Quenching California’s Thirst


This past weekend, graduate students from the Sol Price School of Public Policy headed to the University of Pennsylvania to participate in the 3rd annual National Invitational Public Policy Challenge at the Fels Institute of Government.  Three public policy students, a planning student, and a dual-planning and public policy student competed with nine other teams for cash prizes.  Modeled off of MBA competitions, teams were charged with the task of identifying a local policy challenge and devising an innovative solution that includes a campaign and implementation plan.  Along with the University of Pennsylvania, University of Georgia, and New York University, USC students were awarded 2014 Winning Idea for their project.  After identifying the drought as their local policy challenge, the team proposed LASaves, a web-based platform designed to make sense of big data and provide customers in Los Angeles County with individualized and aggregated information about their water usage and consumption rates.

Visualizing the Crisis

Visualizing the Crisis

The competition was a tremendous opportunity to learn about the various regional challenges confronting the United States and to see the innovative solutions presented by fellow policy, administration and planning students.  Competition was stiff, but USC students won over the crowd with their innovative idea about how to contribute toward conservation efforts amidst the on-going drought confronting the Western United States.  With Governor Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency in January in regards to the drought, Price students felt the competition was an opportune time to create a campaign around the issue and stimulate public participation in the conservation movement.  The team focused their efforts on how Californians are going to meet the 20% voluntary reductions in water use that Brown called for in his declaration, which the team determined could only be accomplished if a greater sense of awareness and public discourse is generated around the problem.  Two months after the calls for voluntary reductions, it is unclear whether or not those targets are being met, and what will be required to facilitate such reductions.

View of the drought from space, 2013-2014

View of the drought from space, 2013-2014

While Governor Brown’s declaration intended to bring the issue of the drought to the attention of California’s residents, his message hardly conveyed the severity of the crisis in California and its neighboring states.  First off, 20% reductions in usage seem overly generous to consumers given that just last week the Sierra Nevadas had snowpack at only 12% of their annual average for the same time of year.  Moreover, despite extensive media coverage by news providers such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Economist, the urgency of the crisis is not being felt by consumers, at least not in Los Angeles County.  Even as a planning student in the area, I have been surprised by my own lack of knowledge on the subject, even more-so by the seemingly absent discourse on the crisis.

As the Price team further investigated the drought, it stuck out to them that, even if a local resident wanted to reduce their consumption 20% by, for example, trying new ways of washing dishes and showering, they would have no way of knowing by how much their behavioral changes have impacted their usage rates.  To demonstrate the contrast, pick up your next energy bill and water bill and lay them side by side (or view the windows side by side on your computer screen).  You’ll likely find one to be a resource with useful information, and one to be a simple communication of how much money you owe the water company.  Water bills in Los Angeles County are generally given out once every two months, and they contain virtually no information about the consumer’s usage.

This is problematic for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, consumers respond to knowledge, or to crisis.   Using the energy industry, which serves as a useful reference point for understanding conservation strategy, we can illustrate what this statement means.  In the 1990’s and 2000’s there were a series of crises that resulted in “brown-outs”, or “rolling blackouts”, otherwise known as your energy being such off. This was the “crisis” stage of energy conservation.   While this was deeply troubling–indeed, I remember sitting in 6th grade in the dark for multiple days–it illicited a panic-ridden response from both energy providers and consumers.  Since then, energy providers have focused on initiating conservation by focusing on the “knowledge” aspect of conservation.  In doing so, the industry transformed their public outreach and information campaigns to encourage their users to reduce consumption, thereby alleviating pressure on our outdated energy grid.  One of the primary transformations has been the relationship between consumers and their usage patterns, which energy providers achieved through reforming the energy bill to include detailed information about usage while tying the information to cost-saving strategies for consumers.  The results have been extraordinary, as noted by a recent Economist article that explores the consumer-driven transition to renewable energy sources.

