Stabilize Population to Save Water, Energy, and California

Published on September 11th, 2017


Lake Cachuma, California
Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County is currently at 13% of its
historical average and 9% of its capacity.

In a recent editorial called “Save water, save energy, save California,” the Los Angeles Times exhorts Californians to increase our water efficiency standards – do more with less in effect – to avoid even greater hardship during the next inevitable drought.

Ah, we Californians and our water!

It’s an old story tied to the state’s infamous drought cycle and our short memory span. A winter or two of abundant rain, deep Sierra snows, and gurgling snowmelt fills water supply reservoirs, aqueducts, and aquifers. Californians pour, spray, gush and flush water as profligately as if we lived in rain-drenched Georgia.

Then, all too predictably, the winter rains sputter and disappear for several years and the next drought is upon us, each one seemingly worse than the last. Emergency conservation measures are implemented and lawns turn brown; trees die by the billions and turn to tinder.   

Rinse, repeat.

California’s most recent drought cycle lasted essentially a decade, breaking only in the winter of 2016-2017, with torrential downpours in the north and a “more modest moistening” in the south. 

It’s debatable whether we have learned that water conservation must now become a fact of life year-in and year-out or if we’re returning to our old binge-and-bust ways. 

The Times editorial puts in a plug for SB-606 on water management planning, introduced by state senators Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). SB-606 would establish higher efficiency standards throughout the state, tailored to regionally variable climates and other local conditions, and potentially backed by penalties for non-compliance. 

SB-606 goes beyond the 20 x 2020 Water Conservation Plan, passed by legislators during the drought, which aims for a 20% reduction in per capita water consumption by 2020. Under the 20 x 2020 plan, efficiency is treated as just one optional way to achieve water conservation goals. SB-606 mandates improved water efficiency. 

Water conservation and water efficiency measures overlap, but they differ; conservation actually includes efficiency. 

Central Valley crops in California
Crop irrigation in California’s Central Valley.

Conservation simply means using less water use in the aggregate. That can include wasting less or simply doing without, such as by taking shorter showers or watering the lawn less. Efficiency entails using a smaller amount of water to accomplish the same task or objective. Newer water-efficient appliances and fixtures use substantially less water than their older counterparts to get the job done, e.g. clothes washed or toilets flushed. More efficient irrigation techniques and tools can provide adequate water to crops, gardens, orchards, and lawns while using much less.  

All of this is laudable and critically important if Californians are to weather upcoming droughts. But it is not enough. It’s absolutely necessary but it’s not sufficient. 

Continued rapid population growth offsets and undermines all these commendable efforts. If Californians achieve a 20% reduction in per capita water us and our population grows by 20% in less than two decades, we will have gained nothing at all. 

The Times editorial also correctly points out that energy consumption is linked to water consumption. It takes a lot of electricity to pump water from aquifers, desalinate it, and pump it across water basins (inter-basin transfer). The more water we use, the more energy it takes. And the opposite is also true: the more water we conserve, the more energy we conserve. 

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County
Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County.

Continuing population growth in California only ensures that all resource conservation and efficiency efforts will be no more successful than the exhausting labors of Sisyphus.

The labors of Sisyphus.



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