Permanent water conservation

Posted on | November 22, 2009 | 11 Comments

Graphic: Los Angeles TimesCalifornia did it. This month, the Legislature passed a package of bills that includes a statewide urban water conservation goal of 20% by 2020. We have confronted the kind of conservation that will be needed to secure the water supply of Los Angeles, and the state, in the face of population growth and climate change. Or have we? It all depends on where you put the goal posts.

To keep reading today’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on permanent water conservation, click here.

Correction: In citing projected population growth by 2020 for Southern California in this article, I quoted predictions as high as 43%. That was incorrect. The correct figure for Southern California as forecast in 1998 by the California Department of Housing and Community Development is 13.8% and for state-wide growth 48.3%. I greatly regret the error. Please see the comment string for more discussion of the statistics in the article.


11 Responses to “Permanent water conservation”

  1. Donald Loze
    November 22nd, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    Your very interesting article raises another question that you might examine and report in another article. Thanks.

    What is the economic impact to the Water Company’s and their cities by the water savings.

    That is;

    If 17.86 billion gallons of water were saved in Los Angeles this year from Jume to November, then the DWP had some amount of Revenue Decrease from that. What is the number? How does that project through the year?

    As the LA City fund is to receive 8% of DWP’s revenue to the City General Fund., doesn’t that decrease Funds available to the City Budget?
    How much will that be in dollars and what result on other services?

    As the DWP is planning expenditures for Renewable energy where will those funds come from?

    Does this cause a need to increase DWP rates?

    What will be the impact of change upward of rates to individuals?

  2. Sanford Scholton
    November 22nd, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    About the only place I disagree with your article is that you make it sound like we had this big dip in water usage due to city mandates. In actuality, we had one of the coolest summers on record! To give cities and water agencies credit for a very poor education and pubic policy choices (largely devoid of science involving water usage) is harmful. It makes it sound like next time, during a normal summer, we will get the same kind of savings. We won’t – not with the publicity and science that was used this time.
    I wonder if the DWP actually had any revenue decrease. If you remember they penalized anybody using more than their tier one levels (minus 15%). Since many people actually tried to follow the two day schedule and saw their lawns dying, those who could afford it bumped up their usage. If you had sandy soil, you had no choice but to water the heck out of your lawn or cheat (as most of my neighbors did) and water on more days. I think the two day policy was devoid of any science and actually caused water waste. It only benefited their pockets. Granted the publicity did help reduce by some amount the total water used, but certainly not by the amounts they give themselves credit for.
    Furthermore, to base water usage rates on zip codes (which tend to run north/south) instead of actual temperatures, means that people in micro climates suffer while those in the fog belt can abuse their water rights. Santa Ana winds do not follow zip codes. They flow East to West.
    All in all, the think the DWP policy was highly flawed and designed for their convience. I doubt that in a normal summer it would be successful.

  3. EmilyGreen
    November 24th, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    John Hopgood makes this point in a comment that I suspect ended up on the wrong post (, possibly due to a cyber blip. It is:

    “80% of the water in California is used by farmers for agriculture.
    Why is it that only the cities and individuals are asked to conserve?
    Aren’t there better methods of irrigation that farms can use?”

    To which I responded:

    Hi John, good point helped all the more by being true. It’s not just cities being asked to conserve, though there are many good arguments to be made that farms should conserve more than cities. The problem is that, regardless of the waste by agriculture, we in cities also waste roughly a quarter of our water supply on landscaping alone. This has many harmful impacts — low reservoirs concentrate pollutants and leave us without emergency reserves. The run-off from cities is killing the Pacific. West Nile is a 100% elective seasonal killer that breeds in sprinkler run-off. It’s in our best interest to conserve, and nothing about our doing the right thing gives agriculture a pass for doing the wrong one. I hope that helps. Thanks for writing.

