Bio: Hi I'm David Zetland. I lived most of my life in NorCal. I got my PhD at UC Davis (dissertation on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) and did a postdoc at UC Berkeley. I've traveled in 90 countries and live in Amsterdam. I've written two books on water policy (The End of Abundance and Living with Water Scarcity) and written 5,000 blog posts on water at aguanomics. I've given dozens of talks to public and academic audiences and taught environmental and resource economics in three countries. I've been a redditor for 6 years (mostly since Digg stuffed it), and I spend a LOT of time trying to help people see the deeper causes and trends in the water world.

The current drought has been in the news a lot. AMA about farmers wasting water (not), unmetered water (scandal), the politicians who fight to bring water to their communities, whether you should flush, etc.

[I have lots of opinions on many aspects of water, in the US and everywhere else, so fire away if that's interesting to you...]

My Proof:

EDIT: I made three videos discussing the drought and water in the western US with Paul Wyrwoll of the Global Water Forum, which is based out of Australia:

Edit2: How to price water to protect utility finances, encourage conservation and protect the poor/water misers

Edit3: Fuck. Just saw that the Ukrainians shot down a passenger plane that took off from here! I did some water consulting in Ukraine about 14 months ago. Totally incompetent, totally corrupt leaders. Those poor people :(

Edit4: OK -- it's been 6 hours. I'm taking the night off (11pm here), BUT I'll be back in the AM, so upvote good questions! Thanks for all the awesome questions!

Edit5: Ok, folks. I'm done. Amazing questions. Stop by my blog. If you want to understand how all these water flows fit together and how policy can deliver sustainable economic outcomes, then read my book. It's only $5 :)

Edit6 (17 Aug): My book is now available for free download here

Comments: 573 • Responses: 120  • Date: 

spanieldaniel47 karma

What aggravates/upsets you the most in terms of water being wasted in the Western US? Also what is your #1 tip for a person in the 1st world to conserve water?

davidzet105 karma

I REALLY dislike cheap water, as people feel fine using a lot of it. Water in Las Vegas is 20% of the price of water in Amsterdam (and lower than the price in most US cities), so we shouldn't be surprised that Las Vegans use it all over the place. It's not really their fault, since we're used to "pay for use" for gasoline, food, etc.

Tip: Don't have a lawn. If you're SERIOUS, then don't eat meat. If you're ridiculous, then don't have kids.

pigpigpiggies25 karma

I REALLY dislike cheap water, as people feel fine using a lot of it.

I am under the impression that college campuses get a cut price on water, and it infuriated me to see my so CA university water the lawns to the point that it was pouring down the street.

Are universities being forced to cut back on their pristine lawns? Will their water prices go up?

davidzet35 karma

Most big water users (UC Davis) have their own wells, so they decide "the price" of water. UCLA may be on an urban piped system and they may face prices. Sometimes they get a discount for heavy use (decreasing block rates).

Prices aside, remember that grounds people (and admin staff!) do not pay the bills.

My big recommendation to bureaucracies is to initiate internal pricing (=budget and transfer $ to water division for use), since that will REALLY make people think about how much water their div. uses.

gruto_kang12 karma

Interesting. My mother is a visual artist and this post reminds me of one of her pieces, which focuses around pipelines and water. Her argument is that pipes and faucets create the illusion of a limitless supply of water while simultaneously removing the sacral aspect of traditional water sources (such as springs or wells).

davidzet11 karma

She's right. The problems of groundwater mismanagement are TERRIBLE

nuqqet9k10 karma

I REALLY dislike cheap water

Do you cringe when you hear people bitch about "water privatization"? Is commodification the best way to bring about conservation?

davidzet19 karma

Yes, they tend to spew without knowing why ("Evil Nestle"). I spew with knowledge :)

Commodification is better if your neighbors won't cooperate by using less and take your water. I'm also a fan of community water management but THAT requires a community spirit.

spanieldaniel3 karma

Yeah, I agree that the cost being much lower makes them less guilty in terms of using a lot of it, but still they are responsible for the quantity that they use regardless of the price point. I don't have plans to have a lawn/kids and may become a vegetarian but I'm only 15 so don't know haha, I'd like to think I do my part anyway! Here in the UK for example you can have a contract with a water company that allows you to use as much water as you'd like for a set cost each month, which is good for big families like mine (4 siblings!) who have to use a fair amount but also promotes wasteful use, people need to take the burden on their own shoulders I think.

davidzet7 karma

Yes, you're right that "they are responsible" but prices that are too low lead to too much use. I know you have no idea about beer, but I'll tell you that people drink a lot more beer when it's 50p than 3 quid :)

The system in England/Wales ("rates" pay for service) is being phased out in some places. People with big families are worried, but the gov't's response (WaterSure) seems to be inadequate.

