is one of the issues with infrastructure and why the public would be furious if something happened: people don’t pay attention to this stuff until it fails but the issues are largely preventable as long as communities keep up with the necessary maintenance and new construction.

Imagine New York City, the top global city, being incapacitated by not having enough water because city leaders didn’t have enough foresight…

Solving flooding in China with “sponge cities”

Chinese officials are providing funds for “sponge cities” to reduce the effects of flooding:

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project.

Traditionally, Chinese cities handled water well, Yu notes. “But in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods.”…

Reverse-engineering a city to make it more spongey requires a mental rather than physical shift, he argues. “It’s a whole new philosophy of dealing with water. It is about how we plan and design our cities in an ecological way. Not about piecemeal, manmade engineering projects. So we need to avoid this kind of trap.”

Sponge-city design could also run up against China’s centralized planning system.

It sounds like this is a major work in progress. As has been found in American cities, such as Chicago, trying to solve flooding issues after the city is a certain size is quite difficult. Are cities really willing to move residents or commercial structures to better deal with water issues? Is it only possible to make changes after a major flood convinces people? The optimal way to do this would be before the development happens as planners and others can set aside space or promote greener options.

The continually green lawns of some California leaders and celebrities

The drought shaming continues in California. First, CBS highlights some of the biggest water wasters in the Bay Area:

The district released the names and consumption in response to a public records request by the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets covering the drought.

Beane released a statement through the Oakland A’s.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected. We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage,” Beane said.

Retired Chevron Oil executive George Kirkland tops the list by using more than 12,000 gallons of water a day – 48 times the district average. He also pointed to previously undetected seepage.

Here is an older gallery where CBS highlights the greenery outside the homes of numerous celebrities. This link includes a picture and this text:

Despite the sweeping water regulations imposed by California state officials this spring, Jenny’s “block” remains green.

And though the state has only issued eight $100 fines and two $200 fines to water wasters up until this point, Lopez may soon face a much heftier fine if she wants to keep her lawn this way.

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for legislators to enforce fines of up to $10,000 for residents and businesses that waste the most water, as California cities struggle to meet mandatory conservation targets.

I imagine reporting to the public about leaders and celebrities can be quite effective in reducing the water usage. Few famous people want to be seen as wasters of natural resources when others are sacrificing. (I suspect this would be quite different if there wasn’t much of a drought or if the owners could claim commercial revenues or jobs on these properties – this is what the Las Vegas casinos do.) Even the higher proposed fines, $10,000, wouldn’t matter much to some people. While the shaming might be more effective (reducing water usage and helping politicians look like they are standing up for the interests of everyone), couldn’t the state also use the money? If celebrities wanted to pay big fines, wouldn’t this help balance some budgets?

As people use less water, utilities charge more

To make up for drops in revenue with reduced water use, water utilities have some ways to make more money:

When customers use less water, that means they’re paying less for consumption. This is a good thing, and not just because it’s more ecologically friendly. In the long run, conservation and efficiency are the cheapest ways utilities can avoid needing to develop new supplies in the future.

But in the short-term, conservation and efficiency can put utilities in a pinch, because their sales fall while fixed costs remain the same. Eventually, they need to find a way to make back some of that lost revenue to cover their costs…

That’s why lots of utilities are hiking up the volumetric cost of water itself, even as people are using less of it. But with equity in mind, many water experts advocate for tiered pricing, where customers who use less water pay less per unit. The more you use, the more you climb up pricing tiers. The larger the price increases between the tiers, the more of an opportunity utilities have to make up revenues—and send a message to ratepayers that they shouldn’t ideally be using so much. Likewise, water rates can fluctuate throughout the year, in accordance with use and weather patterns…

Between crumbling infrastructure and downhill sales, it’s going to be hard for utilities to avoid bumping up customer fees to manage systems more effectively. But they also need to start thinking differently about their own business model and how they communicate changes to customers, since those changes are going to be reflected in customer bills.

Which is to say that customers also need to adjust their expectations about water. Is water a commodity to be purchased at a given rate? Or is it more like a public service, like the police or court systems? It might be better to conceptualize it more like the latter.

The infrastructure for many of these systems are expensive and it needs maintenance. Plus, these utilities are usually companies that need to make some money. And, some have argued for years that Americans should pay more for water and other basic goods like this in order to have a better understanding of its value and its limited nature.

More broadly, this could bring American customers back to a recurring issue: at what point do changes due to environmentalism become too costly? This could be quite a shift for many utility users; if they use less water or electricity or natural gas, shouldn’t they save some money?

