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CA Water

Convoluted study finds residential water crisis where none exists.

By Dan Walters
Sacramento Bee
July 23, 2006

California has no shortage of critical political and public issues -- public education, traffic congestion, housing costs and medical care, to name but a few. Too much green grass isn't one of them, despite the assertions of a new think-tank study.

Ellen Hanak, an economist at the Public Policy Institute of California, would have us believe that as population grows, lawns and other residential greenery will consume inordinately high amounts of water.

"Do the math," Hanak said in a statement accompanying release of her study. "We're facing the prospect of many more people, with more lawns and gardens, in the state's hottest, driest regions; that adds up to a lot of water."

Hanak's math, framed in complex equations based on assumptions about population growth, housing patterns and water use, works like this: Urban water use in 2000 was about 9 million acre-feet, a fifth of the water devoted to human use in the state, with 6 million acre-feet of that consumed in residential households and perhaps half of the household use outdoors. Bottom line: somewhere between 2.5 million and 3 million acre-feet used to maintain residential greenery each year.

Hanak then expostulates that population growth -- 11 million more Californians over the next quarter- century -- higher-than-average growth in hot and dry inland areas, and the tendency for inland growth to be single-family homes rather than apartments or condominiums will increase demand for outdoor water, but never calculates how much that demand will be in the aggregate other than "a lot of water."

Despite the dearth of quantification, Hanak launches into a series of policy suggestions to curb the demand, clearly intimating that inlanders are water hogs whose thirst needs to be curbed. She disparages the large lots found in inland residential tracts, approvingly cites denser multifamily housing in the coastal areas, and even suggests that California follow Las Vegas' water conservation model.

"A lot of water" is a less than satisfactory basis for policy decisions (at another point Hanak refers to her calculations as "only a guesstimate"), so let's round out the water numbers.

Let's assume that the population growth she assumes is accurate, a little less than a one-third increase in 25 years. Let's also assume that over half of that growth is in single-family homes with lawns and gardens in inland areas, a very generous estimate, so that the amount of water needed for lawns and shrubs increases by 40 percent over that period, another generous figure. That would indicate that outdoor water use would increase from 3 million acre-feet a year (still another generous number) to 4.2 million acre-feet.

If the issue is 1.2 million acre-feet a year (and it's probably much less), we should put it into some context other than "a lot of water." All human uses of water in California -- residential, commercial, industrial and, most of all, agricultural -- amount to an estimated 43 million acre-feet a year, a fifth of the estimated 200 million-acre feet that flow through the state. So watering the additional greenery would amount to perhaps one-half of 1 percent of the total.

Here's the supposed problem from another standpoint: During the height of last winter's storms, the Sacramento River alone was carrying two acre-feet of water each second to the sea, or 1.2 million acre-feet each week. Funny how those numbers work out.

It illustrates how California's water situation is often distorted by those pushing other agendas, such as discouraging people from living in single-family homes and pushing them into multifamily complexes simply because of some ideological bias against personal property and for communal living. Hanak may not personally hold that bias, but her misleading numbers will be used by those who do.

There's nothing wrong with a family living in a single-family home with a cool green yard and a flower garden; it reflects the legitimate desire of most people to own property they can enjoy as they see fit and build estates for their families. And California doesn't have a water shortage; it has a conflict over how water should be distributed and priced that could be settled quickly were ideological agendas set aside and rational economics applied.

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