An environmental horticulturalist for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles, Don Hodel, has been getting a lot of press recently criticizing the State Water Board’s urban water restrictions. He advises that the Water Board should have advised targeting changes in watering practices rather than limiting supplies, and claims that urban restrictions were unneeded, implying that agriculture should bear the entire brunt. Unfortunately, he’s made at least two grievous errors in his assessment.
First, Hodel fails to understand that the actual implementation of the reductions is to be done by the local water utilities, not the Water Board. The Board only provided the targets, and the stick if the targets aren’t met. Hodel needs to complain to the utilities if he thinks they aren’t doing their job.
But of course, he’s equally naive about the huge problem of communicating about changing irrigation practices to millions of urban customers across hundreds (yes) of distinct water utilities. Of course, these utilities have been trying to get their customers to improve outdoor watering, but just getting their attention is a big enough problem.
Second, his real agenda is to imply that urban horticulture is more valuable the state’s agricultural industry. Urban agencies have only so much contractual and physical access to water supplies. To not cutback deliveries would require transferring water from farmers. But there’s at least two problems with that, the first being that agricultural water is much more valuable than Hodel imagines and second is that it’s not easy getting the water from northern to southern California.
It turns out that those farmers have been doing an exceptional job at improving their irrigation practices; the problem is that they’ve used that efficiency to increase output rather than to save water. The original proponents of agricultural water efficiency didn’t anticipate this response and the surplus didn’t materialize for urban users or the environment.
And even so, moving water from farm areas and treating it for domestic uses adds substantially to the cost of water. It’s the primary reason why urban water costs well in excess of $2,000 per acre-foot while agricultural water is much less than $500 per acre-foot. Water isn’t a particularly fungible good, and proponents of water transfers as the “solution” ignore this issue (along with the problems of market design and function.)
These types of moments are when I wished that journalists were better informed and able to filter out the uninformed “experts.”