California’s drought has everyone talking about ways to save water. Gov. Jerry Brown has implored residents to reduce their consumption by 20 percent. One writer suggested Angelenos share showers. A nonprofit is encouraging people not to waste even ice cubes that drop to the floor: Don’t toss them, says Save Our Water; use them to water plants.
Our conservation efforts, even the tiniest ones, have a second overlooked benefit: They also save energy. Water is essentially liquid energy. We don’t think about it that way. But every drop must be moved, treated and heated. Each step takes energy. In fact, 80 percent of the operating costs of a typical water utility are energy-related.
The biggest spigot, though, is the agricultural sector, which consumes 80 percent of the state’s water. Water used for farming requires less treatment and doesn’t wind up in the sewer, so it’s less energy intensive per gallon. Still, the volume dwarfs any other water use.
How then might we conserve all of the water — and energy? We could brainstorm more uses for dropped ice cubes. (More wine drinking, one colleague suggests.) Or there’s a simpler, far more efficient way to achieve the same end: Let better pricing do the work for us.
Prices convey information and shape behavior. When something is cheap, as with water, people waste it. But when it’s dear, like gasoline, we conserve. Few of us leave our cars running outside while we shop for groceries, but lots of us forget to reset sprinklers for rain or drought. Dynamic pricing — prices that rise during drought periods and fall during wet periods — would drive conservation of this energy-intensive resource when it’s scarce.
Water policy now falls short of that ideal. Water managers, unlike energy managers, get their raw material “for free” as a result of past political decisions.
So start saving water. More important, encourage lawmakers to adopt policies that reflect our water scarcity and prompt people to use less water and less energy. We face a choice of paying more for water now — or paying a lot more later.
Catherine Wolfram is a professor of business administration at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and co-director of the Energy Institute at Haas. David Zetland is a visiting lecturer at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, and the author of “Living with Water Scarcity.” They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.