Guest opinion: Water woes - Let's focus on the rest of the iceberg


R. Todd Johnson of Menlo Park is an attorney with a focus on renewable energy and sustainability.

By R. Todd Johnson

The Almanac's April 7 editorial, "Increase the pressure on water wasters," only touches the tip of the iceberg when it concludes with the following:

"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."

I agree completely with this 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 the Almanac to consider ways in which it can help residents locally to understand the bigger water picture during our historic drought.

As a start, I'd recommend that we focus less on average local water use (what the Cal Water numbers reveal), and much, much more on individual water footprints. Here's why: The editorial notes that average daily water use per capita in the Bay Area is 79 gallons, ignoring the individual's average daily water footprint in the Bay Area, which is more likely 1,500 gallons per day.

Most Californians express shock when they learn that individual/household usage only accounts for about 4 percent of an individual's overall water footprint. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of an individual's water footprint in California is derived from our consumption of agricultural products, and "(a)lmost half of the average Californian's water footprint is associated with the consumption of meat and dairy products, according to the Pacific Institute's 2012 report "California's Water Footprint."

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 the following:

● 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, with about 273,750 of those gallons used annually for the beef and dairy production needed for their personal average consumption.

● These numbers suggest that the average Bay Area resident who forgoes meat and dairy products for just over one month, would conserve a full year's worth of their personal water use.

Numbers like these provide perspective around the issue of "household water wasters." For example, in the Almanac's April 7 news article on the same topic, 2013 average water usage numbers were reported, 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. Setting aside for a moment the variances (other than wasting water) responsible for such drastically different numbers (such as lot size), it seems useful to note that, if the average Atherton resident were a vegan and the Menlo Park resident were not, it would represent a 273,750-gallon annual swing in consumption 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. Certainly, personal responsibility around personal water use is an important start. Transparent access to water usage data is also helpful. But the focus on the numbers sought from Cal Water (just like California's #EveryDropCounts conservation effort) addresses the proverbial tip of the iceberg by focusing on 4 percent of the problem.

Instead, we must all consider creative and innovative ways for engaging locally in discussions about the other 96 percent of our water consumption footprint, which requires personal responsibility at a consumer level that the Cal Water numbers will never address. Such grassroots engagement and education, educating local residents around the state, might present a force countering the agricultural lobby that holds a powerful grip on many politicians in Sacramento.

And an informed local population might also consider the petition from Truth or Drought, which asks California 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 from Cal Water, but they need information regarding the other 96 percent of their water footprint in order to make informed decisions about personal consumption affecting water resources. Consider this my challenge for the Almanac editorial board to play the important role locally in providing that information as well.

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6 people like this
Posted by gunste
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Apr 17, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Water use for any account can be downloaded from CalWater's website. It provides monthly use for the past 12 months in terms of hundred Cubic Feet.

To convert to gallons multiply by 748.

Water wastage by individuals occurs most frequently while brushing teeth, washing dishes, by leaving the tap running at full stream and doing laundry with extra rinse etc. . Yet all this is a drop in the bucket compared to agriculture that fails to use drip irrigation, instead of sprinklers and flooding where evaporation is huge. (Israel has the technology down pat, because of need).

The requirement to have to ask for water in restaurants is a poorly disguised project. People who shower at their gym don't save water. Drastic restrictions on homeowners is poorly devised. - Just prohibit lawns and sprinkles in areas that are desert … Los Angeles, Palm Springs etc.

Those of us who put in drippers in 1987 and reduced toilet flushing as well as changing to low volume comodes been saving water for decades.

4 people like this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Stu Soffer is a registered user.

A few comments, Todd:

There's an article in Le Monde Diplomatique describing life in Sao Paolo when they ran out of water:

"Deforestation in Amazonia in the service of agribusiness has depleted the rainfall in southernmost Latin America and now the powerhouse city of São Paulo is in severe drought."

Web Link

Also, I always think back to the Club of Rome Report, now over 40 years ago called "The Limits to Growth."
We need to think the limits to our local growth. Although limiting growth, so I understand, is unpopular.

Indeed, Israel is a pioneer in desalinization, see the New York Times:

Web Link

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 17, 2015 at 6:46 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

We're going to have to start desalinating. It's the only way we can assure a consistent water supply. It's not cheap. So what?

2 people like this
Posted by jessayn
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2015 at 7:10 am

Rather than going vegan, why don't we start by not consuming less nutrition sustaining and very water consuming agricultural products like rice and wine?

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Posted by OPC
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Apr 18, 2015 at 12:58 pm

To add to Todd's comments, we need to distinguish between our local supply of water, used to cook our food, shower and water landscapes; versus water we import that is already in the supply of other goods we consume, like beef. Cutting out beef, except for locally grown meat, won't help our local water shortage, if it's meat that grown in Kansas or Texas. (That's not to say it doesn't have other benefits.)

Reducing outdoor irrigation with potable water is one of the quickest ways we individually can reduce the strain on our local water resources. Another quick step is to check for leaks in your indoor fixtures, like doing a quick check for toilet leaks - Web Link .

7 people like this
Posted by the real iceberg
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Too many people! We should be promoting responsible family planning and avoid major population growth where natural resources are limited to support it

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Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm

We may need water trains in the short term. Those DOT-111 tank cars are no longer legal (by the order of the Federal Railroad Administration) to carry crude oil -- usually that VERY explosive Bakken crude -- so they can and should be used to bring water here to California. That could happen much faster than any other long-term solution.

