Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Severe Water Polarization

As Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, was simply forced to turn off its water taps for a few days, so California has to be watching knowing that someday, it will probably have to follow in that metropolitan area’s footsteps. No matter the urgency, and even the prospect of fines, California’s mandated water cutbacks are a mess. Not only are farmers dipping into dwindling aquifers and wells to supplement water shortages to keep up business as usual, and notwithstanding the reluctance of Sacramento to begin a policy of moving high-water-usage crops (like all nut trees) out-of-state (an absolute necessity) – agriculture uses a lot of land but accounts for only 2% of California’s total GDP – but the people of California have fallen way short of targeted cutbacks.
The California State Water Resources Board, during a two-day meeting that began on May 5th, noted how little California’s residents have been able to conserve: “A survey of local water departments released at the start of the two-day meeting shows water use fell less than 4 percent in March compared with the same month in 2013. Overall savings have been only about 9 percent since last summer, even though [Governor Jerry] Brown set a voluntary 20 percent target… The State Water Resources Control Board received the [water-usage] update as it consider[ed] sweeping mandatory emergency regulations to protect water supplies in the parched state.” AOL.com, May 5th. When the rules become mandatory, there are more than a few economic class-related matters that will cloud the process… assuming anyone cares.
You see, the cutback has been expressed as a percentage of former water usage. So people who have already been living a water-reduced life are punished for their prior austerity, and those who have guzzled at the trough are only marginally impaired. Own a big house with a massive yard and a huge pool? A 20% or 25% percent reduction still gives you a massively greater amount of water per capita than a poor family in Compton, California, where their greatest water consumption comes from taking a shower once a day.
Indeed, California’s blind meat-axe approach to water cutbacks seems like the most regressive tax system in the world, profoundly favoring the rich. Yet because a quick fix was necessary – the state dawdled for years on what was obviously a clear necessary policy given the sustained drought conditions – a flat percentage slash seemed like the only path to follow. But the unfairness of that system, according huge differentials of water access from poor to rich, is glaring and even outrageous.
Looking at two communities is highly illustrative: “The median household income in Compton is $42,953, and 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; 67 percent of the population is Hispanic. In North Tustin, the census-designated community that includes Cowan Heights, the median household income is $122,662, and less than 3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; 84 percent of the population is white…
“The fierce drought that is gripping the West — and the imminent prospect of rationing and steep water price increases in California — is sharpening the deep economic divide in this state, illustrating parallel worlds in which wealthy communities guzzle water as poorer neighbors conserve by necessity. The daily water consumption rate was 572.4 gallons per person in Cowan Heights from July through September 2014, the hot and dry summer months California used to calculate community-by-community water rationing orders; it was 63.6 gallons per person in Compton during that same period.
“Now, California is trying to turn that dynamic on its head, forcing the state’s biggest water users, which include some of the wealthiest communities, to bear the brunt of the statewide 25 percent cut in urban water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown. Cowan Heights is facing a 36 percent cut in its water use, compared with 8 percent for Compton.
“Other wealthy communities that must cut 36 percent include Beverly Hills and Hillsborough, a luxury town in Silicon Valley. Along with Compton, other less wealthy communities facing more modest cuts include Inglewood, which has been told to reduce its water consumption by 12 percent over what it was in 2013…
“As it is, the legality of conservation — the practice of charging higher water rates to people who consume more for big water use — came under question when a court ruled that a tiered-pricing system used by an Orange County city ran afoul of the State Constitution and sent it back to allow the city to try to bring it into compliance.
“‘The wealthy use more water, electricity and natural gas than anyone else,’ said Stephanie Pincetl, the director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the University of California, Los Angeles. ‘They have bigger properties. They are less price sensitive. So if you can afford it, you use it.’
“‘Then it becomes a moral question,’ she said. ‘But lots of wealthy people don’t pay their own bills, so they don’t know what the water costs.’” New York Times, April 26th. But addressing “communities” seems equally questionable, failing to differentiate between modest apartment dwellers (yes, even Beverly Hills has middle income flats!) and larger estates. We are simply going to have to start defining water usage as a combination of per capita allowances coupled with some reasonable linkage to the type of dwelling. While the complexity may seem elusive, time pressures have to move this complex regulatory pattern up the priority ladder fast. Using the states great university systems to the max would seem a mandate.
I’m Peter Dekom, and what has been proposed is grossly unfair… and time is running out.

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