Think Tank: The $90,000 Water Bill

It's crazy to me that someone would think spending $90,000 on water for the year is okay. Photo cred: Los Angeles Times.
It’s crazy to me that someone would think spending $90,000 on water for the year is okay. Photo cred: Los Angeles Times.

If you’re not a Californian, chances are you might not know that the entire state is in the middle of an historic drought. It’s a pretty big deal that has a lot of people — from farmers to scientists to people who live in wildfire-prone areas — very worried. When I was still a journalism student back in May, I went to city council meetings for school assignments. This happened to be during a time when Gov. Jerry Brown was handing down many mandatory water restrictions, announcing that everyone needed to reduce water usage by 36 percent. I found that the council meetings I went to centered on explaining how everyone needed to save water and that they could participate in rebate programs by pulling out their lawns or putting in energy-efficient toilets, shower heads and faucets.  When I look around my neighborhood, it looks like everyone is trying to do their part: grass varies in shades of brown, or it’s been taken out all together in favor of drought-tolerant alternatives.

But as you can imagine, not everyone throughout the state has adhered to the restrictions. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that someone living in Bel-Air used and paid for 11.8 million gallons of water last year.

You read that right. 11.8 million gallons in 365 days, which is about 1 million gallons a month and 32,000 gallons a day. To add some perspective, the average Californian household daily usage is 360 gallons, a mere 1 percent of the Bel-Air homeowner’s.

The homeowner spent about $90,000 for all that water. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that it could be an unnoticed leak, because 11.8 million gallons is kind of a lot of water that someone would notice flooding the street. Someone is purposefully using that water to keep lawns green or swimming pools full, and seemingly doesn’t see any ill effects. The Department of Water and Power refuses to name names, but the entire neighborhood is one of the leading culprits in excessive water usage.

Throughout the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the implications of both the subject of the story and the story itself. I’ve done research and written about California water on multiple occasions, and find the economics and cultural pull of it fascinating. A drought is more than just having little or no water.

There’s a lot of history about California and its water, and it’s not really a love story.

L.A. in the late 1800s was a rapidly growing town, and one of the biggest problems was that there were no nearby sources of water to sustain the population. The solution that city officials came up with was to divert water from Owens Valley in Central California and build the Los Angeles Aqueduct to bring it south. In the 1970s, the city built a second aqueduct to bring even more water.

The conflict is now called the California Water Wars, since farmers tried to sabotage the aqueduct and keep the much-needed water in the valley. The relationship between Owens Valley residents and L.A. city officials has been pretty contentious ever since, because we have literally been stealing their water to supplement our other watersheds. There’s even a well-known movie based on it. I wrote about a project at my university that was trying to highlight the history and come up with solutions to the problem, which was not easy.

A lot of people don’t know about this slice of California history, but I think it’s important in understanding the root of the problem. This isn’t a brand new issue in the 2010s. This has been an integral part of L.A.’s growth, and a key cause of the Central Valley’s languish. Water will always be a point of interest for Southern California, and the people who spend $90,000 to bring water in contribute to a bigger problem.

The water problem seems to be partly a socioeconomic problem.

Utilities like water and electricity and the ability to pay for them are also a significant issue, even in today’s world. In a neighborhood like Bel-Air, which is home to incredibly affluent people, $90,000 on a utility bill isn’t really that big of a deal. The restrictions must not seem real to the people who really need restricting, because there is no real consequence.

But for the farmers who grow our fruits, vegetables and livestock, water is a significant business cost and extreme economic hardship. In “The Botany of Desire,” which is a great book about our relationship with plants that you should read, Michael Pollan says that in 2001 it cost a potato farmer in Idaho about $1,950 an acre on chemicals, electricity and water to grow a crop that maybe earned $2,000 in a good year. The 2012 median pay for an American farmer was $69,300. It’s clear that there is no room to spend extra money on water, even if the prices go up on the produce. Not only is there no money to spend, but the mandatory cuts in usage make it hard to have a profitable business. If you scroll to the end of this page, there are even resources for farmers who are experiencing stress from having to operate under such dire conditions.

A lot of people around the world, especially in SoCal, take the fact that they can turn on the faucet, get water and pay for it for granted.  The farmers who work hard to bring us our produce and livestock are struggling to make a living and provide the world with food. Meanwhile, someone is spending five figures on the water that’s probably serving to quench ornamental thirst. The inequality is incredible.

I don’t think this story is waking anybody up.

This story that the L.A. Times has published in its California coverage is crucial to the everyday function of journalism. This is part of the history of SoCal, and the newspaper is fulfilling its duty to record it. It’s sensational and draws in readership.

I think the everyday person reads this story and realizes how dumb it is for one household to use that much water, but I don’t know how these stories can do a better job of inspiring people and businesses to conserve. Most people don’t have that kind of money to spend on a water bill. But they still run the tap until it’s warm, run a half-full dishwasher, wash cars and laundry, fill swimming pools and water the lawn. They still run businesses that use water to make things. There’s the looming threat of running out of water, but it doesn’t seem real as long as the faucets continue to run. There is no one who is able to enforce restrictions that actually deter people from wasting a precious resource.  That is why a story about a $90,000 water bill is reality, and why we’re slowly inching towards a catastrophe.

What do you think about the story and the California drought? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


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