Embrace the Dry: LA Should Keep its Water Restrictions

Blame Jerry Brown. When in the guise of governor he declared that California's drought was over, and thus privileged politics over climate, he roiled the waters in ways that might come back to haunt us all.

Consider, for instance, this apparently straightforward motion that representatives Greig Smith and Jan Perry filed last month before the Los Angeles city council:

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I HEREBY MOVE that Council INSTRUCT the Department of Water and Power to report back to Council regarding lowering or eliminating conservation rates, ceasing the citation program for noncompliance, and reinforcing voluntary conservation measures.

These 34 words, and their implicit desire to rollback the two-year-old water restrictions in Los Angeles, are anything but clear-cut. The backstory helps clarify things, even as it confuses them. Let me explain.

Or rather, let the motion's co-sponsors make their case. Citing Governor Brown's assertion in March that this winter's heavier-than-usual rainfall amounts and deeper-than-normal Sierra snowpack signaled that the drought was no more, Smith, who serves the 12th District, used the gubernatorial declaration to affirm the need for a new water policy in LA. "The drought is over," he advised the Los Angeles Daily News. "At the very least, we ought to stop fining our residents for watering during excluded times or on the wrong day."

Admitting that "We all know we are subject to dry periods," Smith nonetheless concluded as did some of his constituents: "people are asking me why we need to keep these restrictions on when there is no drought."

His co-sponsor Jan Perry, who represents the 9th District, is also convinced that now is the time to let the lawn-watering and pool-filling begin: "We have helped change people's behavior and we got them there, and we need to maintain some level of conservation, but should we loosen it a bit?"

Actually, no. We should not ease the restrictions precisely because, pace Jerry et al., we cannot say definitively that the drought has run its course. Yes, we have had two pretty good years in terms of precipitation, but twenty-four months does not a trend make. Should this summer and fall be bone dry, and should next winter be too, then we will regret it if this spring we open the floodgates; if, for the sake of greener grass and bluer pools, we decide to keep the spigots open we're going to be up a certain creek without a paddle.

It is, in short, way too early to declare, as did a former president about a war that eight years later has not ended: "mission accomplished."

What has been accomplished here under a restrictive water regime is startling, and ought to be celebrated, remembered, and extended. In the Spring of 2009, amid a crippling dry period, the Department of Water and Power (DWP) rolled out Water Shortage Rates that are incentive based. "To encourage water conservation through appropriate price signals to water consumers," an April 2011 city council motion noted, "the rate structure charges higher rates for higher use of water." The system, which restricts which days homeowners can water their properties based on whether it is odd- or even-numbered, has worked quite well. Since its implementation, DWP reports, residents have slashed water use by upwards of 20 percent.

The speed with which consumers responded and the impact of incentive-based conservation measures on their behavior (and water bills) is consistent with the experience of other southwestern cities. Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas (yes, Vegas) have demonstrated the power of price-based rate structures to produce considerable savings of water and money.

San Antonio, which like LA once was a great water hog, for the past 12 years has boosted water prices to squeeze down use. Significantly, even in seasons of more ample rain, when its sole-source, the Edwards Aquifer, is full, and local streams, creeks, and rivers are running fast, the city's rate structure has remained in place; San Antonio simply has acted as if it is in permanent drought. So supportive of the process has the community proved to be that during last summer's blistering heat wave and accompanying drought--which has not yet broken its hold, as the nearly 9,500 wildfires this spring demonstrate--the San Antonio Water System has not had to institute any higher-level restrictions.

From this enduring commitment and the benefits it has produced, Angelenos and their political representatives (as well as the state's governor) might take a much-needed lesson. Keeping the water restrictions in place will keep the pressure on ourselves to conserve; the more we conserve, the more we will experiment with and implement additional water-saving technologies and landscapes; the more we bring our habits into synch with our habitat, the less water we will need to sustain the community.

That's the only long-term political vision and environmental ethic that makes any sense in this era of climate disruption.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Kumaravel. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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