Could Innovation Change Pompous SoCal Water Wasters into Water Producers?

June 15th, 2015. In LA doing your part still means keeping the sidewalks green.

June 15th, 2015. In LA doing your part still means keeping the sidewalks green.

It doesn’t take more than three minutes of being in Los Angeles to realize that Southern California is about luxury. There’s the cars, the billboards, the premium shopping experiences, and of course, the water. It’s green and lush all over the place, and it feels niiiiice. The warm breeze blowing through the urban oasis, picking up evapo-transportation from the greenery and wafting it across beautiful people – LA’s a place where you want to indulge in it all, even if you can’t really afford to.

But what if you can? That seems to be the mindset coming from wealthy enclaves like Ranch Santa Fe in San Diego County. The Washington Post’s recent article captured quotes like “You’ll have to pry the hoses from our cold dead hands” and others you have to read to believe. Hollywood stars including Kim Kardashian, who recently had their homes photographed by helicopter for water wasteage, expressed frustration and intrusion at the dual standards of our culture which encourage us to live lavish lifestyles but also insist on conservation. Clearly, the attitude of these wealthy California residents can be summarized as “I’ll use as much as I can pay for, and I can pay for a lot.”

Resident Gay Butler rides her horse through a neighborhood in Rancho Santa Fe. (Sandy Huffaker/The Washington Post) Read the Washington Post Article.

There’s no doubt that the rich are going to have to start spending more for their water. Rancho Santa Fe is looking at mandatory 36% cutbacks and Los Angeles County at 16%. Those who refuse to cut back will face higher penalties and Governor Brown has promised $10,000 fines for people who use too much. However, there’s confusion and discrepancies as far as the cutbacks required of each region, which are based on historical averages. Some residents are left wondering why their new allotment is lower, just because they’ve historically used less than more wasteful districts.

Moreover, the truth is you can’t charge enough for water once there is no more. At some point, the thought of letting one rich fool waste the last drop of water because he could AFFORD to is grotesque. Now four years into its worst drought in 1,200 years, some experts estimate that California will only have a year of drinking water left by the end of 2015.


March 24, 2015 Water lines are visible in a nearly dry section of Lake McClure in Coulterville. Lake McClure is at 7 percent of its normal capacity, and residents are under mandatory 50 percent water use restrictions. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images For more images of Drough Stricken California:


The state is rapidly pursing ways to create more water. Desalination, taking salt out of seawater, and recycled water, removing pollutants from fresh wastewater could both expand our water supply – if we’re willing to trade a bucketful of gigawatts. The Carlsbad desalination plant being constructed near San Diego will produce 50MGD, 7% of the city’s water needs.

But these solutions are expensive. Of Proposition 1A’s $7.12 Billion in water bonds approved by 67% of California voters in the 2014 election, $725 million is allocated to water recycling and water treatment technology projects.

The majority of the funds, $2.7 Billion will go to large infrastructure projects like building intake tunnels that collect freshwater from the Sacramento River Delta, farther upstream, making them more resilient to rising sea-level and more effective during wet years. Governor Brown has called this massive infrastructure investment essential to maintaining the amount of water we already have.

Construction work at Carlsbad desalination plant, near San Diego, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Photo courtesy Carlsbad Desalination Project


Is it possible to have the best of both words? Luxury and conscientious usage?

Here’s a proposal: Let the rich use all the extra water they can pay to create or preserve, while all the water that we currently and naturally have is rationed for and by the public.

Under a system like this, all California residents would receive the same water budget. Once wealthy users sloshed through their allotted gallons, they could offer to buy those of other people. For example, instead of choosing to use my whole allotment of say 65 GPD, I could be ultra conservative and use 35 GPD and sell the option for my other 30 gallons for, say, $0.50 a gallon. Voila, people are directly compensated for their active conservation, rich people get more water, and there is still a respect for natural limits.

The biggest challenge of this system is the metering, realtime feedback and marketplace for water. But these are problems that we have just solved with SMART meters for electricity and are possible for water as well. In fact, in May of 2014 San Francisco announced it would install smart meters on all of its water hookups. By the end of last year the SFPUC, the city agency responsible for the program, had succeeded in installing smart water meters on 96% of the 180,000 water hookups.

The cost of the SF program is $56 Million or $311 per hookup. That sounds like a lot, but consider that realtime feedback mechanisms are the most consistently successful way of influencing human behavior. The classic example being speed limit signs that flash at you with your own speed, encouraging you to slow down.

But the San Francisco program may have fallen short. It’s still necessary to login to your account to check your water usage. This doesn’t fulfill the requirement of a successful feedback loop, which must provide information within the decision making environment (in plain english, letting you know what your daily water usage currently is while you’re doing the dishes). To really reap the benefits of these smart meter programs, consumers should have an easy to read device where they use water everyday.

What if this device was displaying your home’s daily water usage right on your kitchen counter?

California should set this as a goal: a near-realtime water meter above every Californian’s kitchen sink by 2020.

A Realtime Water Meter Above Every Californian’s Kitchen Sink by 2020
Issue a state bond for $2.6B to install smart water meters in every Californians home. Create a state requirement that all homes must have easily readable digital water meter on their wall by 2020.Participants can either pay for water or produce water. All participants have a maximum they can buy from the public water sources. All participants can buy non-essential water usage credits from other participants in their system. Any individual can buy as much as they want from a private source. (Private sources would be regulated to prevent excess greenhouse gas production as a byproduct).

Consider that there are 13M households in California. If the state laid out $200/water meter a state wide program would cost $2.6 Billion. That sounds very similar to the $2.7 Billion planned for the Sacramento Tunnel project.

Yet this infrastructure has the opportunity of revolutionizing the way people use water, not only with realtime feedback loops, but also by creating a water marketplace and making it easier to account for net producers of water. Just as smart meters and solar are changing the way we think about our electric grid, micro-water recycling facilities and realtime water meters could change our water system.

Best of all, rich people would now be challenged to CREATE or REUSE water rather than just splash it out on the California dirt to evaporate. That would be innovation indeed.


Further Reading:

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