Psypriest3 karma

How would not eating meat help me SERIOUSLY conserve water.

davidzet10 karma

I'm not going to tell you your taste, but it takes 1,500 liters of water to "grow" 100g of beef (1/4 pound)

Grassfed beef from Argentina? No problem. Cornfed from the US? Big problem.

Rand_o21 karma

Do you hate washing cars?

davidzet46 karma

Ha! Personally, I really enjoyed washing my car (I'm a clean freak), but I traded it for a bike.

Is "car washing" a bad water use? Not necessarily any worse than watering the lawn. Lots of people spend more time with their cars than their lawns, which use WAY more water. (Lawns are the "biggest crop" in the US.)

As an economist, I think it's fine for people to choose the ways they want to use water -- AS LONG AS the price of water keeps total demand within sustainable limits.

MattBaster20 karma


davidzet42 karma

Go up the supply chain. Talk to local water managers about the policies that affect OTHER people's behavior.

I call it the 20/80 rule: 20% of people "do the right thing" but 80% don't care. They will respond to higher prices, for example.

We see this with expensive gas. SUV drivers -- not known for greenery -- drive less if it's expensive. I was in Saudi a month ago, where gas is $0.25/gallon. People sleep in their cars, A/C on.

asimovdroid5 karma

Just curious, do not have a car? or choose not to wash it?

MattBaster3 karma


davidzet8 karma

Yeah, I had a car for several years in Davis and just let the rain wash it. (I ran out in the rain with a soapy sponge to help :)

westkeifer16 karma

Is the drought an excuse for the water companies to charge more? And do you think it's fair for water companies to charge more in desert areas and monopolize it?

davidzet26 karma

Yes, it can be. If they charge more to get people to use less (or to recover the same total revenue based on selling less water), then it's probably legit. If they charge more AND make extra money, then the regulator often requires they rebate the extra.

ALL water companies in the developed world (piped networks) are monopolies. In poorer countries, they compete with rivers/wells 9self supply) and kiosks/tankers (entrepreneurs).

JoeTheBrewer5 karma

What would you think of using the excess revenues to funds the modernization of the California acuaduct. In northern California we have several lakes dedicated to supplying so cal with water. I can't help but look at the open aqueducts and think how much water is evaporating. Maybe a pipeline would be more efficient.

davidzet16 karma

The folks using the aqueduct would LOVE for you to pay :)

Lake Mead (next to Vegas) evaporates as much water as LA uses in a year.

I spent a week in SoCal trying to get managers to buy an "evaporation suppressant" that cost 1/5 of their outside water price. No go.


Aelcyx3 karma

Is that a chemical or device? Please explain what an evaporation suppressant is. Great AMA, by the way. Thanks for all the great information.

davidzet7 karma

Glad you like. (Fun, but LOTS of typing!)

3v3ry0n3h4t3sm32 karma

Why aren't they charging more now since we're in a crisis?

davidzet5 karma

See Edit 2 above. Laws that allow "cost recovery" prohibit water surcharges.

Oh, and people don't want to pay, and politicians listen.

bozobozo15 karma

Are there any plans to steal water from the great lakes? Once your aquifer dries up of course.

davidzet18 karma

Yes. Now all we need are some nuclear-powered pumps, but I hear that Alberta has got cheap oil to burn.

The Great Lakes Compact has quashed most of that crazy talk, but there are a lot of engineers willing to give it a go (google NAWAPA)

karmanaut14 karma

What major laws and policies could be changed to help alleviate the drought?

davidzet26 karma

Many possible answers here, since local laws affect local water flows.

For farmers, I'd make it easier to trade water/rights. For the environment, I'd set aside minimum flows AND get MUCH better regulation/measurement of human diversions from surface and ground sources. For cities, I'd raise the price of water (per unit), so people had a better reason (price signal!) to use less. (People worry that higher prices hurt the poor, but excess revenue from higher prices could reduce that impact.)

down_time26 karma

You don't address the Catch-22 of water conservation/declining use vs. fixed costs of water utilities. Here in Austin, TX right now, we see rising water rates due to less use at the tap and less revenue for the utilities.

