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Water is more precious than oil
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My water utility recently increased rates with tiered pricing: if you use more, you pay more. In so doing, San Francisco joined nearly 200 municipalities across the country.
Paying more for a vital resource like water during a down economy may seem like a hardship, but I support the increase because it encourages conservation, and we need to eliminate water waste.
In California, we are fighting over water. Our cities crave it. The agricultural sector demands it. And environmentalists remind that we need to leave enough in rivers for the critters that live there. The core issue is that our state uses — and wastes — too much water.
We are not alone. Thirty-six states expect water shortages by 2013, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Some think finding more water is the answer. But that’s not always possible or affordable. A hunt for more water means higher taxes for new infrastructure — longer pipelines, desalination plants or treating sewage water. That makes conservation the best bargain going.
We can start by plugging leaks in the current system. Cities currently lose one-fifth of their water to leaks, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But cities use just one-seventh of U.S. water: 47 billion gallons a day. Agriculture uses 142 billion gallons daily, followed by power plants at 136 billion gallons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
To curtail water use, everyone needs to conserve, beginning with agriculture and energy, but including cities and individuals as well.
In agriculture, we must revise antiquated water rights laws. For example, in California (where 50 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown) and in other Western states as well, long-term landowners have a first right to subsidized water. If they don’t “beneficially use” their allocation, they lose it — giving farmers a perverse incentive to waste water.
Also, agricultural subsidies encourage low-value, water-intensive crops. Those subsidies need to be rethought with an eye toward water conservation.
Power plants of many stripes — coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, biomass and thermal — use huge amounts of water for cooling, much of which evaporates. We need to consider water consumption as well as emissions when planning plants.
At the municipal level, San Francisco just passed ordinances to retrofit residential and commercial properties with water-efficient plumbing fixtures upon resale. Commercial buildings must make the changes by 2017. These ordinances could save the city four million gallons daily. Perhaps more important, we need legislation to ensure that all new developments have an adequate water supply for at least 100 years.
Individuals can play a role too. The average American uses nearly 1,200 gallons of water per day. (You can calculate your water footprint with H2O Conserve’s online water calculator:
To reduce your footprint, install water-saving appliances and fixtures in your home. The EPA’s online WaterSense program lists water-saving low-flow toilets, washing machines, dishwashers and other items. If everyone upgraded, we would save more than 3 trillion gallons of water and more than $18 billion dollars per year nationally — that’s $170 per household.
In the garden, reduce lawn size and plant native plants, which can thrive on rain alone. Apply mulch to retain soil moisture. For plants that need irrigation, use a drip system, preferably supplied by rain barrels or greywater. Sensors can shut off irrigation if rain is detected.
People can also reduce their water footprint by drinking municipal water rather than bottled water. It takes about three liters of water to produce a one-liter plastic bottle.
Archeologists believe past civilizations — the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the Maya of Central America and the Chacoans and Hohokams of the American Southwest — collapsed partly due to water mismanagement. Conscientious water conservation could help keep us from following in their footsteps.

Gies is a freelance reporter. She wrote this for Blue Ridge Press.
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