  4. EmilyGreen
    November 24th, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    And from Adan Ortega, Jr, a former VP at MWD and presently head of the water committee of the California Board of Food and Agriculture, comes this comment:

    Another factor is that most of the water agriculture uses is returned to streams and rivers or is absorbed by groundwater aquifers. By focusing on the volume of water agriculture uses we fail to address the quality of the water that is returned to the environment. Additionally, wIth less water in the system overall, California farmers are beginning to see higher salt levels in soil from the use of low-pressure conservation devices such as drip irrigation, leading to lower crop yields (and higher food prices eventually)… And like Emily wrote, even if cities took that water, what would we do with it other than create more problems for ourselves?

    To see original, go to:

  5. Jim Valentine
    November 24th, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    Emily’s catalogue of various water conservation achievements by cities throughout the Southland for 2009, rolls out a welter of statistics which blurs rather than clarifies the big picture. The simple way to quantify actual savings for the entire region under review would conclude by calculating a TOTAL population-weighted average rather than only listing the savings rate separately for each urban entity (Beverly Hills, Glendale, Los Angeles, Palmdale, etc.).

    Such a calculation would involve measuring average per capita use in terms of gallons-per-capita-per-day (GPCD) for each city. Per capita water use in the context of urban conservation includes “indoor” domestic use: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning, bathing, cooking and drinking plus outdoor residential use: landscaping, maintaining pools and spas, etc. Emily implicitly incorporates the GPPD method when DWP customers are credited with saving 17.6 billion from June 1 to date, “enough water to supply 400,000 people for a year.” A quick application of the proper arithmetic reveals that the baseline is 120 gallons per person daily (400,000 X 120 X365 = 17.6 billion.)

    If the 120 GPCD represents a realistic baseline for 2010, then in order to comply with the Sacramento mandate to cut statewide urban water use by 20% by 2020, 80% of the baseline of 120 gallons will require a statewide average per capita consumption of 96 gallons per day by 2020.

    Perhaps because of an oversight, Emily greatly overstates projections for population growth in “The Southland” for the period 2010 to 2020 –“as much as 43%.”
    California Department of Finance projections for the combined growth of Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County and Ventura County reflect only an 11.37% increase from 19,015,024 in 2010 to 21,177,113 in 2010. (Total state population is projected to rise from 39,135,676 to 44,135,923, a 12.78% increase for the same period.)

    Ironically, Emily misses a golden opportunity to show how California’s rapid population growth will quickly erode or negate water conservation measures. Even with a 20% reduction implemented by 2020, population growth will result in a net savings of only 10% over 2010. If state population reaches 60 million by 2050 as expected, count on a gloomy future which will be both insufferably austere and arid – and perhaps not a future at all.

  6. Jim Valentine
    November 24th, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Correction: 11.37% increase from… in 2010 to…
    in 2010 should read (OF COURSE)… in 2010… to 2020

    Sorry J. V.

  7. EmilyGreen
    November 25th, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    Jim, (if I may),

    First class nitpicking. Thank you for your comments, which while addressed past me, I am answering directly.

    I accept without reservation any help interpreting water statistics.

    I also accept that using the gallons per capita per day is ideally the simpler measure. SB7, the bill mandating 20% by 2020, demands it be used. May it be functional by 2020.

    While, as you point out, it would have been more clarifying to use it in comparing regional savings in 2009, I did not for three reasons.

    First, the cities canvassed did not necessarily have the information in that format, or they elected not to make it available. I used the information supplied to me, which came in many different forms — percentages against baseline was the only common one.

    Second cities did not and still do not necessarily calculate the GPCD the same way, making it a case of apples and oranges. It is presently a fickle measure that requires systematizing and SB7 goes on about that need.

    Three, you arrive at your 20% reduction figure using Los Angeles as an example. The reduction must be adjusted for climate zones, which vary wildly within Southern California. Ultimate GPCD goals will, logically, be lower in cool places and higher in hotter ones.