Could you speak to that?

davidzet19 karma


This post just went up on my blog

comtrailer13 karma

What are your thoughts about bottled water companies? There have been a couple stories out about them still extracting water in drought ridden areas.

davidzet14 karma

The companies are not evil when they follow regulations on use, but sometimes those regulations are too lax or not updated. In those cases, they may volunteer to take less, but it's unlikely.

Regulators (who oversee total extractions, for all users) really need to do their job.

Some bottled water companies (like any companies) lobby to get unfair/unsustainable advantages. HUGE problem in the water sector.

TheGlassface3 karma

This is an odd question but the sheer amount of water that is "stored" inside these bottled up supplies worries me. You take the average gas station (which has...what, maybe 300 bottles of water, 300 bottles of other items that need water to create, etc) and then multiply that by the states number of gas stations... it seems like a huge amount of water not currently in the water cycle.

Then you add in grocery stores and other locales where the water is "trapped" and it sure seems like we could fix a lot of issues by straight up banning bottled water.

Am I going cray cray or does that ring with anyone else?

davidzet10 karma

Don't worry. The Q of water in bottles if TINY (vs a river) and it ends up back in the cycle, eventually.

Optionboy1613 karma

Do you think fracking can be done safely, without contamination? Do you see this method becoming problem for the Western US?

davidzet16 karma

Yes, it can, but not all the time.

I'm a fan of big penalties for pollution

Fracking can be a BIG problem if it causes earthquakes or pollutes surface/groundwater. That's possible in some places, but rare in most places now.

The upside of fracking is that it's pushing people to measure water use and quantify rights that may have been over-issued.

Unopregunta3 karma


davidzet7 karma

Whoops. Check this link [pdf], where insurance companies bear the risk.

bailaway12 karma

Hi! I'm in Southern California. What do you think of the implementation of water conservation regulations? Why are water agencies in charge of enforcing these regulations on consumers? Do they have the ability to do so legally, or even have the manpower? How do you determine if someone has over-watered their lawn?

davidzet13 karma

Great questions.

  • Most regulations target visible stuff (lawn watering) instead of water use (long showers), so they are unfair to some people. (That's why I say "raise prices" -- people can figure out their best way to conserve.

  • Water agencies are in charge b/c... nobody else is. It's kinda crazy, actually, since failure is acceptable. (BIG aside: few agencies want you to use less [ ](because they lose money)

  • When they do send out water cops, it's nearly always an ineffective waste of money

  • Over-watering is called when water is on the street. That's WAY over-watering... (recall that LADWP's GM lost his job, partially, for overwatering :)

LoveOfProfit11 karma

Do you foresee a future where countries like Brazil who have so much of the available fresh water available end up incredibly rich, much like Saudi Arabia did with oil?

Phrased differently, do you think that as clean water levels continue to drop, water will begin to be important enough to shape the geopolitical landscape (perhaps wars, upsetting power structures, etc)?

davidzet20 karma

Yes, in a way. Water is still too cheap to export b/c transport costs kill profits, but Brazil can export "virtual water" in crops (like now).

The key for Brazil is to make sure exports are sustainable in terms of local water pollution and local water depletion. Big Ag in California exports lots of water, which depletes supplies for local uses.

symphonique6 karma

I am curious, what do you mean by virtual water?

davidzet9 karma

khakimage is right in terms of impact.

VW is jargon for the water "embedded" in a crop or good.

If it takes 1,000 liters to grow enough coffee to make you an espresso, then your consuming 1,000 liters of virtual water in that little cup :)

adamadamada10 karma

Practically speaking, how to we force/encourage people to get rid of their lawns and switch to indigenous flora?

davidzet11 karma

You can have your lawn if you're willing to pay $1,000/month for its water.

In my first book, I said that a lawn needs 1-2 m of vertical water per year to stay green. That's now about $2/year per m2. (Sorry, I like metric). American lawns (irrigated or not) average 1,200m2, but let's say a "small" lawn is 100m2. That's $200/year. How about $2,000/year?

