Column, 636 words

A Prickly Question

Should everyone pay a premium for food because Californians want to waste water?

Jill Richardson

California’s harsh new measure to deal with long-term drought is making waves. Residents caught wasting by washing sidewalks with their garden hose and committing similar reckless acts are incurring fines of up to $500.

Is that fair? Or will the fine be perceived as governmental overreach, like former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s ill-fated attempt to limit soda sizes to 16 ounces.


Steve A Johnson/flickr

As California struggles through its third year of drought, the government first called for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use. Instead, it got a 1 percent increase. After all, when it doesn’t rain, folks who won’t let go of their ideal of a lush, green lawn will run the sprinkler more often.

To the Golden State’s own residents, our failure to conserve voluntarily comes as no surprise. Who here hasn’t seen automatic sprinkler systems running during a rainstorm, or a home on a steep slope attempting to irrigate its green lawn as the gallons of water meant for the grass run into the sewer?

A few weeks ago, I saw my neighbor’s sprinklers going in the middle of the afternoon (the least efficient time to water). The water was flowing straight into the gutter. The yard didn’t even have grass. As far as I could tell, the intended recipient of the water was a cactus.

Do you live outside of California and wonder, “Why should I care?”

Try ambling over to the produce section of your local supermarket. Half of all U.S. fruit and nuts and a hefty portion of the nation’s veggies are grown in California. And growers of walnuts, almonds, peaches, citrus, avocados, grapes, lettuce, and more all rely on the state’s scarce water supply.

California’s water dilemma brings up a central question that divides liberals and conservatives across the nation: Are we all in this together or is it everyone for themselves?

When we as a society decide to use our finite water resources so that homeowners in arid climates can have lawns, golf courses, and swimming pools, it squeezes other water users — including farmers. Then prices go up for everyone.

Of course, nobody is being asked to give up golf courses and swimming pools. The failed voluntary conservation measures could be summed up as “Don’t do wasteful things you shouldn’t do anyway.”

Aside from voluntary conservation, the government could minimize or avoid altogether using the stick by offering more carrots.

How about offering free rain barrels and classes in water-efficient irrigation? Or giving away drought-tolerant plants that require little water or maintenance to thrive? Couldn’t the state homeowners who purchase water-efficient toilets tax credits?

If it has the funds and the right priorities, California could transition all government property to drought-tolerant landscaping and shift from growing water-hogging Eucalyptus to water-sipping native plants along all freeways. As the price of water goes up, that might cut spending on maintenance.

At some point, we need to ask whether the rest of the country should put up with higher prices on fruit because Californians want to do things like hose down their driveways and sidewalks instead of sweeping them.

In that context, it seems pretty fair to fine those who persist in the most egregiously wasteful uses of water. Maybe after giving them a warning first, before levying that new $500 fine.

The same principle applies to other big environmental issues, like the climate crisis and air pollution. Reducing emissions is going to require effort from all of us, and it might be a tad inconvenient for some. But, alas, we all share our air and water, and there’s no getting around that.

We’re all in this together, and if we can’t come up with enough tax incentives or other voluntary approaches to fixing our problems, we’ll all need to follow some new rules.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

  • Karen Stewart

    Jill, San Diego offers free classes in water-wise irrigation, rebates for turf removal, and rebates for water-efficient appliances like washers and toilets. I’ve availed myself of all of these. I believe they give rebates on rain barrels too, and I know there are other rebates available, like for sprinkler heads. I learned in my classes that 50% to 70% of California water goes to irrigate lawns. I just wonder how they can monitor who’s watering the sidewalk, gutter, etc. without having neighbors report on neighbors. That’s kind of scary. There will always be people whose attitude is, “If I can pay for it, I can have it.” Just like those who drive great big SUVs and gas guzzling trucks and cars.
    It’s also important to keep in mind how much water is used for animal agriculture. As long as we continue our love affair with meat and dairy, basic water conservation measures won’t make a significant difference. According to one report I read, it costs 12,009 gallons of water to produce each pound of beef. How many pounds of beef does the average American eat in a year?
    This was a great article, and provides plenty of food for thought.