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Why California’s local governments can’t manage their water — and why Jerry Brown’s proposal could help

- April 13, 2015

Photo credit: Megan Mullin
As California’s rainy season ends, leaving behind little snowpack that would help alleviate the state’s lengthy drought, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a mandatory 25 percent reduction in the state’s drinking water use. Under the new rules, local water systems will be obligated to reduce consumption or risk penalties as high as $10,000 per day. This executive order coincides with news that the Metropolitan Water District, a Southern California wholesaler that delivers water to over 19 million people, will be reducing its deliveries in the summer by 10 to 20 percent.
These drastic measures demonstrate that California not only faces a shortage of potable water, but a shortage of effective political institutions to take on the task of water conservation. Given that reality, Brown’s mandate actually has promise precisely because it takes some of the politics out of water conservation.
Traditionally, local water utilities have faced five challenges in dealing with water shortages. For one, some local water utilities have been lulled into complacency by the false security of historically reliable supply sources. While some of the state’s water systems take steps to deal with precarious water supplies, others have been insulated from all but the most extreme drought conditions by long-term contracts with the state’s major water projects or by drawing groundwater from overtaxed aquifers, which until last year were largely unregulated.
Second, local water utilities also face a financial incentive not to implement one of the strongest tools for encouraging conservation: increasing the price of water for those who use a lot of it. Households that use a lot of water have more variable demand, so rate structures that charge higher prices at higher levels of use make revenue for water utilities less predictable. Variable revenue is a particular challenge for publicly owned water systems that are unable to hold revenues in reserve.
A third challenge is that local water utilities often lack the capacity to evaluate conservation measures and select those most appropriate for a system and its customers. The financial, technical, and managerial capacity of small water utilities is an ongoing concern for federal and state drinking water regulators. In a working paper, Meghan Rubado and I examine the adoption of local usage restrictions, not mandated by the state, during the Texas drought from 2010 to 2013. We find that large utilities adopted usage restrictions much earlier than smaller water systems. In a study of pre-drought voluntary water conservation efforts by California utilities, Sara Hughes finds something similar.
Fourth, pursuing conservation is at odds with the traditional outlook of water resource management agencies. According to a study of agencies in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C., water managers measure success by their ability to deliver safe, affordable drinking water in as much quantity as people demand. Absent a mandate from above, these managers may perceive conservation efforts as a failure to perform their job.
The final challenge is that many of the officials who oversee California’s water systems are, as I have argued, politicians. Mostly elected but sometimes appointed, they are ambitious people who seek to keep their jobs and possibly advance to higher office, just like any other politician. And because water is shared among communities, these officials have little incentive to impose pain on their own constituents while neighboring communities continue to water their lawns and golf courses.
Despite these challenges, there is reason to be optimistic about Brown’s call for mandatory cuts. By making noncompliance punishable by a significant fine, it ties local officials’ hands and takes at least some of the politics out of water conservation. My work on Texas water systems shows that politics plays a much smaller role in decision-making when water supply conditions are severe.
Moreover, mandatory restrictions on water use have been shown to reduce consumption. A study of Colorado’s response to drought in the early 2000s found that mandatory restrictions produced four times the conservation gains as did voluntary restrictions. Brown’s proposal to tie reductions to the level of water consumption not only addresses concerns about fairness but also will help the measure succeed, because communities that use the most water face the lowest cost in reducing their use.
California’s water problem is, in part, an institutional problem. The thousands of local utilities that are responsible for drinking water delivery face challenges that limit their ability and willingness to pursue conservation. The utilities that have been most aggressive so far in addressing water shortages are those where the shortages have been felt most severely. By spreading that urgency more widely, Brown’s plan will force localities to confront the drought and to adapt to a future of more scarce supplies.
Megan Mullin is Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at Duke University and the author of “Governing the Tap: Special District Governance and the New Local Politics of Water.”