Opinion: California Drought Must Spur Behavioral and Institutional Reform

With the state of California being in a “drought emergency,” as declared by Governor Jerry Brown in December of last year, it is imperative that legislators and residents of the Bay Area (and California as a whole) initiate serious changes to the existing controlled water system and encourage behavioral change regarding water use.

 

Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors of the City of San Francisco made progress on the approval of legislation that might limit the sale of plastic water bottles, a measure originally proposed in December of last year. As reported by SF Gate, “the ordinance … would prohibit the sale of drinking water in single-use bottles 21 ounces or less on city property, starting on Oct. 1 for indoor events and in 2016 for those held outdoors,” significantly decreasing the city’s carbon footprint and sustaining the City’s reputation for pioneering legislation in support of local environmental advocacy efforts.

 

The possibility of local water sources running low does threaten the passing of legislation that limits sales of single-serve bottled drinking water, which can be transported from distant sources. Though use of petroleum may yield some positive short-term benefit, potentially destructive and expensive long-term ramifications, including a sustained drought caused by shifting wind patterns from surface warming, are influenced by the decisions and legislation enacted today regarding use of natural resources.

 

The production, distribution, and disposal of petroleum-based plastic water bottles is dependent on the extraction of oil and other nonrenewable energy sources: polyethylene teraphthalate (PET) provides substance for manufacturing and nonrenewable sources further power the manufacture, distribution and disposal of bottles. Made of synthetic polymers, plastics take hundreds of years to break down, harming the health of organisms in the process. Even when used plastic bottles are recycled properly, their substance only contributes up to 10% of the plastic used to create each new bottle, to retain desirable properties.

 

Whether or not we agree that the human species is accelerating climate change by disturbing the carbon cycle through extraction and combustion of fossil fuels — though threats of sea level rise are relevant to communities within the Bay Area — the finite availability of these energy sources, which our current society is severely dependent on, deems it necessary for humanity to curb both supply and demand of commodities like bottled water.

 

Within the Bay Area, consumption of bottled water is a habit of convenience; the availability of high-quality tap water makes it a luxurious commodity, one that would have justified demand only in an instance of severe natural disaster or emergency, leaving residents with prolonged inaccessibility to piped water resources.

 

The Hetch Hetchy water system, run by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), comprises a series of aging pipelines that transport fresh water from Tuolumne Valley (just North of Yosemite Valley) to people in the Bay Area, as released by O’Shaughnessy Dam. 2.4 million residents of San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, and San Mateo counties are serviced by SFPUC; 85% of the water provided comes from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt (stored in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir), with the remaining 15% coming from local reservoirs (like Crystal Springs, West of I-280).

 

Built in the early 20th Century after the earthquake and consequent fire that erupted in San Francisco City, the Hetch Hetcy water system was designed to provide suffi cient potable fresh water to the Bay Area. As groundwater and reservoir resources are depleted, with continually declining levels that might incur from a sustained drought, rising costs will force a decline in the profligate consumption of water.

 


This graphic illustrates percent of normal precipitation received, as compiled between July 2011 and December 2013. Reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the U.S. Government.

 

 


This graphic illustrates projections on the drought as of January 31, 2014. For the State of California and a majority of the Western half of the country, the drought is expected to continue or worsen.

 

Municipal districts have the ability to encourage a shift in behavior regarding water usage, promoting conservation through rebates and other economic incentives. For example, the City of Menlo Park offers rebates to customers for substituting native landscaping for lawn grass and exchanging water-guzzling household appliances; residents may also collect free low-flow fixtures for their homes.

 

However, even the most efficient of toilets use 1.3 gallons of water for each flush — water that, ideally, should be rerouted from another household source or reused from sources of treated wastewater, as opposed to plumbed from naturally high-quality water reservoir sources. Wastewater treatment centers around the Bay Area currently process millions of gallons of sewage water per day – water that, once treated, is released as effluent into the San Francisco Bay. The effluent not only has an impact on the Bay’s ecosystem, accustomed to naturally brackish waters, but also removes that source of freshwater from municipal circulation.

 

Many treatment plants in the area, including the one in San Mateo possess the technology necessary to treat water to acceptable drinking water standards, but lack the infrastructure and demand necessary to make the expense worthwhile. Thus, in addition to any economic or infrastructure reform, what too must change is the stigma that recycled water carries, often made worse by use of terms like “Toilet to Tap”. In a state of drought, especially, it is important to recognize the benefits of supporting the recycling of water already accessible within the municipal system.

 

Should the Bay Area be rattled by a large-scale earthquake, the SFPUC Hetch Hetchy water system is vulnerable to serious damage; in an instance of emergency, bottled water will serve as a critical source of fresh water. According to an economic study done by Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a catastrophic natural event could have serious implications for the Bay Area’s accessibility to water and the costs that could result.

 

SFPUC pipelines cross “at least five active earthquake faults” and “key structural assessments, maintenance and upgrades have been deferred for decades” on “components…nearly 50,…60-80 years old” with “no bypass capability in the event of failure.” However, in an emergency it is not practical to rely on single-serve water bottles; more effective reserves would be provided by rainwater collection barrels, stored 5-gallon re-useable water jugs, and plumbing systems that treat and recycle water on both residential and municipal levels.

 

Legislation limiting the supply of single-use plastic water bottles will aid conservation of natural resources involved in the manufacturing process, ease the resultant environmental impact, and hopefully encourage more effi cient use of local water reserves.

 

I encourage individuals, families, and cities to reconsider their water use and the implications each decision holds for the future.