Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Great Water Conservation Hoax

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

OK class, put down your pencils and pick up your latest East Bay MUD bill. You may need a calculator… especially if you’re not all that good at gauging proportions. You should notice a subcategory under “Water Charges” called “Drought Surcharge.” This surcharge is assessed in “units” or 738 gallon increments. Should you be so profligate in your consumption as to “over consume” almost 1,500 gallons of water you will be dinged a whopping $4.00 on your bimonthly statement.

Further down the page you’ll see two other categories: “Wastewater Charges - EBMUD“, and “City of Oakland Sewer Service.” These two should combine to over $70.00. The City of Oakland charge is a flat fee, irrespective of water consumption. The EBMUD charge is based on your water consumption. If you flushed your toilet once a day… but had a large lawn to keep green… you’ll be paying a lot for wastewater treatment… even though you really won’t be producing much in the way of wastewater. But who said life was fair?

The big overview here is that, when you pay your “water” bill… you’re mostly paying for sewage treatment. Increases in the cost of water due to periodic droughts are insignificant as a percentage of the bill. The dirty little secret is that when there is a “water emergency” Bay Area residents conserve to such a great degree that the local sewage districts have to flush their systems with fresh water… both to move some of the heavier solids and to dilute the effluent so it can be properly processed. But, there’s an even dirtier and not so little secret about water conservation. It’s meaningless. [Oh, those right wingers… they’re so full of crap.] There’s a man named William Kahrl… and he’s no right winger… but he is a skeptic when it comes to domestic water conservation. Who is he? He’s as close as anyone has come to being a guru to California hydrology. First, he edited The California Water Atlas for the State Department of Water Resources. Then, he wrote Water and Power (mostly about the LADWP) in 1982... Which was selected by the New York Times as one of the best books of that year.

Well, about 16 years ago Mr. Kahrl had an article in California Journal about the folly of domestic water conservation. In this article he laid out the simple math: In California, agriculture uses 85% of all water that is consumed by people. Of the remaining 15%, households consume 4% of the aggregate whole. The remaining 11% is used commercially and in landscape irrigation. By being compelled to use “low-flush” toilets, “low-flow” shower heads… and who knows what else… both compulsory and voluntary… should households reduce their water consumption by 25%, then… [now the calculation]… 25% of 4% equals [tada!] one percent. A measly one percent of the total water demand is saved by all of these extreme measures combined. This could be considered to be less than the margin of error. Now, the 85-15 ratio has shifted over the years. I’m not quite sure what it is today… but urban/domestic use has increased and agricultural use has decreased. It’s probably about 80/20 now. Household water conservation is still meaningless.I asked an expert on water rights at UC Davis about Kahrl’s discounting of household water conservation. “Well,” he said, “conservation at least gets people thinking in the right way.” EXACTLY! It’s all about perpetrating frauds and hoaxes on gullible masses so the ethos will change. The environmental credo can be summed up on a simple bumper sticker:

We May Not be Able to Save the Planet

But We Can at Least Lower the Quality of Life

About the same time as Kahrl’s article appeared in California Journal, I had the opportunity to discuss with a well known climatologist the future of drought patterns in Northern California. He, Orman Granger of UCB, told me that the overlying trend was for our region to receive more rain and less snow. The implication being that snow pack would be less and less sufficient to meet our water needs and that we needed more reservoirs closer to the coast to catch local runoff. Snow pack is the ideal means of water storage… hardly any construction is needed and, as the demand for water increases with warmer weather, the snow melts faster and the creeks rise.Some Bay Area communities rely almost entirely on local runoff… such as Marin and parts of the Peninsula. The problems are more political than technical when it comes to tying all of these areas into “the grid.” But, during periods of drought they’re the first to sound the alarm… due to lack of depth in their systems.

Karl A. Wittfogel, in the mid twentieth century, coined the term “hydraulic civilization.” His theory was that early governments were invented in order to build water projects… without that requirement such a high level of social organization was not all that necessary.

[you can go to: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/DM_state.htm?CA,W …for a map of drought regions in California]


  1. I'm amazed at your knowledge of the realities of water in CA. None other than Mark Twain said "Whisky's for drinking, water's for fighting".
    I thought only salmon & steelhead fishermen understood the screw job we're all getting.

  2. I'm really enjoying this blog. You area a breath of fresh air.