html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: The answers are "less, and more expensive."

Monday, January 14, 2008

The answers are "less, and more expensive."

It isn’t easy to be a water district these days. Water shortages are hitting some of them now and they’re the ones who have to tell people. Water districts deal with specific projects and real people and attitudes in real time. From the lofty position of a state agency, one can opine grandly about trends and inevitabilities. But water districts have to make concrete decisions about how to provide water and they will hear plenty from their customers if the decisions aren’t what everyone is used to. Last year was a drought year; it was likely a herald for a new drier hydrology in California. Districts are looking at maxed-out water supplies and the news that there isn’t more available at the prices they have always paid. But their customers don’t like hearing that water districts cannot create water in their pipes and faucets.

In this LA Times article*, the Eastrn Municpal Wtr District has told a proposed warehouse and associated community that the district does not have enough water to serve them.
The planned distribution center for the footwear firm Skechers USA would rise on 1.7 million square feet in the Inland Empire, making it one of the largest warehouses in the United States. It would anchor a new community called Rancho Belago**, a variation of the Italian for "beautiful lake," after nearby Lake Perris reservoir.

Now, in a sign of growing water anxieties, the Skechers warehouse and six other large projects in western Riverside County are on hold until March or later because the local water agency could not promise to deliver water to serve them.The dilemma shows what can happen when construction and global trade, key drivers of the regional economy, are reined in by a potential lack of water.

"Just looking at the raw numbers, we kept coming up short," said David J. Slawson, president of the board of directors of the Perris-based Eastern Municipal Water District, one of the largest districts in the state.

This distresses the local building industry and business leaders, who worry this threatens continued development. I would think that major corporations would be glad to find out there isn’t water to serve their 1.7M square foot warehouse before they build it, but apparently they resent hearing that limiting factors exist in the physical world. The water district wants to serve them. It is doing on a district scale what the entire state is going to have to do. They’re looking at the total amount of water they control and thinking about shifting it between uses. They’re hoping to pick up new supplies from a wholesaler. They’re scrounging, trying to figure how they’re going to provide water as their population more than doubles.

UPDATE 4/22: Looks like they found water for the warehouse, by xeriscaping a proposed housing project.

In San Diego County, Valley Cntr Municpal Wtr District customers are not happy about cutbacks. They are so not happy that they are threatening to stop paying their water bills if the district approves new developments.

"There has been a fairly common response to the calls for voluntary conservation, and that has essentially been: 'Why should we conserve just so youcan sell water meters so developers can build new homes?' " Valley Cntr Municpal Wtr District's general manager, G4ry 4r4nt, said in a Dec. 17 report to the board of directors.

So far, angry customers haven't banded together in opposition, but 4r4nt and Rainbw Municpal Wtr District Manager D4ve S*ymour said this week that their agencies have been bombarded with calls from individuals arguing that it was unfair for districts to issue new meters during drought conditions.

I’m sympathetic, sortof. Agricultural water users, which is most of the people in that district, are facing mandatory 30% cuts, which will cost them some of their orchards and livelihoods. Why should they reduce their water use to accommodate new development? Well, because people are coming; 1.5 million more people will live in San Diego County by 2050. Valley Cntr Municpal Wtr District is also doing in microcosm what the whole state will have to do. They’re shifting water from agricultural uses to urban uses and begging urban users to conserve. Only it isn’t an abstract trend for them. They have to hear about it from disgruntled people, their own customers and neighbors. They will know, specifically, what less water means to the people they live among.

Water districts don’t have a lot of the authority to make the changes they want. They aren’t the first line of land-use decision-making; all they can do is inform the county planning commission about their supplies. They can’t directly regulate customer water use. They can raise prices, but only to cover their own costs. They aren’t allowed to make a profit; most water district bylaws forbid that. The district boards are elected from the district. Even necessary price increases can cost directors their seats. They can’t refuse to serve people that are already in the district. If they have any excess water, they are obligated to serve new customers who ask for district service. They have very little direct authority to make people use less water. They also don’t have much power to get more water. They can’t grow new rivers. They can try to buy from a wholesaler, but even the big wholesalers are just about fully committed and expecting cutbacks. They can try to look for unconventional new sources, like buying from ag in northern California. That is so complex as to be barely possible. It may be their only option, but it is not an easy one.

Yeah. Water districts are in a rough place. It is a good time to watch them, because need will have them improvising like crazy. Rainbw Municpal Wtr District Manager S*ymour said
"I don't have all the answers, but if we don't see an end to this current drought, we are all going to have to find out what the answers are pretty quick."

Best of luck to you, mister. I’m watching to see what you’ll do.

UPDATE: Another example of a district heading out on the path we'll all be walking soon. They're installing irrigation systems that talk to local weather stations to decide how much to water the landscaping that day. They cost, but for big users of urban water I think the payback period on those is just a few years.

