Auditor: Turf Rebates Not the Best Investment
An audit by the Los Angeles city controller has found that paying city water customers to take out their lawns is not the best investment of public dollars if water conservation is the goal.
Instead, the controller, Ron Galperin, found that rebates for high-efficiency appliances save much more water. In his cover letter on the audit, he called lawn rebates “largely a gimmick.” They had some PR value to rev up public interest in conservation, but in the long run they are not the best conservation value.
“Auditors found that the turf replacement program gave DWP the lowest return on investment … than other conservation programs, by a wide margin,” Galperin said.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spent $17.8 million on turf rebates in fiscal year 2014–15. Each dollar invested in turf rebates is expected to save 350 gallons of water over the estimated 10-year “life expectancy” of residential turf replacement, the audit said.
In comparison, the department spent $14.9 million on rebates for high-efficiency appliances and fixtures. Those rebates yield per-dollar savings of more than 1,700 gallons of water over their estimated lifetimes of up to 19 years, Galperin’s office reported.
(For a full copy of the audit, click here.)
Officials in the city water department defended turf rebates, according to the Los Angeles Times, saying they are increasingly important as the adoption of efficient appliances reaches “market saturation.”
J.R. DeShazo, director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA and professor of public policy and urban planning, said the audit did not seem to take into account the high price of water.
“These investments are freeing up water at a lower cost than the DWP could buy (elsewhere),” DeShazo told the Times, “and we can get a lot of water out of the turf rebate program.”
Even so, the audit is worth a close look for water conservation experts. It is certainly among the most rigorous examinations of California turf-rebate economics at a large scale in contemporary times.
Wealthy Largely Avoid Water-Waste Fines
The wealthiest residents of Los Angeles are using embarrassing amounts of water, far outstripping the conservation targets set by their city. And they don’t see even the slightest fines.
Meanwhile, in modest-income communities just a short drive away, fines are soaring when residents can’t meet conservation targets.
Such are the unusual consequences of this California drought, the New York Times reports in a Sunday article that nails one of the great disparities about California water management.
“This wide disparity in enforcement,” reporter Ian Lovett writes, “is testimony to California’s vast and chaotic system for moving water from reservoirs and underground systems to homes. There are 411 (large) water districts — some public, some private — and each of these local utilities has been charged with devising its own rules for saving water during the drought.”
As its prime example, the article notes recent revelations by RevealNews.org that residents of L.A.’s wealthy Bel-Air neighborhood are using millions of gallons of water per year without the slightest consequence. That’s because the city has met its water conservation requirements and chosen not to fine violators.
Just a two-hour drive away in the middle-class town of Apple Valley, some residents are paying water-waste fines that have boosted their water bills by a fourth or more.
One key difference — and another example of California’s water disparities — is that Apple Valley is served by a private water company, Apple Valley Ranchos. Such private water utilities, unlike the city of Los Angeles, have a profit motive and investors to please. So when revenue dips during a drought, they’re going to respond quickly.
In its defense, Los Angeles is moving to impose fines on extreme water wasters. But government moves slowly, and it hasn’t happened yet.
“We have seniors on fixed incomes appealing to us — they don’t know how they’re going to pay their water bills,” said Barb Stanton, mayor pro tem of Apple Valley. “We’re cutting back, and yet we’re being penalized.”
Nevada to Consider Statewide Water Metering
It might be hard to believe, but the state of Nevada, California’s neighbor to the east, does not require all its water connections to be metered. Las Vegas, its largest city, certainly does and has been held up nationally as a model of water conservation.
But only now is statewide metering coming up for serious discussion following the work of the Nevada Drought Forum, a panel convened by Gov. Brian Sandoval to look at the state’s long-term water and conservation needs.
“In a perfect world, everything would be measured so we knew where everything was going,” Jason King, Nevada’s state water engineer, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Other panel recommendations include:
• encouraging farmers to develop and use water-saving technologies and practices
• asking local governments to address the issue of thirsty landscape requirements imposed by many homeowner associations
• reviewing Nevada’s “use it or lose it” water rights system that may encourage waste
• exploring rainwater capture
• working with federal agencies to improve drought monitoring
• establishing and funding a statewide water conservation campaign
• adequately funding state water grants to support infrastructure improvements.
Top image: Cookie Smith straddles her artificial lawn, left, and a neighbor’s natural turf in this file photo from October 2008. A new audit by the Los Angeles city controller finds that turf rebates are not as effective at long-term water conservation as rebates for efficient household appliances. (Mark. J. Terrill, Associated Press)