The Downside to Water Conservation
California’s response to the continuing drought is entering a new phase, experts say, one in which conservation has become successful enough to create a host of unintended — and undesirable — consequences.
For at least two years now, California water consumers have heard about nothing but the benefits of water conservation. And water agencies, for the most part, have been able to hold off on the most obvious consequences: rate increases. But that is changing. In a recent survey, 78 percent of water agencies said they will soon increase rates or already have done so.
Then there are the less obvious consequences. With less water flow in sewage pipes, solids pile up and become harder to flush out. This can cause odor problems and corrode the pipes more rapidly, increasing maintenance costs and raising the risk of sewage leaks.
“The cost that we’re going to face due to corroding pipes is going to be astronomical,” George Tchobanoglous, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’ll dwarf everything else.”
Another problem: As trees get less irrigation, their roots embark on a desperate search for water, often penetrating water and sewer lines, causing obvious damage.
Of course, it’s the rate increases that will really stir people up. Some will be huge. For instance, on October 1, the Yorba Linda Water District plans to jack up its basic single-family water rate from $16.77 per month to $41. Let’s be real: That’s still not a lot of money to pay for easy access to clean water. But you can almost hear the complaints already.
Serious Trouble Ahead for California Forests
An estimated 20 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada as a result of drought and predation by bark beetles.
As Capital Public Radio reports, in some areas the trees are dying almost as fast as loggers can cut them down. So many property owners are removing dead trees — partly to control fire risk — that lumber mills are saturated.
Aerial surveys are documenting vast areas of the Sierra Nevada range carpeted with brown, dead trees. In an attempt to help, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recently increased the number of trees a landowner can cut down without a permit.
“It’s like a freight train basically moving through the whole Sierra, and in our lifetime we’re probably going to see a dramatic conversion of this landscape,” says Bridget Fithian of the Sierra Foothill Conservancy.
Mariposa County property owner Al Anderson is stockpiling the trees on his property after cutting them down, in hopes to selling them to a mill once capacity opens up.
“Emotionally, it’s pretty difficult,” Anderson says. “This was my pride and joy. And to sit here and watch it get destroyed by a little bug is hard to take.”
Are Dams the ‘New’ Solution to Water Shortage?
This is the question posed by the San Francisco Chronicle, which takes a close look at the proposed Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River in an impressive multimedia exploration of California’s modern conflict over dams.
The argument goes like this: New dams can not only store water that people need, they can also store water to undo the environmental damage caused by last century’s dams. They can do the latter by storing water dedicated to boosting flows for fishery needs.
The story takes water officials on faith that new reservoirs like Temperance Flat will provide California with significant amounts of new water supply. The reality is quite different. In total, the four most promising new reservoirs up for consideration would generate about 400,000 acre-feet of “new” water supply for human use in average climate years. That’s a water supply yield of only about 10 percent of their total capacity. Existing dams yield about 50 percent.
Why the disparity? California is pretty much dammed up already, and nature just can’t produce more water to fill new dams.
The issue is important, as the California Water Commission will soon begin weighing how to spend $3 billion in public bond funds to subsidize new water storage. This could include dams or groundwater projects.
Peter Moyle, an esteemed fishery biologist at UC Davis, tells the Chronicle that using new dams to help fish “to me is partly just a way to try to get the taxpayers to pay for everything.”
Top Photo: Steve Upton, an inspector for the water conservation unit of the Sacramento Utilities Department, right, shows Larry Barber how to use the water timer he installed on a spigot. Californians have been successful conserving water in recent months. But water utilities are beginning to feel repercussions, including increased costs and system maintenance problems. (Associated Press)