Dude_man793 karma

So the ideal market to be in a few years from now is an artificial lawn installer in SoCal?

davidzet8 karma


Protip: Strip off the topsoil and sell it to nurseries.

backyardlion10 karma

Why do you think it is that most Northern California cities are currently striving to reduce water consumption while most Southern California cities continue to use water without regard?

davidzet8 karma

1) the fact that SoCal "saved" water

2) managers HATE it when people use less water (lost revenues)

3) political opposition from politicians and real estate developers who like "green prosperity"

backyardlion3 karma

Thanks for your response!

How does a region that imports all of it's water go about "saving" water? What managers hate when people use less water? City managers? Would mind elaborating on politicians and developers fondness of "green prosperity"?

Once again, thank you! These are questions I've had go unanswered for quite a while.

davidzet6 karma

  • They had water in reservoirs

  • The money-savings problem: see Edit 2 at top

  • SoCal is basically a desert. They planted - -and watered -- palm trees to make it look like an oasis. Good weather AND plenty of water? I'll move there!

Vorlind10 karma

Is it possible to change how we plumb houses so that toilets and possibly showers use non-potable water? How much would that save us?

davidzet8 karma

Yes, it's possible to install gray water systems that reuse water (and rainwater) within a house. It's the owner's cost and may save enough $ to pay for itself in a few years.

Re-plumbing entire neighborhoods is EXPENSIVE, which is why we don't see purple pipes in old neighborhoods.

Note that wastewater recycling is popular b/c it allows one set of pipes to be used for new-cleaned water.

samindavis5 karma

Since gray water systems may be expensive to retrofit, why don't CA municipalities simply require them to be built into new developments while passing the initial costs and water-saving benefits to new home buyers? Any towns or cities starting to do this yet?

davidzet3 karma

Yes, that happens in some places already. Google "purple pipe developments"

batshitcrazy51503 karma

I read somewhere. (No source) That people in some countrys use the fact that america poops in our drinking water to prove that we are to "rich" for our own good. Kinda made me think...

davidzet3 karma

...except it's MOST countries. It's just cheaper (except boats) to have one set of pipes for drinking/flushing. That will not change, with recycling technology.

kornholyoyo10 karma

I have heard that waste water treatement has fantastic results, are there plans to create more waste water treatment plants to reuse the water?

davidzet11 karma

Yes. The technology is there. WW treatment has happened for decades, but recycling into the drinking water system will happen more, as people (and politicians!) get over the yuck factor.

I tell people that we ALREADY do it a lot. Tap water in San Diego has been thru 7 toilets. In London, it's 5, etc.

shannonsurfs14 karma

I am currently a PhD candidate at UCLA and I study carcinogenic disinfection byproducts created during drinking water treatment. Although recycled water is now being used to recharge drinking water aquifers in Southern California, we need to be wary of using it for direct potable use. It is not just about a yuck factor. There are small chemicals like pharmaceuticals in waste water that are not removed even with the very advanced treatment used in recycled water plants. These pharmaceuticals and other chemicals can create very carcinogenic byproducts during oxidation in the disinfection process. Until we can better remove these chemicals, this is a huge problem. In fact, in Los Angeles' largest recycled water plant they had to add a very expensive final stage of treatment just to remove these carcinogenic chemicals created during disinfection. This option is not feasible for most plants as it is extremely expensive.

davidzet5 karma

Great point. Isn't there the same problem with water sourced from rivers that has treated water discharges?

I've come to believe that "water service" to houses will have 2 or 3 components. Piped (like now) for most use, recycled for outdoor use, and bottled for drinking -- due to the high cost of treating water that's only 1% of demand (drinking cooking)

kornholyoyo3 karma

Yes. My wife is from CA and she tells me that in one plant the water comes out so clean they actually have to add minerals back in lol. I am all for it. Hell our aquifers and rain came from somewhere at one point.

davidzet5 karma

Yes, that's quite common. Same for bottled water (I think Perrier takes carbonation from Italy :)

slim_chance10 karma

Dude, this is the best AMA I've seen. Not some celebrity or politician promoting their latest paycheck, answering 7 questions before it's their turn in line at the coffee shop. Just some dude, an expert in his field, talking about something that affect a lot of people. I've been reading through this for nearly an hour, and I can't believe how many questions you've answered with good reading material.

I have to ask a question, so, can I buy you lunch? I have some points to redeem :D

davidzet5 karma

Hahaha... Thanks. It's a lot of typing but lots of cool questions.

