Wednesday, December 7 , 2016, 9:07 am | Mostly Cloudy 45º


California’s Water Crisis Hasn’t Hit Home for Many Santa Barbara Residents

If the current drought continues into next year, water shortages throughout the state could become a reality. Even so, and despite constant media attention, there are no strong indicators, economic or otherwise, regarding impending shortages, according to UC Santa Barbara’s Gary Libecap.

Audience members came to hear Libecap, the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Corporate Environmental Management, and a panel of faculty members from UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management discuss issues related to water use and the effects of drought in California.

“Many communities are saying they’ve got at least two years of water supply, so don’t worry,” said Robert Wilkinson, associate adjunct professor at the Bren School and a water policy specialist. “Montecito indicated that they have two months’ but cutting back on irrigating lawns wasn’t really an appealing option. So Montecito has a challenge to sort through and that is the case throughout most of the state.”

With California state water at its lowest allocation in history, the snowpack at 18 percent of its average and reservoirs at half their normal levels, shortages are around the corner, according to the scientists, but people continue to think of water as a limitless resource. The national average for individual water use is between 60 and 100 gallons per person per day. Goleta is at 66 gallons per person per day; Santa Barbara at 86; and Montecito at 290.

“We could learn a lot from more arid states such as Arizona,” said Libecap, who is also a professor of economics at UCSB. “They’re way ahead in water management.”

He pointed to the tiered water pricing structure used in Tucson, which offers an affordable rate for basic service but tacks a high premium on usage over and above that. In response, Tucson residents have moved toward landscaping that incorporates native desert plants that require little water. Phoenix, on the other hand, uses a flat rate water system, and with little incentive to reduce water usage its landscaping is lush and green.

water crisis
From left, Robert Wilkinson, Arturo Keller, James Salzman and Gary Libecap. (James Badham / UCSB photo)

In California, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use, with the remaining 20 percent going to urban areas.

“If we can cost-effectively improve efficiency, we should do it regardless of what agriculture is doing,” said Wilkinson. “It looks like we could go on the order of 50 percent improvement in urban areas at current cost effectiveness. That’s fixing leaks, changing plumbing fixtures and a lot of outdoor irrigation improvements. Right now, we’re recycling 10 to 15 percent of the water in the state — showers to flowers — but we can do better than that.”

The panel members spoke in response to questions from host Jim Bond, a student in Bren’s Master of Environmental Science & Management program, who coordinated the event. They covered a lot of territory, from groundwater recharging and pricing to water rights, infrastructure and ecosystems impacts.

Desalination was addressed briefly but downplayed as a current solution because it is not yet cost-effective.

"There are a lot of very interesting technical developments in the desalination area,” said Bren visiting lecturer James Salzman, the Samuel F. Mordecai Professor of Law and Nicholas Institute Professor of Environmental Policy at Duke University. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 15, 20 years from now things look very different.”

A question-and-answer session gave audience members an opportunity to participate in the discussion. They asked about conservation and efficiency, harvesting rainwater, water from the Colorado River aqueduct, water use in the California’s Central Valley, constitutional prohibitions against wasting water, how drought will affect food prices and whether this drought is the new normal.

“This could be the new normal,” said Arturo Keller, Bren professor of environmental biogeochemistry who specializes in water-quality management at the watershed level. “We have to plan for the short-, medium- and long-term.”

An important step would be acknowledging the fact that water is a finite resource, and then adjusting community behavior to reflect that reality, Wilkinson noted.

“We can do much better with water use,” he said. “Doing that gives us energy benefits, emission reduction benefits, ecosystem restoration benefits.

“We’re getting more thoughtful about integrated solutions — the kind of stuff we try to work on here at Bren that leads to some thinking that’s quite different. It’s not just survival but doing things smarter and better to build resilience and a more sustainable future. I think that’s where our focus ought to lie.”

Reader Comments

Noozhawk's intent is not to limit the discussion of our stories but to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and must be free of profanity and abusive language and attacks.

By posting on Noozhawk, you:

» Agree to be respectful. Noozhawk encourages intelligent and impassioned discussion and debate, but now has a zero-tolerance policy for those who cannot express their opinions in a civil manner.

» Agree not to use Noozhawk’s forums for personal attacks. This includes any sort of personal attack — including, but not limited to, the people in our stories, the journalists who create these stories, fellow readers who comment on our stories, or anyone else in our community.

» Agree not to post on Noozhawk any comments that can be construed as libelous, defamatory, obscene, profane, vulgar, harmful, threatening, tortious, harassing, abusive, hateful, sexist, racially or ethnically objectionable, or that are invasive of another’s privacy.

» Agree not to post in a manner than emulates, purports or pretends to be someone else. Under no circumstances are readers posting to Noozhawk to knowingly use the name or identity of another person, whether that is another reader on this site, a public figure, celebrity, elected official or fictitious character. This also means readers will not knowingly give out any personal information of other members of these forums.

» Agree not to solicit others. You agree you will not use Noozhawk’s forums to solicit and/or advertise for personal blogs and websites, without Noozhawk’s express written approval.

Noozhawk’s management and editors, in our sole discretion, retain the right to remove individual posts or to revoke the access privileges of anyone who we believe has violated any of these terms or any other term of this agreement; however, we are under no obligation to do so.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >