It's not raining in L.A., but we turn our faucets and somehow the water keeps coming out.
Despite the drought, most Angelenos are using as much water as ever. This can't go on indefinitely. In January of this year, Governor Brown called for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in use. Not surprisingly, a polite request didn't do the trick. So last month, the State Water Resources Control Board mandated steeper fines for violators of existing conservation rules, people who clean their driveways with a hose or water their lawns too much, etc. This will do very little. Los Angeles has only four water cops. (That's up from one, so if someone from the city tells you they've quadrupled enforcement, don't be too impressed.)
Are we really going to keep fiddling around the edges of this problem until we're in a crisis? Can't we deal with it seriously before the bottoms of our reservoirs are in sight?
There is a much simpler approach that will have an immediate and dramatic effect on our water use: Raise the price of water. If water is more expensive, we won't need regulations or penalties or to rat out our neighbors. People will choose to conserve when the cost of waste hits them hard enough.
In 1992, the L.A. Department of Water and Power moved toward this approach by designating two tiers for our water use. The system works much the same for residential and commercial customers. Tier One is meant to meet basic water needs and Tier Two water is any use that goes beyond that. Tier Two water is more expensive to encourage conservation.
It's a great idea. The problem is in its feeble application.
Tier One was initially set (again, more than 20 years ago ) by looking at prior water use and reducing that amount by 15 percent. Currently, because we are in a drought, Tier One has been reduced by another 15 percent. Two 15 percent reductions sound significant, but let's look at my last bill to understand why they're not:
In the last billing period (April and May), my Tier One allotment was 24 billing units. (A billing unit is 100 cubic feet of water, or 748 gallons.) I live in a two-person, two-dog household. We bathe. We cook. We wash clothes and dishes. We drink tap water, and lots of it. There is a big yard, and during this period I planted well over 100 plants. They're native but still required a great deal of watering to get established in a period of almost zero rainfall.
In this time, we used eight units of water.
Eight units out of 24. My cost per billing unit (again, 748 gallons) was $4.72, for a two-month bill of $37.79. I would have had to triple my use to reach Tier Two, at which point I'd pay $5.85 per unit.
In the warmer months, Tier One goes up 50 cents per billing unit. Tier Two, inexplicably, does not. So in the summer, the difference between tiers shrinks from just over a dollar to only 62 cents per 748 gallons of water.
This is not a difference that's going to induce many people to moderate their usage, or even notice the part of their bills that says what it is. Sixty-two cents is less than we pay for one gallon of bottled water. Even at Tier Two, the LADWP charges less than a penny a gallon.
I had to do some research to learn all this. I've lived here five years, and up until a week ago, never bothered. I'm certain the same is true of many of you. And why would we? To possibly save a few bucks every two months?
Moreover, according to the LADWP, 70 percent of us never even reach Tier 2. That means for the vast majority of us, there is no two-tier system, and very little financial incentive to think about conserving.
We can wrangle over the specifics, but the basic thrust of what needs to be done seems clear: For households with two people or fewer, let's shrink Tier One by a third, say, and then for all customers, both residential and commercial, make Tier Two much more expensive. Instead of a dollar more per 748 gallons, how about $20 more, or $50? This will bring the importance of conservation home to every resident much more forcefully than a lottery-sized possibility of being fined.
Businesses and farmers, if they have to pay more for water, will have two reactions: They'll innovate ways to conserve and/or they will raise the price of their products to recoup their increased costs. As costs go up, consumption of water-inefficient products and crops will go down. This will of course hurt those businesses, but what's the alternative? If the city goes dry, or bankrupt, it will hurt them, and all of us, much more.
Many renters don't pay for their own water and so have no incentive, beyond conscience, to conserve. The city could mandate that tenants pay their own water bills. A bill to do just that failed statewide last year, when landlords opposed it because of the expense of installing submeters. But if water gets expensive, landlords will put the submeters in voluntarily.
Yes, this would mean people of modest means will be forced to conserve, while the wealthy can waste as much as they like. But the more that well-off customers waste, the more revenue would be generated for L.A., which could then be used to cut the price of Tier One water for low-income residents or to purchase more water for the city. (We currently import 88 percent of the water we use.) If we wanted to get really tough, we could establish a cap on Tier Two water — say, double Tier One — at which point the water shuts off until the next billing cycle. That would be harder to ignore.
Obviously even a drastic cut in water use in L.A. won't solve California's water problems. The two-tier system should be enacted statewide. L.A. can be a model for the rest of the state.
The LADWP assures me they will be revising the tiers, but they don't say when and they don't say how much. I would love to be wrong, but I fear those revisions, and the improvements they bring about, will be incremental.
I have a friend from Cyprus. When he washes the dishes he scrubs them all with a soapy sponge and only at the end turns on the water to rinse. He learned to do it that way because he grew up in a place where water was not abundant or cheap. It's actually a faster way to do the dishes, but it had never occurred to me because I grew up in Chicago, which has plenty of rainfall and which sits on the shore of Lake Michigan.
It makes sense for water to be cheap in Chicago. It doesn't in L.A. We need to start treating our water like the precious resource it is, not by shaking our heads whenever we pass a lush, green lawn, but by taking steps that will actually have an impact.
Daniel Kaufman is the host of the Myoclonic Jerk Podcast.