*The title of that article is particularly bad. “Water laws may throttle growth”? The problem isn’t that there are laws requiring districts to assess their supplies before committing them. The problem is that there is ONLY SO MUCH WATER IN THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA DESERT. Not having water should stop growth, unless you are fond of building houses that will stand empty when no water comes out of the tap. Building houses does not draw rain down from the sky, nor open springs to fill reservoirs nor summon the unicorns with cold pure streams gushing from their horns.

**The developers of Rancho Belago are not helping their cause much with these pictures of their proposed development. Folks, western Riverside is a desert. Look in the middleground of that picture. See how it is brown, no vegetation? That means desert. You should propose water efficient developments. Also, I don’t mean to get all nitpicky, but that golf course in the foreground? It sure looks like that is on an alluvial fan, just like the ones across the valley, which means that the very ground was born by sliding down the mountain. If you use your top-secret decoder ring for Naturespeak, this means YOU ARE IN THE PATH OF LANDSLIDES. If you crank your decoder ring one more time, it translates to DO NOT PUT HOUSES THERE!


Blogger Noel said...

Awesome post. It reminds me so much of Perth, Australia, from the scenery to the problems. In Perth, and I assume Cali, people still think they're just living in a hotter version of England, and therefore every garden should be lush and green the whole year round. But go to the edge of city and all you'll see is sand and scrub. Every year there are water restrictions in summer, and yet morons continue to water their lawn in the middle of day (but this is ok, 'cause their water comes from a bore, drawing from the same aquifer the rest of Perth gets its water from.)

The deal on water meters is hilarious and sad. At least everyone has them in Perth, unlike the UK. We just pay a flat fee for water here -- leave your tap on the whole day and it won't cost a penny more. The water companies, however, are quite keen to install them and will do so free if asked.

3:11 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Also, next time, in addition to obscuring the participants names you should render the quotes in lolcat/l33tspeak.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Quick question or two, not because I'm trying to nitpick or disagree, but because I'm from New England and you never hear about water issues in local news.

You say that, "Last year was a drought year; it was likely a herald for a new drier hydrology in California." Can you expand on that? I mean isn't a single drought year statistically insignificant in determining longer trends? Or are you putting forward that new trend from other data/observations that are non-obvious to someone like me who doesn't follow these things? (Or am I misunderstanding the parlance, and as you discuss later in the post the real issue is with a relatively stable water supply for the area being put under monotonically increasing populace pressures?)

I've just been wondering, because the confluence of a media global warming zeitgeist and a lot of drought stories last year gave many, "oh no, county X in the west or South East is out of water this summer, and it will probably continually get worse in the coming years." It'd be nice to hear where those predictions are coming from (at least in the case of the area where you are familiar with.)

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Spike said...

"I'm in ur waterbordz, raisin' ur prices. Can I has conservation?"

6:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a relatively young guy, looking for a place to put roots down. I live in S/an Dieg0 (while we're googleproofing) currently. While I wouldn't mind staying in the area for a few years for family reasons, Megan's pinpointed the reason that I will not buy a house here. Where's the water going to come from? -K.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Noel. Yep. The Myth of the English Garden is a huge barrier we need to get over.

Metered water use is the huge first step. It is inevitable, I think. Get yours for free; once they are mandatory, districts usually make the customers pay for installation, at $400-500 per meter.

And lolcat would be awesome.

Bill - the consensus out of climate change modeling is that California is due for about %10 less water overall, and a shift in distribution patterns. I'll know more about it after I go to this. Lat year's drought may be coincidence or it may be the leading edge, but it looks like the future is going to look like.

(I'm about to get proficient in the climate change literature for CA. When I know it better, I'll summarize it for you.)

-K - You're better off in a city; they have the clout to get water from less powerful regions. Everyone will have less and everyone will pay more for it. But we'll have enough to meet health and safety and a little bit more for everyone.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Also, the googleproofing was silly; the folks from Skecher's hq have already dropped by.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

Ah, a post after my own heart. SB 221/610 starts to have some bite. If anybody wants the legal explanation of what's happening, I might ask Megan to put up a guest post. In short, there's a linkage between long term water supply planning and land use planning set forth in Water Code section 10910 and in the California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code section 21000 et seq.

Megan, if you haven't done so already, you should read AB 32 before going to the conference and check up on what CARB is doing these days. How the County of San Bernardino changes its General Plan in response to the settlement with the Attorney General, and the inevitable litigation that will follow those changes, should be verrrry interesting.


11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That Rancho Belago thing is strange. It kind of seems like they are just renaming an existing part of town to rebrand it as upscale. I think it makes some sense to put the golf course on the alluvial fan, though, right? I mean if it goes anywhere.

And what's going on with that third picture in the slide show? Are they trying to sell this as an upscale urban community that also does Ag.? And what is that stuff? Maybe wheat, or some other small grain? It looks pretty short to be that yellow.

By the way, I was browsing the CA DWR web page today, and that Irrigation Management Information System stuff is all over it. Or at least the parts that I was looking for. Never heard of it before, and twice in one day.


12:24 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

A4 - Good eye. That looks like winter wheat to me. I bet the three months of wheat are the only time that landscape looks that green.

