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Thoughts on a discussion about implementing California drought reduction limits

…And defending multimillionaires



Many of the first new stories about the California drought, that got broad distribution, focused on celebrity millionaires who were keeping their beautiful well-watered landscapes, while the rest of State residents were struggling to abide by the drought mandates.

This article titled, “‘Drought shaming’ targets wealthy celebrities over lush California lawns,” is an example:

The author is clearly trying to lead readers to feel that the public figures mentioned in the article are “above the law” and able to thwart the rules because of their wealth.

“California is suffering through its worst drought in 1,200 years, according to U.S. scientists, though you’d never know it by looking at Kim Kardashian’s lush, green estate.”

The piece encourages readers to believe there’s a very black and white villain in this crisis. And while defending multimillionaires may not be necessary, implementing drought reduction programs is a much more complex problem than the author above would have us believe.

The California drought is a multifaceted crisis that has stakeholders anxious, worried, perplexed and even angry. There are plenty of reasons why California is in the “state” that it’s in. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, almost every group contributed in some way or another. Now, water utilities face very tough challenges under tight deadlines and with lots of public scrutiny and pressure.

When solving complex problems, it’s important to be aware of our natural, but knee-jerk responses that limit our ability to see multiple viewpoints and steer us away from thoughtful consideration. If we can collectively think more objectively and less emotionally, we may better manage the drought and discover practical solutions more quickly.


The Rules are New and Unprecedented

Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order calling for 25% residential water reduction on April 1, 2015. Water utilities are scrambling to figure out how they are going to implement these changes. Whatever rate and policy modifications providers want to make must first be approved by one or more regulatory agencies. The public also gets a shot at hearing and commenting on any policy modifications.

The water reduction cuts have to be implemented immediately. How to do it effectively hasn’t been determined. Figuring out what works best for utilities and their customers will take time.

Issues of this type are sometimes called “wicked problems.” A wicked problem has social or cultural elements that make it difficult or impossible to solve for several reasons:

Deliberative dialogue has proven to be an effective means for resolving wicked problems. This article is intended be part of that dialogue.


This Behavior Looks Terrible…but Are We Considering All Sides?

Kanye West is a very successful entertainer and business person who was recently highlighted by the media’s drought-shaming efforts:

Many of us read this article and our gut reaction is disgust or resentment. But if we challenge ourselves to think instead of react, we can have a deeper and more productive discussion. Kanye’s situation, while it might not be yours or mine, illustrates some of the “wickedness” of implementing equitable drought reduction rules.

Incorporating multiple perspectives will earn us a more thorough understanding of the problems, and accelerate our ability to solve them.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the following:

The grass area in Kanye West’s California home is about 48,000 sq. ft., roughly the size of a football field without the end zones (100 x 53 yds. = 300 x 160 sq. ft = 48,000 sq. ft.). Without any proof, let’s say Kanye’s means of irrigation has been inefficient during the period January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2013.

NOTE: The Executive Order requires that water providers reduce consumption compared with their usage in 2013.

What we mean by inefficient irrigator is that Kanye’s landscaping company didn’t water his lawn in an optimal way—i.e., optimal for water quantity, not beauty. They didn’t use evapotranspiration (ET) data to apply just the “right” amount of water.

Evapotranspiration is the amount of water that evaporates from the ground around a plant plus the amount that transpires through the plant. Here’s an explanation:

If you want to water efficiently, ET is very important because it takes into account temperature, relative humidity, wind, soil moisture, and rainfall. ET helps us calculate a minimum amount of water—an Irrigation Requirement (IR) value—that a turf landscape needs to be healthy. It helps us wring out over-irrigation, saves a lot of water, and ensures that a lawn still thrives.

Staying with our hypothetical case, Kanye’s landscaping company poured on the water in 2013. They didn’t install a rain sensor or a smart irrigation controller that would have adjusted water usage based on environmental conditions. The sprinklers ran for extended periods of time and frequently, because for landscapers, it’s more important to keep the lawn green and keep the contract, than it is to apply just enough water.

Kanye’s water supplier was assigned a 36% conservation standard or drought reduction target by the CA Water Board. His utility will expect (or mandate) that his account reduce usage in the next few months by that amount, and maybe more.

Like all Californians, he has a few options:

Option #1- Change Nothing and Pay the Bill

The easiest option for those homeowners who can afford it is to change nothing, and pay the excess usage charges that most utilities are levying. Maintaining that lush landscape will be more expensive, and his water consumption will remain the same, but Kanye can afford it.

He may earn a few letters of reprimand from his supplier, see a negative article or two in the media, and receive a few drought-shaming tweets, but he purchased that estate long before the rules went into effect. If he can weather some press, it may be business as usual at Kanye’s manor.

Option #2- Irrigate more Efficiently

Even though Kanye’s a well known public figure who has experienced his share of negative press, the “drought shaming” coverage might have stung a bit. He wants to do his part.

He’s not going to reduce the size of his grass yard, but he’s definitely going to water more intelligently.

Odds are that he’s just like most residential homeowners who commonly over-irrigate by 100–300%. It should be easy for him to make simple changes—shorten how long his sprinklers run and/or reduce the watering frequency—to lower his overall consumption.

Maybe he installs a rain sensor, adds a drip system for his trees and shrubs, and covers his pool. Without much effort, he meets the 36% reduction mandate. (NOTE: Conservation standards range in value from 8–36%)

Kanye will still have a 48,000 sq. ft. turf lawn, but he’ll be an “efficient irrigator.” Now he’ll have every right to say to the drought-shamers: “You Can’t Tell Me Nothing!”

