Conservation, No? Say it Ain’t So

Within the next few days, the Board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the wholesale water supplier to over half the Golden State’s population, will consider budget-cutting proposals designed to shave $20 million from its pending budget of about $1.3 billion. No surprise there – the economy is down, homebuilding is down, and water sales are down. Met needs to tighten its belt.

What is surprising is that one of the candidates for the cut is Met’s regional water conservation program – the funds used to help homeowners and businesses across the region use water more efficiently. This program happens to be budgeted for, let’s see, about $20 million. Hmmm. Pretty convenient! If conservation gets thrown under the bus, the board and staff won’t have to look anywhere else for potentially painful choices to rein in spending.

The problem with this “logic,” however, is that water conservation actually helps hold down the cost of water, and will play an even greater role in this regard in coming years.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, several factors, including rising costs for the electric power needed to lift Met’s massive imports of water across mountain ranges, are putting upward pressure on the cost of wholesale water. Locally developed resources, especially water conservation measures that permanently reduce demand (effectively becoming a “supply”), are available in SoCal at less cost than the cost of acquiring, transporting, treating, and distributing extra water brought into the region. Plenty of water users get this math, and Met’s conservation programs have many willing participants.

In April, several environmental organizations, including NRDC, submitted a letter to the General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger and the Chairman of the Board of Directors Timothy Brick urging them to maintain the regional water conservation program at its budgeted level and implement the most cost effective options first. Investments in improving the efficiency of water use are among the most economically responsible options available to Southern California.

Less than 6 months ago, the Governor signed into law a bill requiring urban water consumption to be reduced 20% by 2020 on a per capita basis. Met supported the bill. So did NRDC. But now, even as the region continues under water use restrictions, and businesses and families are urged to cut back their water use, the Met board is seriously considering cutting support for water conservation. What message will that send to customers, the Governor, and the rest of the state? And how many fingers will it take to send it?