Editorial: Increase the pressure on water wasters


Many individual area residents and our local water agencies have made tremendous efforts to save water in the face of the drought that's parching the state. But more effort will be required as we enter our fourth year of dry weather with no relief in sight anytime soon.

Gov. Jerry Brown's strategy last year, when he declared that California was in a state of drought, was strangely mild considering the circumstances. But last week, pointing to the dismally low level of snowpack this season to underscore the crisis we face, the governor finally put mandatory 25 percent water reductions by California towns and cities into place through next February. His directive requires state agencies to create water-conservation strategies for local water agencies, such as the private company Cal Water and the public Menlo Park Municipal Water District, to implement.

These local agencies have already developed a number of strategies, such as public education and rebates for purchasing water-efficient appliances. In the case of the Menlo Park district, residents must adhere to a range of restrictions on the outdoor use of potable water.

The Bay Area in general has done a better job cutting back on water usage than much of the state; according to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, the region's residents average 79 gallons of water per person per day. But a closer look at the statistics for individual towns is revealing. Although figures for per-capita water usage in all communities in the Almanac's coverage area are not yet available, the 2013 statistics for Portola Valley and Woodside put water consumption at 305 gallons and 421 gallons per person per day, respectively. Compare that with the numbers reported by towns such as Pacifica to the north, where usage is 37 gallons per person per day.

Cal Water, which provides water to Portola Valley, Woodside, Atherton and parts of Menlo Park, has been unwilling to provide 2014 water-consumption figures for its client towns unless the information is specifically requested by an individual town. The logic behind keeping that information from the public at large is murky at best. Water is a shared, vital resource, with all residents in the state affected by the behavior of those who won't do their part to conserve. The public has the right to demand water-usage data and hold public water agencies' as well as private water companies' feet to the fire to put in place serious penalties for irresponsible water wasters.

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2 people like this
Posted by Menlo resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 7, 2015 at 4:40 pm

penalties for irresponsible water wasters? Does that include the ever expanding FB and the new 11-floor hotel? Will they have to abide by the same, or even stricter rules than residents since they will use some huge amount of the city's water? Next thing you know, residents will be paying a lot of fees, while huge hotels will be given an exception...

5 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 7, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Alan is a registered user.

Facebook landscaped their area with low water use native plants, that can largely subside on rainwater once established. It wouldn't surprise me that they will end up being on the low side for water use per employee. Assuming people who don't work there end up working somewhere else that also uses water, that seems to be a silly assertion.

6 people like this
Posted by R. Todd Johnson
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 7, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Dear Editorial Board:

I agree completely with your conclusion about transparency of water usage numbers from Cal Water. Local residents have a right to know how water is being used locally.

But let me also encourage you to consider ways in which you can help residents locally to understand the bigger water picture.

As a start, might I recommend that your publication focus less on average local water use (which is what the Cal Water numbers would provide), and much, much more on individual water footprints.

Here's why.

Your editorial notes that average daily water use per capita in the Bay Area is 79 gallons. But you never note that the individual's average daily water footprint in the Bay Area is more likely 1,500 gallons per day.

Most people are surprised to learn about these numbers, but truthfully, in California, only about 4% of an individual's overall water footprint is at the individual/household usage level. In contrast, nearly 80% of an individual's water footprint in California is derived from our consumption of agricultural products. According to the Pacific Institute's 2012 report "California's Water Footprint", "[a]lmost half of the average Californian’s water footprint is associated with the consumption of meat and dairy products."

As eloquently put in the Daily Kos recently: "Climate deniers have their heads in the sand, but we consumers also do our best to deny the connection between our consumption and the climate crisis."

To put that comment in perspective, consider some numbers:

-- the average Bay Area resident uses 28,835 gallons of water per year for household use (toilet, lawn watering, showers, drinking, hand washing, etc.).

-- the average Bay Area resident has an additional water footprint of 518,665 gallons per year, mostly for agricultural production to feed themselves, where about 273,750 gallons are used for the beef and dairy production needed for their personal average consumption per year.

-- that means that by going without meat and dairy for just over one month, the average Bay Area resident would conserve a full year's worth of their personal water use.

These numbers should help everyone keep some perspective around the "household water over-users." For example, in a news article today on the same topic, you reported 2013 average water usage numbers, suggesting that Menlo Park residents used (on average) 32,303 gallons of water in 2013 for personal use, whereas Atherton residents used (on average) 175,200 gallons of water for personal use in 2013. But if the average Atherton resident were a vegan and the Menlo Park resident were not, that would represent a 273,750 gallon annual swing in the other direction.

So what should we do?

For one thing, the Editorial Board of local newspapers (like the Almanac) can help educate local residents. Although personal responsibility around personal water use is an important part of the equation and transparent access to data is helpful, the focus of the numbers sought from Cal Water (just like California's #EveryDropCounts conservation effort) is focused on 4% of the problem.

