John Andrew: The Water Conservation Conundrum

Posted by John Andrew on Wednesday, May 27 2020


Like time and money, water in the West is often characterized by too much demand chasing too little supply. Once upon a time, when I was at the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, we lamented that if we gave our stakeholders all the water they wanted, we’d probably still come up 50% short. In response to such scarcity, water conservation seems the obvious, environmentally friendly strategy, essentially, achieving the same water-related outcome—a green lawn, food and fiber, or a hot shower—while using less water. Indeed, even a first-grader could figure this out. But you never know how things are going to turn out.

Allow me to illustrate one aspect of the conservation conundrum with a personal story, one I suspect will be familiar to fellow parents. Many years ago, I proudly installed what was then a state-of-the-art low-flow showerhead in my children’s bathroom. As dad the water wonk, I naturally saw this minor feat of plumbing as also a teachable moment for my son. So, I proceeded to enlighten him as to what the device was and why we were installing it. He took this all in, quickly mulled it over, and with the analytical insight of a six-year old, informed me that because the showerhead used less water, he therefore could now take longer showers.

One of the first concepts policy students learn is that of “unintended consequences.” For environmental professionals, this insight is easily grasped, as we know and preach that everything is connected. Pull on some part of the ecosystem here, and something unexpectedly moves over there. Other policy sectors face similar dilemmas. Install seat belts and air bags in cars and some will feel emboldened to drive recklessly. Let the Cold War superpowers deploy anti-ballistic missiles, and they then have more incentive to preemptively launch their offensive ballistic missiles (undermining the aptly named doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” or MAD). Encourage the wearing of masks during a pandemic, and shelter-in-place quickly erodes to let’s-go-out. At the intersection of technology and human behavior, all sorts of crazy things can happen. Social scientists refer to this general phenomenon as “risk compensation,” while economists talk specifically of “moral hazard.” Give water users the means to use less, and with any luck, they actually will. But such agency can also inadvertently lead to more water use, whether that’s via lush landscaping, more crops on marginal lands, or longer showers.

Undeterred by such inconvenient truths, water conservation remains the go-to, faith-based tactic for many. In fact, there are those who evangelize that the efficiency of water use must always be exploited before turning to other water management strategies, such as new or expanded water storage (above or below the ground), recycling wastewater, desalinating seawater, or capturing stormwater. This belief is borrowed directly from the energy sector, where it is called a “loading order”—which requires an energy utility to maximize energy efficiency before developing new energy generation—on the fervently held conviction that the management of water is just like the management of energy.

Except that it isn’t, and in some significant and even fundamental ways. In water management, unlike energy management, supply and demand are not anywhere near the whole story. Water has an inherent quality component that energy does not, central to its intended use. Water plays a key role in public health, providing a safe and healthy drink, and of increased importance of late, a way to wash your hands—often. Water encompasses vital attributes for public safety (flooding and firefighting), ecosystems, agriculture, recreation, culture, and energy generation. Suffice it to say, a low-flow showerhead is of little help during a deluge or conflagration.

Depending upon the geographical context, water use efficiency can also result in a series of tradeoffs, another notion near and dear to the hearts of policy students. For instance, a “waste” of water conserved upstream was likely sustaining an ecosystem somewhere downstream, or the aquifer below. Speaking of downstream, less water use reduces flushing of our sanitation infrastructure, leading to plugged pipes and stagnating sewers, as well as more concentrated wastewater to treat and less of it to recycle. Permanent water conservation can harden demand, reducing the flexibility of water managers and farmers to respond to droughts, thus shrinking the slack in the system when it’s needed to respond to a crisis. Further complicating matters is where water and energy resources meet. Conserving water on farms, for example, with more efficient drip irrigation systems, requires pressurizing and filtering the raw water supply, trading increased energy use for reduced water use.

To be clear, water use efficiency remains a highly viable approach to water scarcity in the West. Indeed, it often includes some of the most technically feasible and cost-effective measures available, in a place that 20 years past the 20th century, one still finds sidewalks irrigated as well as lawns. Conservation continues as a personal favorite, not only because if implemented with thought and not faith, it can save real water; but also, because it necessarily engages the individual water user in water management. Efficiency actions work best when implemented as part of a portfolio of other strategies, in a watershed or regional context, reflecting local resources, knowledge, and values, where stakeholders can collectively contemplate and make sense of the myriad conundrums in water management.

John Andrew is the Assistant Deputy Director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). The views espoused here do not necessarily reflect those of the State of California, the California Natural Resources Agency, or DWR—although they probably should.

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