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On a Roll

By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Drought's Scouts

Uploaded: Oct 13, 2014
We need drought pioneers. California's water crisis demands bold thinking – including these promising approaches:

PRICING. As several readers have pointed out, antiquated water prices and billing systems shield us us from the realities of California's historic drought. We need something like the 'baseline usage' found on many local utility bills. If users have a basic allocation, they can decide how how to get more out of their 'water budgets.' A tiered pricing system would encourage conservation. In Southern California, approaches like this have had a major impact. In the Irvine area, a pioneer of tiered pricing, household water use has declined by 61% over the last 13 years.

RECYCLING. Why talk about this in the abstract when countries like Israel can show us how? The Negev desert, not so different from California's Imperial Valley, keeps the country in fruits and vegetables – by dramatically stretching a meager water supply. Israel recycles 80% of all municipal sewage. Within a few years, treated wastewater will supply half of the country's agriculture. In the US, we currently recycle a bit more than 2% of municipal waste. Israel, by the way, is a major agricultural exporter.

SNOWPACK. The Sierras' annual snowfall keeps melting earlier. Farmers used to rely on the spring runoff to fill reservoirs evenly through June and July. An earlier snowmelt means longer dry seasons and reduced water for agriculture. I had always assumed global warming was the lone culprit. But perhaps not. Climate scientists in California have noted that while summers are noticeably hotter, there hasn't been all that much winter warming. There has been a major rise in particulates. This includes the hydrocarbon soot that dirties my glasses, plus agricultural dust. Particulates falling on the Sierras may be darkening the snow's surface enough to absorb more sun energy and speed the melt. Reducing diesel truck pollution and encouraging conservation tillage statewide might help.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 14, 2014 at 11:15 am

We already have tiered pricing for residential use in some Bay Area cities; for example, Redwood City. The basic tier is far cheaper than the top level (probably 4 times cheaper).

I am not sure why you focus on residents when the truly significant distortions on water pricing are the subsidies for agricultural use that encourage "rice in the desert" and represent 80% of California's water usage.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Alan is a registered user.

California rice isn't as bad as it may seem. First off, it's not grown in the desert, but in the Sacramento River Delta. These are areas that are natural wetlands. The rice growers in recent years have made big improvements in how they manage their lands to accommodate migrating birds. I believe rice farmers are considered to be amongst the most responsible in California due to their improvements, according to environmental groups. If you're going to pick on a agricultural group, I'd focus elsewhere.

Agriculture needs to improve, but for particular sources of water (example: ground water near the coast, and local bay area reservoirs) residential use is predominant, and absolutely does matter; we don't want to suck *those* sources dry. Joseph just wants to point the finger elsewhere.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 14, 2014 at 2:02 pm

I will certainly point the finger at those who use the most water, especially if they are receiving an artificially cheap price to do so on the back of the taxpayer. To do otherwise seems counterproductive.

Posted by Water is precious, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Oct 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm

According to state websites, 80% of California's water goes to agriculture in a dry year, and 50% or less in "normal" years. However, much of that agriculture is for growing alfalfa for cows, a crop that uses exponentially more water than other crops. Californians need to make the connection between what they eat and the impact on the environment... do we want to grow food for people, or grow food for livestock? One takes much less water and land than the other. Read about it and make your own choice. If 50% of Californian's cut their meat intake in half, water usage would fall dramatically. And yes, reducing the water used in home landscaping also will help significantly. Landscaping is the biggest homeowner use of water. It matters.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 18, 2014 at 11:38 am

"Water is precious" --
Thank you very much for your wisdom. Water IS VERY precious, and, although none of our individual choices may seem to make a difference all by themselves, they do make a huge difference when added together as the actions of a large group of people.

I found out recently, much to my dismay, from an employee of the San Francisco PUC, that some of the water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir does, indeed, go to Big Ag in the Central Valley Until then, I was sure that all of that water went directly to Crystal Springs Reservoir for mostly residential and some business uses.

I was wrong in what I had said previously, and I do not at all mind admitting it, I want to share only facts. "Just the facts, ma'am." is my mantra.

What I absolutely detest about the new statewide water-use regs is that they encourage all residents to act like bratty 5-year-olds, tattling on their neighbors about their neighbors' supposed violations of those new water regs. That is just plain wrong! What matters is how much water we use every month, NOT what we do every minute of every day. Give us a fair allotment of water, and let us decide how we use it. THAT would be fair.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Paul --
about the Sierra snowpack: Yes, the particulates are probably making it melt too soon, but -- there is not nearly as much of it in the first place, and, even more importantly, the water content of what little snow there is is a lot less than what has been considered average. The chart I found here: Web Link goes from 1879 to 2013. Most of it -- 100 of the 134 years shown -- are records of 20th-century snowfall, which is but part of the annual precipitation which scientists recently have discovered was a lot more than that which fell in the past 1,000 years -- and the past 8,000 years, for that matter.

Los Angeles' Channel 4 (ABC) reported on May 1 of this year (2014): "A measurement on April 1, considered the peak of the snow season. It showed that the state's snowpack was about 32 percent of average water content." This report also said: "The final measurement of the wet season showed the snowpack at 18 percent of average for the date, according to the Department of Water Resources."

So, to summarize: the Sierra snowpack last seasonwas only 18% of an average year's snowfal, and had only 32% of average water content. Yikes! That is not good at all.

There was a good reason that, in the past -- before this horrible drought -- the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sierra snowfighters called the snow on Donner "Sierra cement". It used to have a very high water content, and therefore took very powerful machines to move it off the tracks.

I am very proud of what Orange County is doing with their pioneering "toilet to tap" program. They are even so enlightened that they are recharging their aquifer! I am very impressed! (I had no idea they were doing that until you posted that in a previous blog. Thank you very much for that info!)

IT is way past time for every single sewer system in every state that is affected by this bad drought to copy what Orange County is doing -- and do it ASAP. Apparently, many sewer systems are aging and need repairs or replacement. What better time to install the best "toilet-to-tap" systems!

I just now found -- while looking for Sierra snowfall amounts -- a very interesting report, on this Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering website: Web Link The article is titled: " Asian Desert Dust Causes Californian Snowfall". The key part of this post is this:

"The researchers also found that heavy precipitation was caused by a "seeder-feeder" mechanism, in which the ice crystals nucleated on dust particles would fall from their upper-level glaciated clouds and through a lower layer of supercooled liquid clouds. The water droplets in the lower layer of clouds would freeze and precipitate, creating an increased amount of snow. These lower liquid clouds likely would not have precipitated had they not been seeded by the ice crystals sedimenting out of the upper ice clouds." - See more at: Web Link

For more fascinating info on dust -- what it is and its effects globally, do read this excellent book: "The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things", by Hannah Holmes.

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