My solution? Replace aging sewage-treatment plants with state-of-the art "toilet-to-tap" wastewater-treatment plants, which take raw sewage, purify it (removing all bacteria, protozoazns, viruses and drug residues, etc.), through reverse osmosis. The water that somes of of this plant is pure distilled water, which could be put directly nto the drinking-water system. In Orange County, where this has been done since 2008, it is, instead, piped to many ponds, which recharge underground aquifers
(pretty fast -- 14 feet a day!). Water in those aquifers is thenpumped out by a number of other cities which could not otherwise access that pure water.

Link to article with fascinating details on how this is done in Orange County:

Web Link

Wastewater treatment plants are getting old, and many need replacing. Why not convert ALL of them to “toilet-to-tap” plants? Too gross, you say? Anyone ever been to one of the cities located on the Mississippi River? Well -- the water you drink there has been through millions of kidneys -- and is NOT anywhere nearly as clean and pure as the water coming out of a toilet-to-tap plant, and this technology uses MUCH less energy than does desalination. And the plants can be put anywhere.

The billions that have been wasted on HSR here in CA could and should have been spent to build many new toilet-to-tap wastewater-treatment plants.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 19, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If you really want to save water then take out your lawn and replace it with artificial turf.

Most Atherton residents, with our large size lots, can reduce their water usage by 60%.

6 people like this
Posted by Matt R
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Apr 20, 2015 at 10:28 am

This article, while true, implies that domestic water use is so small that doing anything there is pointless. This is just wrongheaded. While it is true that ones water footprint is made of more than what is reflected in ones water bill, having anyone do anything there with makes tracking individual choices practically impossible. How would one create a diet credit for low water impact food choices? That is not practicable in any way shape or form. As others have pointed out, much of the water footprint is remote, and the drought is more of a wastern region thing.

Pretty much all of the article and most of the comments boil down to "I'm not the problem. Do other stuff first." In Woodside and PV, this is just false. There are large numbers of people who use many times (more than 10x) the Bay Area average.

Fact is, homes DO use a statistically significant amount of fresh water. Doing waste water reclamation will take years to change permitting and gain acceptance, much less replace any significant amount of installed base.

Also, water use data availability varies by town. Woodside has a pathetic web presence on water use and drought. Protola Valley has per capita water use listed by number of people who fall into many use bins. Direct the derision at the districts that aren't posting their data. PV did it. Other towns can and should.

Anyway, many have been content to just pay for whatever they use, without concern. Many have not taken water use into account when designing landscaping. Many have high water demand landscaping as a legacy of times when water was less of a concern. Something needs to drive change at the domestic consumption level. Eating salad won't do that. Nor will increasing supply via desalinization or turning waste water into potable water.

Yes, agriculture and other industrial water users need to prove use efficiency as well, but let's not kid ourselves: domestic water use reduction is part of the solution as well.

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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 20, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Please consider cessation of development of new housing units.
It's irresponsible to bring more people to the area until we have a reliable water supply & enough roadways to move existing traffic.
Last Friday, eastbound on Woodside Rd after leaving #280 @ 3:28pm, traffic stopped just west of Northgate. It took 8 minutes to get from Northgate to Alameda de las Pulgas.

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Posted by Menlo resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Downtowner, add to "please stop building more housing," please stop building more hotels and corporate office buildings in MP.

2 people like this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 20, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Conserving water locally is fine but we need to understand the water statistics. If one divides up the precipitation that falls on the state the breakdown is basically 50% natural watersheds flowing to the ocean, 40% agriculture and 10% cities.

Our leadership has taken the 50% natural watershed out of the discussion at the behest of the environmental community. The result has been an 80% agriculture and 20% city usage statistic floating around.

Our conservation efforts are mostly symbolic. The Sacramento River is currently running right up to its banks.

Please keep this view in mind when calling for draconian changes in water usage behavior or suggesting multi generational family farms should be thrown into bankruptcy.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 20, 2015 at 7:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This court ruling is a BIG problem for using pricing to control water usage:

"LOS ANGELES (AP) — An Orange County appeals court ruled Monday that San Juan Capistrano's tiered water rates are unconstitutional, potentially dealing a blow to agencies statewide that have used the pricing structure to encourage people to save water.

The 3-0 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal upholds a Superior Court judge's decision that found that charging bigger water users incrementally higher rates violates a voter-approved law that prohibits government agencies from charging more than the cost of a service."

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Posted by Matt R
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Apr 20, 2015 at 10:37 pm

The court ruling doesn't affect private companies. Nor does it seem to have problems with the Santa Cruz system where the high use fees are penalties, not tiered rates. Also, tiered rate systems that are based on the cost of providing services are not subject to the ruling. Because San Jaun Capistrano used arbitrary rate tiers, it was in violation of the law. But this is a new wrinkle, for sure.

Also, there seems to be some relief coming to districts that have high farm usage, but what this means to each and every farm is still unclear.

7 people like this
Posted by L
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:48 am

This whole article relies on the assumption that dairy and cattle in CA only serve CA consumers. Citizens cutting back on dairy and meat would just shift sales to other states and other countries. This article makes no sense to me.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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