Cities ineffectively selling water conservation with sex, emotions, and shame

Several American cities are making different marketing pitches for residents to save water:

The bus ads, billboards, and throatily narrated videos have been entertaining and educating S.F. residents since last year, but they recently picked up steam in the media. And last week, the S.F. Public Utilities Commission announced they’re throwing another $300,000 into extending the campaign, for more signs about full frontal washing machines and advice to nozzle your hose

If Exhibit A is San Francisco’s conservation porn, then Exhibit B is Los Angeles’ heart-string-tugging “Save the Drop” campaign. Launched by the Mayor’s office in April, it features an adorable, sad-eyed cartoon water-drop. “Water isn’t angry about your 20-minute shower. Just disappointed,” reads one poster. The drop, also featured in a series of videos narrated by Steve Carrell, takes the opposite approach from San Francisco’s cheeky sex-positive ads: It’s all about the emotional appeal. Enter the violins…

Denver, Colorado, has taken a decidedly different tack with their conservation campaigning. Perhaps taking a hint from the schadenfreude-fueled hashtaggery known as #droughtshaming, Denver officials simply want to make you feel bad. The 2014 “Use What You Need” campaign reminds citizens not to be “that guy”—you know, the Pomeranian-owning dude who waters his lawn outside the assigned hours, or that couple who lets their sprinklers run in the rain.

And the article then goes to an expert psychologist in this field who knows whether such strategies actually get people to change their behavior:

“Mass media campaigns, by and large, are ineffective at changing behavior,” he says. “The research is really consistent in showing that what you’ll get is raised awareness—and that’s about it.

Much more effective are more active strategies that encourage people to make changes to their living situations, like rebates for replacing grass lawns or old, wasteful fixtures. “That’s where you’re going to see long-term, lasting change,” says Schultz, “rather than a short-term, immediate response you get from a billboard.”

Perhaps the cities and states running such campaigns don’t know that their marketing ploys won’t really work. But, I assume they do know this – and maybe it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. At the least, the marketing allows them to say they tried to make people aware. If the public didn’t respond appropriately, then it isn’t necessarily the government’s faulty. Plus, this kind of marketing can be rolled out fairly quickly while more effective strategies for changing behaviors may take much longer. Many elected officials have a short-term view (elections are always coming up soon) though dealing with conservation isn’t just about the immediate drought but rather also avoiding droughts in the future.

Considering water rates and systems in the suburbs

American water is pretty cheap but rates can vary quite a bit across suburbs:

Among the primary determinants of cost is the source of the flow. Water drawn from the ground generally costs less — in Warrenville, for example, residents pay just $16.88 per 8,000 gallons for the well water on their utility bills — while those who receive Lake Michigan water, brought in via pipeline and sold by the DuPage Water Commission, are billed at higher rates. Usage of 8,000 gallons in Naperville brings a customer bill of $58.69, according to a rate analysis done by the city. That’s substantially less than the $75.96 average fee paid by all of the communities on the commission’s lake water line…

Elgin residents pay about 25 percent less for their fresh water than people billed in Aurora, where the fee for wastewater treatment is significantly higher as well…

The city plugs its latest numbers into that model to determine water rate increases. The philosophy essentially matches the rates customers pay with the cost of providing the service, said Dave Schumacher, superintendent of Aurora’s water production — not unlike the way other major cities in the region calculate their rates…

The needs of each water system also play a role in setting its rates. Aurora’s 100-year-old pipes are taken into account when the city is projecting its upcoming costs…

A fixed fee also is included on most residential bills. In Aurora, the availability fee comes to $11.65 every other month. Elgin collects $8.54 monthly, and Naperville adds a $5.05 customer charge every month.

So there are a number of variables at work. However:

1. How many of these suburban balance their budgets each year?

2. This reminds me of the mid to late-1800s where many suburbs near major cities wanted to be annexed because infrastructure costs for emerging technologies – like sewers, electricity, natural gas – were prohibitive. Yet, once these prices dropped so did annexations because communities could do it themselves.

3. Does each community need its own system or might it be cheaper to combine some? Why not have a combined Naperville-Aurora water system? This would go against the idea of local control in the suburbs but does it really matter for water and electricity if having more customers in a single system could make things cheaper.

4. I’ve seen several commentators suggest water infrastructure in many municipalities isn’t in that great of shape, particularly in older communities. Will there be a point where significant money will need to be put out at one point to improve such systems? If so, will it be paid for by bonds or other means?

CA homeowners looking to use greywater to save their lawns

Californians looking to keep watering their lawns and plants may be turning to recycled greywater:

At the California Water Resources Board’s recycled water unit, chief Randy Barnard is fielding many calls from homeowners desperate to save their beloved lawns and gardens. “If they’ve got a prize fruit tree they’ve been babying for years, they don’t want to lose that tree,” he said.

But for many, he has some bad news to share. Recycling water at home is not as easy as just hooking your shower up to the lawn sprinklers, and recycled water probably won’t save the lawn…

In California, homeowners are now allowed to irrigate with untreated water straight from bathroom sinks, washing machines and bathtubs, as long as — among other requirements — the water lines run beneath soil or mulch, so as not to come in contact with people. That rules out using untreated gray water on lawns, which typically need above-ground spray heads or sprinklers.

Gray water can even go to vegetable gardens like Negrin’s and Friedman’s, as long as it doesn’t touch root vegetables or any other plant part that’s eaten. Tomatoes are fine, but forget about carrots.

