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Reward Water's Worth

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When you think of shipping Humboldt's Finest in Ziplocs to Southern California, you're not thinking of bags of river water. But, putting Humboldt's water in giant baggies on a boat to Southern California was a plan actually taken seriously in 2003 to encourage more water use.

Humboldt historically has an outsized allocation of water from the state because the former pulp mills consumed an astronomical amount of water. Squandering water in order to preserve our state water allocation was the idea of some political leaders and business people. They were thinking of it like vacation days at the end of the year, if you don't take off from work, those days don't roll over, they disappear. Only, thanks to the slow-moving state water bureaucracy, that never really happened.

Yet, the vestiges of "spend it or lose it" water remain in at least one Humboldt public utility.

The concept of pulp-mill-sized oversupply (about 50 million gallons per day) is built into Humboldt Community Services District rates. There's no incentive for consumers to treat water in the district as the precious commodity that it is because there's no value attached to conservation.

Water-wasting industries like nuclear power plants and pulp mills of the 1960s were the old, clear-cutting, resource-wasting Humboldt County. We will never go back to that kind of industry, nor do we want to.

Putting a value on conservation will give the district's ratepayers a basic financial incentive to conserve. And when we do that, we also save on our environmental impacts of fossil fuel consumption by pumping less water through the system. We save on pollution by treating less sewage (shared with the city of Eureka). And, it allows us to have more control over monthly bills.

HCSD doesn't have any giant customers, like those old pulp mills. Its 7,800 meters are largely residential. There's likely two to three humans or more behind each meter, so the lack of conservation incentive affects tens of thousands.

The last time the district restructured its rates, in 2017, the consulting firm did not recommend valuing conservation, much less allowing for incentives to conserve. Four years ago, the phrase "climate change" was absent in the analysis. The rapidly escalating cost of energy for pumping was basically dismissed as minor inflation. There was no discussion of solar water pumps. The Redwood Coast Energy Authority was still in its gestation, so there was no concept of saving money through using local energy rates.

Reality begs a new approach.

Forget historical water allocations. Not only are they difficult to manage, like enforcing the weather, they're complicated by climate change. Even the State Water Resources Control Board says water allocations are going to be changed soon because California has to face up to global warming. In recommendations released this month, this notoriously slothful bureaucracy noted that we can't rely on history to allocate future water.

Instead of trying to preserve allocations that may or may not truly exist, it's time HCSD pivoted to valuing water appropriately. Putting a truer value on the water we use will help protect fisheries, reduce energy consumption, reduce wear and tear on infrastructure, and avoid wastewater pollution. By valuing conservation, ratepayers also have more control over monthly bills.

That last point is for those struggling to pay basic services. There's an equity component to putting a value on conserving water.

Without a price on conservation, HCSD customers have little control over their bills. Unlike electric rates, where ratepayers can save money by changing habits by opting for time-of-use rates or conserving power at home, HCSD customers have high fixed rates and extremely little wiggle room. The water component of the bill now only varies by a few dollars, so that one aggravating neighbor who keeps the lawn estate-worthy verdant all summer pays only slightly more for the privilege than another who gently waters their drip-use veggies.

By saving money on pumping, maintenance and wastewater treatment through less consumption, and putting a bigger price on the commodity of water, those high fixed rates can be reduced. Ratepayers will have more control of how much they have to spend on a basic necessity.

Humboldt's 1960s-era, water-wasting history is as wise today as the 1960s' ideas that asbestos makes a great building material, seat belts are useless and women shouldn't be in the workforce. The industry of today, like an aquafarm, can't just suck it up and spit it out anymore. At 2 million gallons a day, even the water-intensive proposal for a fish farm is a small fraction of what the mills were consuming. We, as individual consumers, can't wantonly use up water, either.

Humboldt Community Services District is not a massive impersonal utility like PG&E. We elect the district board. New, more progressive members were voted in this past November. The district's Zoom meetings are open twice a month.

J.A. Savage is working on that drippy vegetable garden in Eureka. She's ok with s/he pronouns.

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