Changing Energy Production Patterns

Changing Energy Production Patterns

In improving conservation, water faces a number of obstacles that energy does not have to deal with, largely stemming from its nature as a necessarily reliable service and its governance by publicly elected officials.  The first problem, water and its need to be dependable, has meant that shut offs do not occur, tricking consumers into believing that their water supply is endless and that their access is unlimited.  The second problem results from the fact that water is governed and administered by water districts, which are managed by a board of elected officials, whose constituents are sensitive to price increases.  This is less problematic for private energy providers whose bottom-line is not re-election, but profit.  The issue is then exacerbated by law, which restricts water districts’ ability to collect usage data against the will of the consumer.  But the drought is presenting water districts with new kinds of political pressure, as districts are solely responsible for managing mandatory cutbacks in consumption, which will soon be the decree of the state.  Moreover, billions of dollars of aid has been distributed to districts to implement smart metering systems that track usage, and there is legislation pending in November that reforms the current law governing water usage information and its restrictive impacts on information gathering and provision.

Recognizing the aforementioned problems, Price students decided to create LASaves as a mitigation campaign for the drought.  Students proposed working with a water district in LA County that services 200,000 consumers to implement a pilot project that collects data from newly implemented smart meters, and compiles it in a user-friendly way that helps consumers better understand their consumption patterns.  Drawing from experience in the energy industry and recent successes in water conservation throughout the state, the campaign seeks to reform the water bill and push water alerts to residents via text message.  Reforming the bill was a critical innovation for the energy industry, whose customers responded positively and pro actively to the cost-savings incentives presented by changing their consumption patterns.  The bill would be part of a larger platform that allows customers to interact with their bill and the useful data it contains.  The second aspect of the campaign, text-based water alerts that contain messages about crisis alerts and individual targets, are intended to reach individuals who may have restricted access to computer technology.

Many critics of the program would respond with a simple observation, followed by a question: agriculture, not residents, consumes most of California’s water, so why target urban residents as mediums of change?  It is true that California’s primary water abusers are in agriculture, but the consumers of the agricultural products are urban residents, who are largely unaware of how much water is required to fill their need for walnuts and pistachios.  Given the political difficulties in targeting agricultural users, as observed by a recent LA Times Op-Ed, it is time to go straight to environmentally conscious California consumers to change demand for more water-friendly products.  Moreover, most of California’s population lives in urban areas.  In Southern California alone there are over 20 million people, whose votes will be desperately needed to approve the pending billions of dollars of infrastructural updates to the 60-year old water system (a state storm water bond tax comes up this November).

Final-Crop-Map_1It takes how much water to grow an almond?

It takes how much water to grow an almond?


By targeting urban residents, water districts can build the political capital they need to push through these measures, while making critical voters aware of the crisis by communicating how they are contributing, and also how they can help.  LASaves would be part of a larger campaign by the local water district (and pilot program community partner) to concentrate the myriad of technological apps and programs that are helping people reduce their water consumption. The result is increased transparency on behalf of water districts and cost savings for consumers, as lower water consumption results in lower water, sewage and energy bills.  There is a critical opportunity right now for water districts to implement innovative and effective new strategies for encouraging consumers to meet upcoming target reductions.  And while the program is not a panacea for the drought, it represents an important first step toward a larger plan for water conservation, one that starts with empowering consumers as participants and problem solvers in the crisis.  This is an important message we must convey as, unlike energy, new sources cannot be created and the amount available is in fact finite.

Lake Orville, 2011-2014

Lake Orville, 2011-2014

There are other, bigger motivations behind understanding the impacts of the drought and water supply on human behavior, which may have important implications for planning and development in the future.  Historically, geographies that had natural access to water supply tended to be the most urbanized places, both for purposes of transportation and individual consumption.  When looking at the development of the United States, people were drawn to areas along the rivers that extend west from the northeast, notably the upper Midwest which is rich in access to thousands of lakes and rivers.  Access is still critical to modern settlements, but access has been redefined by the technologies that can pump water from distant location, which is becoming increasingly limited.  Given that the drought could last up to 200 years, it is important to start considering the long-term impacts it may have on urbanization patterns in the United States.  The Sun Belt, which spans the southwest of the United States, has experienced massive population growth and rapid development over the past 20 years, in contrast to the population decline experienced by northern, former industrial cities like Detroit.  Such southern and western development has been largely predicated on the ability to maintain access to healthy and full reservoirs in California and the Colorado River; threats to this water supply calls into question the sustainability of a large population in this thirsty region.  It may also, however, prove a competitive advantage for those places seeking to recover their former populations and economic strength.

Until then, however, consider doing those dishes by hand.


One response to “Quenching California’s Thirst

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s