The latest plumbing-code changes have enabled families to install these straightforward laundry-to-landscape systems without a permit, sending wash water into the yard with a valve to divert it back into the sewage system when needed. A handy homeowner can do it with no more than a couple hundred of dollars of piping and parts.

Necessity – a drought though perhaps the state’s required water consumption cuts provide the motivation now – leading to innovation. Three additional thoughts:

1. This hints at the lengths people will go to continue watering their lawn and plants. Not everyone want to paint their lawn or replace it with other surfaces besides grass.

2. Doesn’t this pose something interesting safety issues? What if the homeowners do this wrong and contaminate certain things they grow. Who regulates all of this? I can imagine someone complaining about the children who could be affected by this.

3. If this is relatively easy to do, why isn’t this a common feature of homes already? Even if your location isn’t experiencing a major drought, this seems like basic conservation.

Stopping California and others from taking Great Lakes water

California may be facing a serious drought but the Chicago Tribune details how regulations have tightened access to Great Lakes water:

Can the Midwest repel demands from afar for its water? The eight states (Illinois included) and two Canadian provinces that border the lakes hope no outsiders can breach the invisible, 5,500-mile wall they’ve erected: In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law — let us draw a breath — the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. All eight states and Congress approved the compact, with the Canadians applauding. It’s intended to severely, although not absolutely, block new diversions of water outside the Great Lakes’ vast drainage basin (see accompanying map). A 1909 U.S. treaty with Canada also could thwart big diversions.

Whatever protection Washington giveth to any of us, of course, Washington conceivably can taketh away. Congress typically doesn’t meddle with regional water compacts. But yesterday isn’t forever: The steady erosion of U.S. House seats from Illinois and other Northern states to the Sunbelt invites peril if droughts punish those states. And the Chicagoan sworn to protect Lake Michigan may, um, evolve if arid Arizona tries to conserve water by outlawing construction of her dream retirement condo…

Yes, there’s hypocrisy for Chicagoans: This city reversed a river’s flow so Lake Michigan water would wash away its wastes. And many suburbs that draw from the lake sit outside its watershed; rain that falls on them flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. One mitigating factor is that water diversions in Ontario put more water into the lakes than Chicago flushes out.

The compact doesn’t cruelly forbid emergency outflows. David Naftzger, executive director of the Chicago-based Council of Great Lakes Governors, tells us it permits short-term humanitarian diversions if, say, a hurricane ravages water systems in Southeastern states.

In other words, the water isn’t completely protected but it would take a legislative act to start shipping Great Lakes water all over the country. This could become quite the political battle between Sunbelt and Rust Belt states. Which argument would win out: the Sunbelt has more people and potential or the Rust Belt has communities with much longer histories and might be more ecologically sustainable?

Two other quick thoughts related to this:

1. Interestingly, much of the Chicago suburbs are not in the Great Lakes basin as their water drains west to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico. This reminds me that the divide of the watersheds is not that far from Lake Michigan as Native Americans and traders would need portage over a ridge to get from the Chicago River to those flowing west (like the Des Plaines River). Yet, one group suggests over 75% of residents in northeastern Illinois get their water from Lake Michigan.

2. In another editorial on the same page, the Tribune noted that watching the drought in California could help remind Great Lakes area residents that water conservation should be a priority, even with the seemingly inexhaustible supply in the Great Lakes. There is no guarantee the Great Lakes will always exist.

Wealthier LA neighborhoods use on average three times as much water

As California faces a major water shortage, a new analysis shows wealthier Los Angeles neighborhoods use much more water:

Residents in communities such as La Canada Flintridge, Newport Beach, Malibu and Palos Verdes all used more than 150 gallons of water per capita per day in January. By contrast, Santa Ana used just 38 gallons and communities in Southeast L.A. County used less than 45.

Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring a 25% cut in water consumption, upscale communities are scrambling to develop stricter laws that will work where years of voluntary standards have not. Many believe it’s going to take a change in culture as well as city rules to hit the goal…

High water use by upscale cities is about more than lifestyle. These communities tend to have fewer apartments and less dense housing. The dwellings tend to be larger and include sprawling grounds in need of water. The UCLA study found that owners of single-family homes often over-water when restrictions are not in place.

One suggestion I’ve seen in multiple places is that municipal water in the United States is much too cheap so rates should be raised to help customers think twice. Yet, this cost wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance to wealthier residents as the wealthy can move more easily or purchase water from elsewhere. Additionally, using more water may just be seen as a necessary part of life, particularly if they see water usage as part of the good or high status life with amenities like fountains and pools or it is tied to property values. Does this mean we need regressive water rates that can be adjusted for different income levels so that the prices can properly prompt second thoughts?

More broadly, this hints at one of the less-discussed benefits of being wealthy: paying less attention to basic needs for resources like electricity, water, and gas or natural gas. Plus, they may have opportunities to profit off these resources – such as through investing in energy companies or influencing local design-making – in ways that lower or middle class residents cannot.