This option, of course, bothers many. What if I live in the community serviced by Kanye’s water district, and I don’t have a football-field-sized landscape? I’ve already reduced the size of my bluegrass area to 3,000 sq. ft. I installed a smart irrigation controller and I pay conscious attention to watering efficiently.

It’s going to be much more difficult for me to achieve a 36% reduction even though my turf area is 93.75% smaller than Kanye’s. Any increase in my water rates, hurts financially. Kanye may be using 3–5 times the amount of water that I do and he’ll still be meeting the conservation goal. That doesn’t seem fair.

Option #3- Conservation-focused Kanye Concedes to Cash for Grass

Ever the conscious citizen, Kanye heeds the call to significantly reduce his overall water usage, rips out his Kentucky bluegrass lawn, xeriscapes his yard with native plants, and installs the finest artificial turf so he can still play catch with his kids.

His outdoor water use plummets. He smashes the reduction limit. He might even be able to receive a cash rebate for the turf removal. See:

Kanye figures he’s doing the right thing and being a responsible community member.

Whoa Nelly, not so fast! Even turf removal programs have their detractors. See:

But most of us will say that Kanye is contributing positively to meeting the new conservation standards. And if “drought-appreciation” stories were as tantalizing to the media as drought-shaming, he might find himself lauded in the press.


The San Jose Water Approach to Drought Reduction….Fair or Foolish?

Utilities have flexibility in the way they encourage or require their customers to conserve. The San Jose Water Company (SJW), for example, services about 204,000 residential customers. Their drought reduction target is 30%.

They’re calculating each homeowner’s allocation using an average residential usage amount. They formulated these values by reviewing the community’s overall usage each month in 2013. They divided those monthly numbers by the population served. They also factored in the State Water Board’s minimum monthly amount of water for public health and safety (6,732 gals. or 9 HCF).

If the monthly usage value from 2013 was lower than 6,732 gals, the State’s minimum value was used. If the amount were higher, SJW would multiply it by 0.7 (100% – 30% = 70% = 0.7) to calculate the monthly target for 2015.

For example, in July, 2013, the average usage was 14,212 gals. The target for July, 2015 is: (14,212 x 0.7 = 9,948 gals.) Because this supplier bills in one hundred cubic feet (CCFs), the amount gets rounded down to 13 CCFs or 9,724 gals.



The SJW Approach Will Not Be Popular

If you review the allocations, especially for the summer irrigation season (June-August), the amount of water that can be used outdoors is minimal at best. Many homeowner’s will not be able to meet the reduction limits and still maintain their current landscapes…especially if a turf lawn makes up a sizeable portion of the outdoor area.

They’ll either have to pay excess use charges, let their grass die, or remove it altogether.

The allocations will barely allow enough water for existing trees and shrubs. This is an outcome SJW should actively manage against.

While SJW may want to create immediate and notable pressure on customers, because the timeframe for water users to react is so short, there’s going to be a lot of customer blowback. As customers receive their “nastygrams” for exceeding the limits, excess use charges and fines, they’re not going to be happy.

One thing’s for sure, SJW customers were reading the proposed policy changes closely. Several hundred of them turned out for a public meeting in May to share their frustration and disgust:


Walk Before You Sprint?

Even though it might not be the best long-term solution, SJW could meet its conservation targets and minimize customer impact by applying a reduction amount that was “account-based,” rather than “one-size-fits-all” based. This means that each water customer’s target would be calculated by decreasing the account’s monthly usage in 2013 by 30%.

If I have a big, lush landscape and I watered excessively in 2013, I’m going to have to figure out how to cut my water use by a third. If your lawn is smaller and you’ve already made cuts, you have to glean another 30% reduction too. It may not be fair, but in the short term, it’s more manageable than SJW’s current plan because cuts to individual account holders are less impactful.

Maybe the utility starts with this strategy, gives people some time to make longer term landscaping changes, and then a few months down the road, implements the more stringent requirements that their current proposal requires.


Contrary to the Public Outcry, the SJW Approach Is Really Fairer

The reality is that the SJW approach to implementing water reduction requirements may be the fairest way after all. The household with the soccer field in its backyard has to abide by the same water allocation as the people in the patio home or the apartment. The bigger water users may not like it but it’s equitable and right now, circumstances are dire.


Dublin San Ramon Services District—A Holistic Approach

Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) serves almost 22,000 connections in a community east of San Francisco. In 2014, they made some proactive decisions about conservation, long before the Governor of California implemented statewide water cutbacks. Their holistic approach may be a model for other water utilities.

The District did the following:

The water ordinance was not just for show. A first offense would earn the customer a warning letter. A second offense would get the account holder a $250 fine. For third and fourth offenses–$500 and $1,000 respectively–you could make a couple of car payments. Continued egregious water consumption could lead to the installation of a flow restrictor or service shutoff.

As a result of these and other programs, DSRSD has accomplished the following:

The District created so much momentum in 2014 around water savings that their community has carried that forward this year. Customers are sensitive to the issues, they are engaged in solving the problems, and they are responding. Drought-shaming was not a tool DSRSD used.



As California utilities react to the drought and work to reach the State’s conservation goals, initially it’s going to be tough on all stakeholders. These mandates require real lifestyle changes so expect “Who moved my cheese?” responses.

Over time, however, and through an iterative process, communities will figure out best practices for meeting their water reduction targets. They’ll learn the best ways to work with customers to improve efficiency and lower overall water consumption.

Expectations that the drought will go away sometime soon don’t seem realistic. Persistent drought is predicted to be the new reality in California. Other Western states would be wise to take notice too. California isn’t the only place that has suffered from decades of water mismanagement, antiquated water laws, special interests, climate change, wasteful usage and more. Many states are going to face similar water crises, and getting in front of the problem by preparing proactively is the answer.

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