Instead, might I encourage you to consider creative and innovative ways for engaging locally in discussions about the other 96%, that requires personal responsibility at a consumer level that the Cal Water numbers will never address.

With sufficient grassroots engagement and education, educated local residents around the state might present a force that would counter the agricultural lobby holding a powerful grip on many politicians in Sacramento.

And an informed local population might also consider the petition from Truth or Drought which simply "asks Save Our Water to begin encouraging (not forcing) residents to make more plant-based food choices while reducing or eliminating animal-based food choices."

Californians need the information you seek from Cal Water, but they need information regarding the other 96% of their water footprint in order to make informed decisions about their consumption that affects water. Consider this my challenge for your Editorial Board to play the important role locally in providing that information as well.

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Posted by Long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 7, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Let's start by putting water meters on every property in the willows that is not part of Cal Water. We need to know how these private individuals are using or abusing our aquifer.

6 people like this
Posted by Flamingo
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 7, 2015 at 10:45 pm

R. Todd Johnson makes many very good points in the comments provided above. However, I can't agree with the fundamental premise - that "eliminating animal-based food choices" will even begin to move the needle on this big issue. The analogy would hold for energy. Driving a hybrid will make you feel better as a consumer, but it will NOT make oil companies pump and refine a single drop less of petroleum. It's a global market for oil/gas, and any that isn't used or sold here in Menlo Park will be sold elsewhere.

Agriculture in CA uses more than 80% of our water - and believe me, they don't pay anything close to the same rates as urban and suburban consumers for their water. As long as Sacramento keeps providing water to farmers (ranchers and agriculture) at these reduced rates, they will keep producing livestock and water-hungry crops (almonds!) to sell to the entire world. So, to do my part, I'm giving up eating almonds and other water-hungry nuts. I also won't buy rice that is grown in California. Let's face reality - we currently grow many crops in this state that we have no business growing. The only reason it's done is because farmers have had, up until now, access to cheap, abundant water - so much so that "flood irrigation" is a common mechanism for irrigating crops...with all the attendant losses that you would expect.

If the drought continues 1-2-3 more years, sooner or later the politicians will have to face reality and decide to pull the plug on cheap water for ag. Just drive down I-5 now and have a look at all the signs bemoaning the "politician created dust bowl". It will only get tougher if the current climate conditions persist. And no amount of "if it's yellow - mellow" will alleviate the problem. Go ahead - flush it! - and quit eating almonds!

2 people like this
Posted by Water World
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 8, 2015 at 5:47 am


I found a jar of 500-600 almonds for sale at Costco for about $16 yesterday. Assuming there's a 50% markup, the cost to produce is probably less than $8. You point out that water is not a big cost to almond production. Apparently, it doesn't take a lot of labor either (see below), leaving packaging, preparation, transportation, and marketing as the cost components. Has the government created a false economy by protecting water rates to the agricultural sector?

The abundance of water appears to have created a bubble in the California agricultural economy. Their product is not necessarily consumed in the domestic US market. It is exported. Governor Brown would have you believe we are feeding the world and that moral obligation takes precedence over the non-agricultural consumer's need to enjoy their life through maintenance of their landscaping and perhaps bathing. That's not the case. It is about tremendous profits from foreign markets; it is about the powerful lobbying interest of this part of California's economy.

Victor Davis Hansen gives a better treatment to this topic than I can. Some excerpts and a link to the full article follow:

In the winter of 2012, the drought entered its second year, but record-high agricultural commodity prices tempered the farmers’ acrimony. Newly affluent customers in China and India—in addition to wealthy Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean consumers—fueled demand for premium California dairy products, wine, nuts and dried fruits, fresh fruits and vegetables, beef, and cotton. Raisin prices jumped from $900 per ton to more than $1,900 per ton. Some almond growers became millionaires overnight. When the per-pound price of nuts tripled, and new varieties of trees and new farming practices bolstered production to well over 3,000 pounds per acre, a once-“inefficient” family farmer with 40 acres could suddenly net $5,000 an acre. Given that harvesting almonds is mostly mechanized and requires little, if any, manual labor, growers embarked on planting sprees up and down the drought-stricken valley. If 40 acres could net $200,000, large conglomerates of 5,000 acres or more might see profits of $25 million annually. Pistachios and walnuts proved even more lucrative. For the first time in a quarter-century, Central Valley farmers saw the kind of prosperity associated with the Silicon and Napa Valley


If the drought does continue, vast tracts of west-side farmlands will turn to dust. California’s nearly $30 billion agricultural export industry—led by dairy, almond, and grape production—is in grave peril. Its collapse would crush the economic livelihood of the Central Valley, especially its Hispanic community. When the 5 million-acre west side goes dry, hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs in a part of the state where the average unemployment rate already hovers above 10 percent. Farmers will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deepen their wells further and save what water they can. Everything they and their predecessors have known for a century will be threatened with extinction

Entire article: Web Link

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