COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

If water rationing comes, do it right

Despite heavy mid-February rains that briefly drenched Northern California and the respectable ensuing snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the California drought remains.

In fact, it is still more severe than the worst previous dry spell of modern times, which hit in 1976-77.

Short of millennial downpours in late winter or early spring, this means water rationing is almost certain for most Californians. When and if it comes, there are lessons to be learned from what happened 37 years ago:

Rationing must be fair and include heavy consequences for failure to comply, homeowners must be willing to let some landscaping go brown and the entire system must be free of politics. Otherwise, there’s a good chance many residents simply won’t comply.

It would also help to accelerate the water metering program now underway in Sacramento and other Central Valley communities that had no meters in the 1970s drought and a milder one that struck in 1991.

How fair is it that drought or no drought, Sacramento residents (including tens of thousands of state officials and bureaucrats) use an average of 279 gallons per day, compared with 98 gallons for San Franciscans and less than 150 per day for Los Angeles residents, habitually accused by some Sacramentans of “stealing” their water?

How fair is it for denizens of the leafy San Francisco Peninsula suburb of Hillsborough to use 334 gallons per day, while 14 miles away in much less fortunate East Palo Alto, residents glug only 79, according to reporting in the San Jose Mercury News?

Those figures and the reality that only about half the homes in Sacramento and several other Central Valley cities now have water meters make it blatantly unfair even to consider asking or requiring anyone to cut use by a set percentage.

Yes, everyone will likely need to cut. But when Hillsborough or Sacramento residents cut by the 20 percent Gov. Jerry Brown now requests of all Californians, they still use far more water than most Californians do even in a normal, non-drought year.

It’s also true that when people are told to cut voluntarily by a certain percentage, regardless of their normal use levels, they understand that percentage cuts may soon become mandatory and be enforced with penalties. But no one knows what date will be designated as the benchmark from which use levels are measured.

So anyone cutting back now risks being forced to trim much more later, when rationing begins. This creates potential future penalties for anyone who conserves today. Strategically, it makes no sense for residents to trim now when they know they may soon be asked to reduce from a new, lower level.

So rationing based on percentage cutbacks can be inherently unfair. By contrast, per-person use limits are fair, and Californians tend to respond well to them when imposed. In 1991, for example, the Marin Municipal Water District told households they could use no more than 50 gallons per person daily. Residents did better than that, using just 47 gallons each.

A weakness in this kind of system is that water districts and city water departments can’t know how many persons live in each household. Even information from the latest census is outdated. And yet … Californians have usually been honest about this kind of thing. The Marin district sent out its own census cards in 1991, with the total of residents reported on them very close to the district’s population.

Percentage-based rationing can be successful, too, even if it’s unfair. In 1976-77, when Los Angeles households were asked to lower water use by 10 percent, residents responded by cutting almost twice that much.

What’s more, a UC Berkeley study of nine water districts at the time showed that the heavier the fines for overuse, the better the compliance.

Then there’s politics, such as the attempt of congressional Republicans in February to give Central Valley farms a virtual monopoly on the small supplies available this year. They ignored city residents and fishing interests, and risked putting several species at risk of becoming endangered, as happened to the notorious Delta smelt in the 1970s drought.

All of which means water rationing can work, as it has before, but only if Californians are convinced it is both necessary and fair.

Elias is the author of “The Burzynski Breakthrough,” available in a soft-cover fourth edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.

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