Water rationing has to be fair

By Thomas D. Elias

Despite heavy mid-February rains and the ensuing Sierra snowfall, the California drought remains.

In fact, it is still more severe than the worst previous dry spell of modern times, in 1976-77.

Short of millennial downpours in late winter or early spring, this means water rationing is almost certain for most Californians. When and if it comes, there are lessons to be learned from what happened 37 years ago:

Rationing must be fair and include heavy consequences for failure to comply. Homeowners must be willing to let some landscaping go brown and the entire system must be free of politics. Otherwise, there’s a good chance large numbers of residents simply won’t comply.

It would also help to accelerate the water metering program now underway in Sacramento and other Central Valley communities that had no meters in the 1970s drought, and many still don’t.

How fair is it that Sacramento residents (including tens of thousands of state officials and bureaucrats) use an average of 279 gallons a day, compared with 98 gallons for San Franciscans and less than 150 gallons for Los Angeles residents?

How fair is it for denizens of the leafy San Francisco Peninsula suburb of Hillsborough to use 334 gallons a day, while 14 miles away in much less fortunate East Palo Alto, residents use only 79, according to the San Jose Mercury News?

Those figures, and the fact that only about half the homes in Sacramento and several other Central Valley cities now have water meters, makes it blatantly unfair even to consider asking or requiring anyone to cut use by a set percentage.

Yes, everyone will likely need to cut. But when Hillsborough or Sacramento residents cut by the 20 percent Gov. Jerry Brown now requests of all Californians, they still use far more water than most Californians do even in a normal, non-drought year.

It’s also true that when people are told to cut voluntarily by a given percentage, they understand that percentage cuts may soon become mandatory and be enforced with penalties.

But, since no one knows what date will be designated as the benchmark for cutting back, anyone cutting back now risks being forced to trim much more later, when rationing begins.

Strategically, it makes no sense for residents to trim now when they know they may soon be asked to reduce from a new, lower level.

So, percentage-based rationing can be inherently unfair. By contrast, per-person use limits are fair, and Californians tend to respond well to them when imposed.

In 1991, when the Marin Municipal Water District told households they could use no more than 50 gallons per person daily, residents cut use to 47 gallons each.

Then there’s politics, like the February attempt of congressional Republicans to give Central Valley farms a virtual monopoly on the small supplies available this year.

They ignored city residents and fishing interests, and risked putting several other species at risk of becoming endangered.

All of which means water rationing can work, as it has before, but only if Californians are convinced it is both necessary and fair.