    You are correct that I was mistaken in the 43% projected growth. The projected population figures came from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. In fact, on checking, I see that I understated them, not as an oversight, but a typo. The HCD figure is not 43% but 48.3%.

    That said, on reflection, I regret using the figure for the simple reason that a Ouija board might have been just as accurate. I could not find figures that adjusted population growth for the current recession, which I suspected would lower the rise somewhat. With the benefit of hindsight and your chiding, I see that I could and possibly should have withheld any number, other than to say all trends indicate strong growth.

    While we are both indulging our inner pedants, please rest assured that I did not “miss” the opportunity, golden or otherwise, to show how population quickly erodes or negates conservation, and there was nothing “ironic” about it (if irony indeed means something happening in the opposite way as intended.)

    The central thesis, which you all but ignore, was that we could do more than we are being asked to do.

    I appreciate your writing and welcome what looks like mathematical and analytical competency, even prowess.

    That said, if you could canvas the cities and gauge their savings more clearly and efficiently than I did, and if it is so very easy, please, enlighten us!


  8. Jim Valentine
    November 26th, 2009 @ 2:03 am

    Emily, please accept my apologies for any breach of blogging etiquette. There is no disagreement between you and me on the imperative to redouble individual efforts to conserve water consistent with the 20X2020 goal mandated by Bill SB7.

    With your permission – two quick points of clarification:

    1) Apparently you scanned the wrong data column in coming up with the 48.3% projection for population growth in the Southland for the period 2010 to 2020. This column is labeled PERCENT OF STATE CHANGE and indicates what percentage of TOTAL state population growth is accounted for by the growth in Southern California. Look under the column heading immediately to the left labeled PERCENT POPULATION CHANGE which contains the data relevant to your claim; namely, 13.8%. Based on the 2009 data I consulted, I came up with 11.37% projected population growth for the Big Five counties for the 2010-2020 period. (Although located on the website for California Department of Housing and Community Development the source is quoted as: California Department of Finance, County Population Projections…December 1998)

    2) The “irony” I broached does in fact flow from the doublethink that so many environmentalists, me included, bring to issues concerning resource consumption and conservation in ecosystems succumbing to the pressures and disruptions of human overpopulation. We Californians tell ourselves that we are ardently conserving water for the sake of the natural environment when in fact the principal trend we are “sustaining,” actually encouraging, is infinite population growth and the illusion of infinite economic growth, turning over our liquid savings to new arrivals who come by way of the birth canal or national or international migration. If we fail to stabilize and thereafter reduce human numbers in the coming decades (perhaps through land use planning) then California will try to host a population of 60+ million souls by mid century. And probably fail.

    Best Wishes.

  9. EmilyGreen
    November 26th, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Dear Jim,

    I see my mistake. You are absolutely right on the population figure. I have already alerted my editor at the LA Times that a correction may be in order and will write her confirming that. I will also append a correction to the post. Thank you.

    I greatly regret the error.

    About those conservation numbers, and my piqued tone in responding to you: It was not lack of etiquette that got my hackles up, it was the assertion that I muddied the conservation statistics.

    If they can be presented more simply, please show me how. Here is what I did. If it can be done better, then being called to the mat is all for the better.

    I set out months ago to find the answer to what then seemed a straightforward if big question: How did various conservation approaches throughout the Southland do in actual savings this summer? I began ringing the 26 MWD member agencies to ask. As I began canvassing water districts, I soon found that the answer was anything but simple.

    The start dates for conservation programs were all over the place, as were the requirements of the programs, which varied from helpful hints to legally binding ordinances. Most started during or after the record low rainfall year of 2006-07. Of the agencies able to report, the results came back in a mishmash of percentages, GPCDs, metrics measures, imperial (acre feet).

    Given the inconsistencies in the ways that GPCDs are calculated, ie: that they were not necessarily inclusive of civic and industrial water, I avoided them. I saw when writing the article and still see no other option than to use a selection of the savings reported to me in the single format that was consistent (% of savings against baseline before conservation measures began).