Yeah, you're right. A golf course is a pretty unobtrusive use of an alluvial fan. But what is downhill from it?

12:51 PM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

"Well, because people are coming; 1.5 million more people will live in San Diego County by 2050"

Well, yeah, no they won't if there is no water, but I know where you are coming from on this... The problem is nobody wants to ask the real question: "When is water capacity maxed." As you have said, water managers can get ousted for talking crazy talk like: "This is the amount of water we can obtain for the foreseeable future, so we cannot provide more taps."
'We can always get more water from somewhere.' Right up until you can't.

Water was always going to be the limiting feature in the growth of the southwest, but no-one thought it would ever come...

1:39 PM  
Blogger 無名 - wu ming said...

this is also a great metaphor for the growing contradiction between peaked global oil production and an economic model based on infinite linear growth.

in both cases, we're fortunate to be so wasteful a society that a lot of the uses of both finite resources can be made more efficient without catastrophic ripple effects.

for a while, at least.

first thing that needs to go are lawns that aren't being played upon regularly, on medians and in strip mall landscaping.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

We hates lawns.

But we love playing fields.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Call me a crazy libertarian, but isn't this the type of thing that gets solved through something resembling market pricing, albeit with a bit of grumbling and possibly some regulated efficiency? When water is cheap/free, a lot of it gets used for pointless purposes. Make it cost a little, and the small number of people that use huge amounts will use less in rough accordance to how pointless their use is. Then require everyone to use low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads and waterfree urinals and only water their lawn at night to deal with the millions of people who can't be bothered to save $50 a year.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I don't think pricing water to reflect its full cost is crazy libertarianism. I think it is a good first step. But people have set up lifestyles that depend on water being under-priced, and they defend that ferociously.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

1.7 million square feet = a whole s***load of sneakers.

It's been theorized that people like golf courses because way way down in our subconscious minds they remind us of the African savannas where the first humans arose. Could something similar exist with respect to our preference for lawns?

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...


The pricing of water in California is a tremendously complex problem, based in large part on the State's water rights system.

In Imperial County (lower right-hand corner of the State, due east of San Diego), the farmers conveyed the water rights they owned to Colorado River water to a governmental organization, the Imperial Irrigation District. Over the years, IID claimed that it OWNED the right to receive 3.3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, because its farmers were taking that much water from the river in the early 1900s.

The federal government usually defers to state law on water rights. So when the federal government built dams that interfered with Colorado River flows, the feds essentially had to promise to release that 3.3 MAF to IID on IID's demand.

Up and down the Central Valley, where people grow rice in a desert, again the farmers claim that their water rights entitle them to get access to their property -- massive flows of water from big rivers.

Also, California's Central Valley is literally some of the most productive farmland anywhere in the world. As the global population rises, maybe it's a good idea for the state to keep that land in ag and not turn it into condos. (although the recent crash in real estate will do far more to save farmland than any state policy.)

This is not to say that farmers are blameless. The original water rights doctrine said use it or lose it. The farmers are now claiming that they can "use" their water by selling it to urban districts. So we find ourselves in a situation in which farmers claim that the federal government has the obligation to deliver them ultra-cheap water, which the farmers then flip to urban districts and pocket the difference.

That's not a problem with pricing; that's a problem with the law.

10:27 AM  
Blogger 無名 - wu ming said...

while some of the central valley's pretty arid, the part that grows rice gets about 18" or so of rain a year, most of it in the winter and spring. it's not a whole lot of rainfall, but it's not a desert either.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Pete said...

That looks like a super-cool seminar series. Climate chage science has come a long way in the last few years. You can see it pretty dramatically if you scan the 2007 and 2001 IPCC reports.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

The Myth of the English Garden is a huge barrier we need to get over.

Yeah, I call it the Thomas Kincade fetish.

first thing that needs to go are lawns that aren't being played upon regularly, on medians and in strip mall landscaping.

Our house is new construction. When we bought it, it already had a front lawn installed, but not a back. That's typical. We had no options regarding the front lawn -- it was grass, whatever type of grass the developer chose (I assume one of the more drought-resistent varieties, but still). And the lawn slopes so as to be completely unusable. I would greatly prefer crushed rock or some other xeriscape, but apparently that's just not done here. It might not even be allowed by the city.

I don't know how much water this would save, but it's something.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pictures of proposed site in Rancho B? The area in the pictures that they're showing is already developed, the homes and the golf course has been there since the 80s, there are also newer homes and lots of land as you can see there too. It stays green if the seasons are on track about 6 months out of the year unless there is no rain of course, like most anywhere in SoCal if there's no rain there's no green, it even snows a couple times a year because of the higher elevation. It's not in a desert, I lived in Palm Springs CA that is a desert, it's in the Badlands a rugged mountain region. The foothills there shown in the pix are on rocky mountains unlike the ones you see afar. It's very pretty, it would be nice if they just kept it rural and not build it up too much.

1:02 AM  

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