My work has someone who clips every California newspaper story that says the word ‘water’ and sends them to us. I read them every day, that being my profession and all. Every month I see two or three stories like this one
, about a small housing development up near Redding that is looking at new water bills of $3,000 per year. Or this one,
where a pumping station at Lake Castaic will cost $600,000 per year more than expected to pipe water to the Santa Clarita Valley. Or this
, where the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District is raising rates by about $20 per month to pass along increasing costs of electricity, imported water and operations.
I watch these stories with mixed feelings. I can’t help but worry for people who are about to see their cost of living go up. I simultaneously hope the price increases are enough to make people use less water. I wonder if prices are going up enough to convey to users the full costs of the resource use, and want all those externalities captured in the price they see. Mostly, though, I think that these stories are ones that show us what “unsustainable” will look like in the next few decades, as our standard of living contracts1
The practice that I am calling unsustainable in these examples is development beyond the limits of local resources to sustain that human population, especially as we’re about to enter a period of increasing variability in weather, shifts in distribution of water, and mostly likely, less water overall2
. People who grew up since World War II grew up in a time of extraordinary wealth, much of mined from low-entropy stocks like huge timber trees and easily accessible groundwater and easily accessible oil supplies. We’ve blown through those, scattered them in the form of plastic crap and things
, but we’ve come to expect the lifestyle that wealth supported. It is a reasonable expectation, what we have always known. But “not sustainable” is coming due, and what they’ve always known is getting more expensive.
People bought those ranchettes up in Redding3
because they wanted a house on a few acres of land in a remote area. The Santa Clarita Valley is full of people who are willing to trade hours of commuting to LA for a big new house. Same with Riverside . They wanted this dream, lots of people do, but we have reached the end of the cheap supplies. This same dream that was available for the past couple generation will now cost more, especially for them, but for all of us. We are approaching the physical limits of our ecosystem, and we’re going to start to see it in small trickles of increased costs. Then large increased costs. I think this is the mechanism that will slowly constrict our standard of living to about what our grandparents had when they were young. If it is slow, it’ll take a while to notice, but I think stories like these are the leading edge of a very hard readjustment.
It is happening first in the places that were always resource poor. Antelope Valley? Santa Clarita? Both Southern California arid valleys; they have negligible local water supplies and they are last in line for the developed supplies we move around the state. They can
get more. For lots of money, you can always get more water. But you’re buying the next increment of developed water, and you’re paying for pumping costs, which are steadily increasing. Maybe a household can absorb those new costs, a surprise extra few hundred dollars for water per year. But their own electricity bills are likely going up as well. And the gas to drive to LA and back every day isn’t getting any cheaper. And the cost of food is rising
as well, ‘cause transporting food is getting more expensive. Those increasing costs will eat into standards of living, and places that require lots of external support will feel those costs first4
That’s what I think climate change and unsustainable development will look like for the next couple decades: steadily increasing costs on all fronts. Water bill higher. Property taxes higher by a few hundred dollars for better levees
. Property taxes higher for increased fire protection. State taxes higher to pay bond measures for protecting infrastructure. Electricity bill higher and more need for thermal regulation. Gas more expensive. Everything that is transported a little more expensive. Because of climate change, in twenty more years it will be considerably more expensive to maintain your current level of comfort. Climate change will cost us, but the bill won’t be a lump sum labeled CLIMATE CHANGE. It’ll look like those decisions to raise rates, a little at a time. If people’s budgets are fixed, they will have less of everything else. And that is before the occasional large-scale catastrophe.
There are some options. Perhaps price pressures now will force people to use less energy. I don’t see enough of that now, though. Maybe the magic cheap, non-carbon dioxide emitting energy source will show up soon. The magic free energy would solve a lot of this, once we convert our systems to use it. But, you know, I usually bet with
the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so I don’t want to count on the magic cheap energy. Maybe there will be a lot fewer people, and any gentle way to get to that should be strongly supported. Maybe, in a burst of thoughtful planning, our society will re-design our transportation systems to greatly reduce emissions and people will spontaneously want less crap and want to live in smaller, denser housing and consume and waste less. That would be great. Any amount of that would be cheaper than what is coming our way if we don’t. 1
For several years I hated the word “unsustainable” because it didn’t seem to mean anything more than “something my hippie friends didn’t like”. Amongst ourselves we still use it to mean “most of the conventional practices of mainstream consumerist America that we last thought about in undergrad while we ate quinoa and made bodypaint out of turmeric”. Since lots and lots of conventional practices of mainstream America are, in fact, unsustainable, it works out OK. Still, I mostly try to describe exactly what I mean instead of using the “unsustainable” shorthand (depletion of stocks, exhaustion of sink capacity, accumulation of toxins until they reach dangerous thresholds, for example). But here, unsustainable – in the form of “can’t keep going like this” – is exactly what I mean. So I’m stuck with the word. 2
The only story I can tell with confidence is the water story. But I’ll speculate about how it will show up other aspects of the environment later. 3
There is simply not water enough under that Redding sub-division for two hundred households. They drank down what was there and now the water is below their wells. There is no more, yet people live there. What to do
? I see this happening in lots of ways in lots of places and I can’t figure out how to avert it. Who is responsible for this situation? The homebuyer, who moved into what looked like a regular house? Should the homebuyer look up the rate of groundwater depletion under her new house? Whether her new house is in a natural river sink and doomed in the next big flood? Whether it is on soils with naturally occurring asbestos? On a faultline? There is simply too much information for a homebuyer to process, and truth told, most don’t know how or want to.
So who? The city or county? The water district? When Contra Costa County approved an 11,000 house subdivision, East Bay MUD told them that the water district didn’t have water for 11,000 new houses. EBMUD tried to refuse service to the new development, but were forced to take on the new houses by an act of the state legislature
. (The state legislature also passed a law saying that subdivisions of 500 houses or more must get a will-serve letter from their water district, which led to a lot of 499 house subdivision.) So a water district cannot announce that they are at the limits of their water and prevent further growth. Cities and counties do have that authority, yet they have countervailing incentives (like new houses paying new property taxes) and they are demonstrably allowing building in places with foreseeable shortages or dangers. So it doesn’t seem like there is anyone to say NO
. No. We don’t have water for them. No. They’ll be twenty feet under water within six hours of a levee breach. No. Their children will get sick from the soils. NO. No.4
The rest of the state won’t be coming to help them out, either. The rest of the state is going to have its hands full in the next few decades, what with the billions of dollars in levee repairs and the highway repairs and the costs of keeping the Bay Area above the new sea level and the new reservoirs for the new hydrology and the more severe floods and fires.