    The canvassing started in September. By the time SB7 passed with the 20×2020 mandate passed on November 4th or thereabouts, and I saw from the bill that the slack in the start date from 2004 to 2010 would essentially lose all the savings that had been reported to me from various conservation programs initiated since the record dry year of 2006-07. That was a shock.

    Given the telltale greenness of August lawns and gutters still running over in dry season in spite of the austerity measures, I saw no reason that the Southland couldn’t continue with the “drought” measures aimed at behavior modification while proceeding with the hardwired, plumbing-based changes planned by agencies. If we did both things, continuing with drought measures and steadily replumb our system, then it was very conceivable that we could closer to a 30-40% reduction and staunch run-off into the Pacific.

    That became the germ of the article.

    I agree with you about the other points to do with population and limits to our resources, but that was not my thesis. I see no way to achieve meaningful discussion about where we are now and what we need to do to avert catastrophic failure if we don’t get people engaged, at first through small cultural changes, such as allowing lawn to go brown, or even removing it.

    I share your opinion about the un-sustainibility of even the lower forecast for population growth, particularly in the face of what look to be inevitably shrinking fresh water reserves.

    Embarrassing as the population rise error is, I cannot bring myself to dismiss or allow others to denigrate the work on the results achieved this fall to do with assessing various conservation achievements, which I have checked and re-checked. Not all of the agencies deigned to report, which was infuriating. I plan to finish the canvassing of the agencies and hope to create a kind of league table. I am absolutely willing to start over if someone gives me a better way of doing it. If you have one that can reconcile the problem with the GPCDs, please let me know. In the best possible world, MWD would do this as a matter of course.

    Why do it? Because I fundamentally disagree with water managers, who believe that they can achieve meaningful conservation while hiding the savings mechanisms from the users. Homeowners, businesses and public agencies that use low flow toilets and showers can still drain our water supplies on their lawns, car-washing, pavement hosing and can and are killing the Pacific with their run-off. They can and are failing to appreciate the need for population control, low impact development ordinances and at a guess are also left helpless in parsing the worthiness of the multi-billion dollar water bond to put to the public next November.

    Obviously, misinformation is not helpful and I am very grateful that you spotted my error. Why did I make it? Eyestrain, over-emphasis on the conservation figures and not enough care on the too casually deployed statistic used for emphasis about population pressure. That, and I have spent too long in Southern Nevada, 48.3% population growth in a decade seems normal.

    Thank you for writing. I’ve enjoyed arguing with you, though frankly I would have enjoyed it more if it didn’t involve admitting an embarrassing error.

    Happy Thanksgiving -EG

  10. Jim Valentine
    November 26th, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    Emily, thank you for your superb investigative reporting and tireless efforts to inform the public about vital water resource issues playing out in California. Don’t let the naysayers get you down even while you can appreciate why sometimes we all lose faith in the system and perhaps in human nature. You are right to believe that complex social change can only take place in small, incremental, pragmatic steps. Thank you for helping us to make those steps.

    In Appreciation, Jim

  11. Sanford Scholton
    December 2nd, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Hi Emily,
    You said, “Why do it? Because I fundamentally disagree with water managers, who believe that they can achieve meaningful conservation.”
    I go back to my original statement. I don’t think that they water managers have achieved meaningful conservation. I think the weather has done it for them. If they are allowed to think that there policies (based more on their convenience, than anything [my opinion]), actually achieved what they think it achieved – then we will never get the kind of change that you are talking about.
    What will be interesting, and may prove me wrong will be the next statistics for the fall. If it is close to a normal fall, and if the water usage also follows the same percent reduction as the summer (compared to the prior years). Then their policies probably made a difference. However, if the reduction is not as great, then the weather made a difference, and not a change in the public’s habits.
    Either way, I agree that there is a lot more that they could be doing.

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