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.

Approaching drastic water rationing in Sao Paulo

One downside of rapid urban growth is illustrated in Brazil where drastic water rationing may start soon:

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people, the main reservoir is at just 6 percent of capacity with the peak of the rainy season now past…

After January rains disappointed, and incentives to cut consumption fell short, São Paulo officials warned their next step could be to shut off customers’ water supply for as many as five days a week – a measure that would likely last until the next rainy season starts in October, if not longer.

State officials say they have not yet decided whether or when to implement such rationing, in part because they are still hoping for heavy rains in February and March. Indeed, thunderstorms in recent days have caused lakes to rise a bit.

Still, independent projections suggest that São Paulo’s main Cantareira reservoir could run out of water as soon as April without drastic cuts to consumption.

While this problem may seem far away, I imagine numerous big cities around the world would face major problems in addressing a shortage of certain resources if something “out of the ordinary” – whether weather or changing political conditions – occurred. Wealthier big cities are expected at the most basic level to have water, electricity, sewers, and other features of modern infrastructure but these could be threatened by a variety of factors. And while the article notes that residents and institutions are scrambling to meet the crisis, cities should have some sort of long-term planning for some of these foreseeable issues.

Modern wonder: NYC’s water system

Here is a look at the vast system that keeps pumping clean water flowing in New York City:

The pipes that carry this life-giving force are largely invisible to New York’s thirsty masses. (Here’s a great map.) The system includes 19 reservoirs nestled in the rolling hills and mountains, draining a sprawling 1.2 million-acre watershed; three controlled lakes; 300 miles of underground thruways, including one that burrows 1,100 feet underneath the Hudson River; and thousands of miles of thin pipe under New York’s streets. Together, they deliver fresh, potable water to 8.4 million people in New York City and another 1 million people upstate…

The system emerged as a matter of necessity. “New York City developed this water system because it was unlucky,” says Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian and authority on New York City. “It couldn’t could take water out of the rivers, because the Hudson is salty all the way up to Poughkeepsie.” In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city’s growing number of residents relied on wells, water brought in on ships, and spring-fed ponds like the Collect (near what is now Foley Square), which quickly turned into dumping grounds for sewage and garbage. The fetid waters helped spawn the cholera epidemic of 1832, which killed more than 3,500 residents. And the absence of significant water sources in city streets thick with wooden buildings led to a series of disastrous fires. After the Great Fire of 1835, which consumed about 700 structures, municipal leaders were moved to act…

Built at a time when the city’s population stood at about 200,000, the Croton system served well until the early 1900s. By then, New York’s population soared to more than 3 million, thanks to immigration, expansion, and the annexation of the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the early 20th century, the city expanded the system to develop new resources in the Catskills. The Ashokan Reservoir, whose creation required the submerging of seven villages, came into service in 1915. A system of pipes and canals were constructed to ferry water via the Catskill Aqueduct 92 miles to the Kensico and Hillview Reservoirs in Westchester—including a circular tunnel with a diameter of 14 feet that goes 1,100 feet under the Hudson River near West Point. Water Tunnels No. 1 (completed in 1917) and No. 2 (completed in 1937) carried the water from Yonkers into Manhattan. Next came the Delaware system to the city’s northwest. Starting in the 1950s, vast pools of water created by damming tributaries of the Delaware River were fed into new infrastructure, including the Delaware Aqueduct, which at 82 miles is the longest continuous underground water tunnel in the world. Here, again, gravity does the work. The highest reservoirs are about 1,200 feet above sea level. And the volume of water pushing down through the pipes creates an enormous amount of power. Today, Bosch notes, “the pressure is so great that it can take it to the sixth floor of most boroughs without any pumping,” said Bosch.

The 500 miles of fat pipes upstate are augmented by 6,500 miles of narrower underground conduits that run underneath the five boroughs, from the crags of Riverdale to the distant, wave-tossed shores of the Rockaways. From the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers, right on the Bronx border, pipes plunge a few hundred feet into one of the three massive water tunnels that carry water to the south about 500 feet below ground level. Every 20 blocks or so, vertical tunnels sprout up to feed into trunk water mains, with a diameter of about a foot. Ultimately, they connect to buildings, whose pipes are private property.

It would be really difficult to have the #1 global city without a well-designed water system. Such planning and engineering may not get much attention in explaining New York City’s rise but it certainly had to be present. Interestingly, histories of Chicago tend to note the importance of reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that waste was sent downstream towards the Mississippi rather than into Lake Michigan where it polluted the water supply.

Threatening to cut off the NSA’s water supply in Utah

Here’s one way to fight a political battle against the NSA: consider stopping the flow of water to a facility you don’t like.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would shut off the water spigot to the massive data center operated by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah.

The legislation, proposed by Utah lawmaker Marc Roberts, is due to go to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives early next year, but it was debated in a Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. The bill, H.B. 161, directs municipalities like Bluffdale to “refuse support to any federal agency which collects electronic data within this state.”

The NSA brought its Bluffdale data center online about a year ago, taking advantage Utah’s cheap power and a cut-rate deal for millions of gallons of local water, used to cool the 1-million-square-foot building’s servers. Roberts’ bill, however, would prohibit the NSA from negotiating new water deals when its current Bluffdale agreement runs out in 2021.

The law seems like a long-shot to clear legislative hurdles when Utah’s legislature re-convenes next year, but Wednesday’s committee hearing was remarkable, nonetheless, says Nate Carlisle, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who has waged a fight with the NSA and Bluffdale officials to determine how much water the data center is actually using. “What’s noteworthy is no one on the panel said: ‘Hey, wait a minute, we can’t do this,’” he says. “They had some specific concerns about the language of the bill, but there was no outright opposition.”

All of this does suggest an interesting tactic in the arsenal of local governments yet I have a hard time imagining the possible outcomes. The federal government finds an independent water supply? There is a massive lawsuit about whether a local government can limit the water supply to a federal agency? The threat pushes the federal government to move their facilities elsewhere? The federal government ensures any new facility has much longer contracts for basic services? Regardless, I would guess this situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly.

Related thought: given serious droughts – like the one in California – could the government require a larger share of water to maintain “critical” functions over the needs of other users?