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 Change.org 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.