Governor Gavin Newsom called for a voluntary reduction in water use of 15% in July in response to the second year of a severe drought. The latest data from the State Water Resources Control Board showed little response on the part of the citizenry and the media lamented the lack of effort. However, those reports overlooked a major reason for a lack of further conservation.
The SWRCB conservation reports data shows that urban Californians are still saving 15% below the 2013 benchmark used in the last drought. So a call for another 15% on top of that translates to a 27% reduction from the same 2013 baseline. Californian’s have not heard that this drought is worse than 2015 yet the state is calling for a more drastic overall reduction. Of course we aren’t seeing an even further reduction without a much stronger message.
In 2015 to get to a 25% reduction, the SWRCB adopted a set of regulations with concomitant penalties which pretty much achieved the intended target. But that effort required a combination of higher rates and increased expenditures by water agencies. It will take a similar effort to move the needle again.
M.Cubed was asked by the State Water Resources Control Board to prepare an economic assessment of the emergency regulations ordered by the Governor to reduce municipal water use by 25%. We gathered a team that included Roger Mann of RMann Economics, Tom Wegge of TCW Economics, Richard Howitt and Duncan MacEwan of ERA Economics, and prepared the report in about two weeks. The SWRCB included a summary of those findings in its regulatory digest.
The innovative aspect of our study is to steer away from a single point probabilistic estimate of the benefits of the regulations and instead to focus on the potential vulnerability and consequences of the risk of continued drought in the future.
The EO is intended to address potentially significant economic vulnerabilities – risks – rather than statistical or probabilistic expectations. If the drought and high temperatures continue in California, water saved as a result of the order will become increasingly valuable. Under these circumstances, costs estimated to be associated with the EO this year could be more than exceeded by greater adverse impacts next year if the EO had not been issued.
Australia had an extended drought that lasted 10 years before ending in 2012 that cut 1.6% off its GDP. For California that would be $35 billion in a single year which is multiples of the range of costs we estimated for the regulations. In other words, the probability of continued drought would have to be less than 4% to make this option uneconomic.
We also pointed out that while the water utilities will lose revenues this year, as mostly public agencies, they will have to make up those losses in the future. For this reason, those revenue losses should be treated as eventual economic costs.