Salt Water, Grey Water, or Oregon Water for Thirsty California
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. Political emergencies give governments additional power to regulate, coerce, and otherwise make people change behavior. California government agencies want people to use less water until the next rains come to water lawns and crops and refill reservoirs.
Students debating marine natural resource policies know of a nearby water supply for Los Angeles, San Diego, and other coastal cities. Ask.com says there are 188,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water in the Pacific ocean. That’s 187 quintillion, and more than enough to keep California wet.
|Video and article source: NBC So. Cal.|
But ocean water is salty and requires desalinating before drinking, watering lawns, or irrigating most crops. The desalination process is becoming less energy intensive and less expensive, but is still more expensive that other sources of water for thirsty Californians.
The provision of water in California is managed by local, county, state, and federal agencies. Students unhappy with government provision of education, medical care, and welfare, and skeptical of government regulation of energy, the environment, housing, food safety, wage minimums, and many, many other areas of life, might well be skeptical of government water management.
When open markets are allowed, prices of goods and services send signals to producers and consumers. Rainfall below normal for a few weeks or months begins to raise water prices as agricultural, industrial, and home consumers compete for scarce water supplies. These higher prices signal other water providers to invest in bringing more water to California.
Entrepreneurs would invest in new reservoirs and other water storage facilities if they could later offer their stored water at higher prices in times of low rainfall. California has two main rain-related challenges: too much rain some years that cause floods, and too little rain through other years. (This gated WSJ editorial, “California’s Water Fight,” notes various environmental and regulatory policies that have made the water shortage worse. In California, most water storage, transfer, and use permissions are political decisions.)
Higher water prices today or in the future would signal California homeowners to invest in various technologies to reduce or reuse water. This Marketplace article and audio segment explains that most people could provide all their landscaping needs by reusing shower water for lawn and garden watering. The city plumbing inspector shut down a first effort, and leads to various trips to regulatory agencies to find out what systems are allowed.
These grey water regulations are frozen in time and technology. Shower and bath water are limited to certain reuses and limited to single family homes. New water filtration technologies that make grey water safe and even drinkable around the world would have to pass through layers of city, county, state, and federal regulations to see the light of day.
California grey water regulations were changed in 2010 to allow private home grey water systems. This 2010 article “Greywater systems give tap water a second life” explains the system and notes that “hundreds of people in Oakland who have started reusing ‘greywater’—or run-off water—in their homes.” But 400,000 people live in Oakland, so a few hundred reusing water from showers, baths, and washing clothes isn’t going to make much of a dent in water use.
We can’t know how best to reduce water in use in California. Industry could reduce water use by installing new technologies, and so could agriculture. Recent studies suggest California agriculture could modernize irrigation processes and reduce water use by 10-15%
Others sources of water for California? Canada is one. But closer is the Columbia river between Oregon and Washington state. Vast amounts of fresh water that flows down the Columbia River into the Pacific:
Billions of dollars are at stake. And every single hour we simply watch as over six billion gallons of water goes by, untapped, and empties into the vast Pacific Ocean.” It is estimated that Oregon could supply California with approximately 8 billion gallons of water each day without any deleterious effect on either the environment or shipping. That amount of water could easily end, forever, the shortages that have plagued Southern California for decades. (Source Oregon Catalyst article.)