Less than Zero: Miscounting California’s Water Supplies
California likes to pretend the water in its rivers and the water in underground aquifers are different sources, completely isolated from each other. It’s official legal and political policy in the state.
But as ProPublica and Matter point out in their final installment of a series on the Colorado River, this bureaucratic disconnect is having a devastating effect on the state’s water supplies and its ability to manage the current drought.
“If you don’t connect the two, then you don’t understand the system,” said John Bredehoeft, a hydrogeologist who for years managed the U.S. government’s western states water program for the U.S. Geological Survey. “And if you don’t understand the system, I don’t know how in the hell you’re going to make any kind of judgment about how much water you’ve got to work with.”
That’s a problem anytime, and especially during the current drought. No solutions are coming soon, as California’s groundwater management law, adopted just last year, doesn’t take full effect until 2025.
Tiered Water Rates Under Fire as Conservation Tool
The battle over water rates just got cranked up a notch with the filing of a class-action lawsuit against three major water providers in Southern California.
The case asserts that tiered rates unfairly penalize customer who use more water, alleging this violates Proposition 218. It was filed by Mark Coziahr, a ratepayer in the Otay Water District, against that district along with the San Diego County Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Prop. 218, approved by voters in 1996, requires government agencies to seek voter approval for any fee increases. This includes utility bills. The law says government agencies can charge fees only equal to the actual cost of providing a service.
Coziahr’s lawsuit asserts that tiered rates violate the law because they increase according to how much water a customer uses, not actual cost to the water agency.
The lawsuit follows a recent ruling against a similar rate structure in San Juan Capistrano, and another class-action case recently filed in Marin County.
Tiered rates have long been a useful conservation tool for many water agencies, because they effectively target customers where it hurts most: In the wallet. But these cases suggest water agencies may have to find other tools to encourage conservation.
One answer might be the flow restrictor. Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News sheds light on this tool, a simple piece of hardware that water agencies can slap on the water line of wasteful customers. The device restricts water flow into a home or business from the typical 18 gallons per minute to just 5 gallons. This still provides plenty of water to live on, but not enough for wasteful activities that require high flow, such as washing cars and sidewalks.
Most water agencies have flow restrictors at their disposal to crack down on water wasters. But few use them, preferring a path of education instead.
Is Nature Fighting Back In California?
National news media love to portray California as a disrupted place, where strange phenomena are the order of the day. Whether the subject is politics, business or culture, California is where weird things happen.
So it was no surprise to see this headline in the Washington Post Monday morning: “Drought-stricken California is burning, flooding at the same time.” It goes on to summarize how landscapes stricken by drought are going up in flames — with fire jumping an interstate, torching cars and homes — followed quickly by a downpour from tropical storm Dolores that flooded neighborhoods and swept away a bridge on a different interstate.
This piece on Mashable, gets into the game, too. But it mercifully points out that this spat of rain, though it has caused some minor flooding, won’t do a thing to reverse the drought.
What these articles don’t say is that none of this is out of the ordinary in the state. As we point out in our Water Deeply backgrounder on the state’s water supply, California encompasses a swath of land equivalent to the distance from Chicago to Atlanta. So it’s no surprise conditions might vary across its length.
Environmentally and climatologically, California is the most diverse state in America. That’s why we can have simultaneous disasters that might seem incongruous in other states. It’s also one reason why our water problems are so difficult to solve.