It's my job (career) to explain these things, so I can't really turn down the opportunity. (Oh, and I'm a blogger/redditor, so this is familiar.)

Buy me a beer anytime. Questions are free :)

BrainBurrito8 karma

One thing that irks me is when I drive through the valley and see farmers have to water their crops at high noon with 100+ degree weather. I'm told that they get water for a certain block of time and if it's at a shitty time, that's just what they get. Is there any way around that? It just seems like an unfortunate setup. Also, it's my general impression that in the past few decades, a lot of farming moved into what looks like a desert essentially. What is up with that? I mean, I know we've got a lot of drought resistant crops such as pistachios etc, but is it possible to farm the less arid coastal areas? There seems to be a lot of that available. (I'm not a farmer and don't know what I'm talking about, just throwing it out there)

Basically my question is: Is anyone looking at changing the way things are done entirely, rather than scooting water around and enforcing regulations/fees? The amount of farming CA does and the average person's luxurious use of water just don't appear sustainable to me :/

EDIT: A letter for spelling

davidzet13 karma

You've got the right idea.

In many cases, water CANNOT move elsewhere. In some (e.g., Imperial Valley) production is high IF you have the water. Thanks to past infrastructure decisions (and subsidies), there are lots of uses in the wrong places. (It's called "path dependency").

That said, it seems that a LOT of valley farmers doubled down in tree crops, as if daring politicians to deny them the water. Well, they're fucked now, as there just ISN'T water to give them.

BrainBurrito10 karma

It's my understanding that there were seasonal wetlands in some areas of the valley and the farmers DRAINED them to plant crops. Now they have signs up accusing the government of creating a "dustbowl". I don't know what they're thinking.

It came to my attention recently that over half the country's vegetables and over half the country's fruit is grown in California (please correct me if that's wrong). It's unsettling to learn the nation's food supply is teetering on such a precarious, antiquated and politics-laced infrastructure.

Informative pdf for the layperson like myself.

davidzet7 karma

You're right.

Read this on the Valley as ex-wetland

Read this on food production

tl;dr USDA is killing us.

davidzet6 karma

ps/These problems are so common, that it's practically a law of water: People use 102% of what's there.

TILopisafag8 karma

A few questions actually.

  1. What inspired/caused you to enter this field?

  2. What is the worst case scenario you see happening to socal/California in general?

  3. How likely is rationing at the point?

  4. Is desalination a viable solution to this and future droughts?

Thank you for this AMA.

davidzet12 karma

1) tl;dr: I wanted to understand government failure in drug policy but ended up in water, which is WAY more interesting.

2) SoCal? Dead environment. No farms. Desal for drinking water. 100 million people.

3) Rationing depends on local water conditions (meaning people in the next city over are not while you are). It's VERY hard to ration people on tap water, as you'd have to shut house valves remotely. Some places charge you for "using too much" but they tend to ignore the number of people (real problem).

4) Desal is viable, but it comes with heavy costs ($/carbon/environment). I'd prefer fewer people in arid places.

You're welcome -- thanks for asking good Qs :)

davidzet9 karma

ps/Population in the US was correlated with precipitation 100 years ago. No longer.

nuqqet9k8 karma

Do you feel we should be locking up citizens who collect rainwater?

davidzet11 karma

No. Those laws ("you're stealing my water before it flows to my property") are enforced in places where claims outnumber flows.

From a social perspective, it's stupid to ban rainbarrels, then sell water that's pumped and treated to the same person.

The "solution" is to put a bigger reserve for environmental flows, which were ignored until the 1980s in the US (Mono Lake)

muskyhunter117 karma

Can you speak to any companies involved in combatting this problem? Are there any technological advances on the horizon that will be a "game changer"?

davidzet14 karma

Not sure about "any companies"

Technology: Everyone wants desalination for all the problems, but desal still uses a LOT of energy and costs a lot (about 100x the cost of clean groundwater). I advise that people pay attention to both technology AND techniques. Don't just change the showerhead -- take a shorter shower :)

IshallReadtoYou7 karma

Do you expect water futures to properly trade on the markets? And do you see this development as positive or negative to the future price stability of water?

davidzet3 karma

Yes, they will trade in viable markets (Murray darling) where buyers/sellers are already linked AND accounting for flows is well developed. (That's not true in the US.)

Futures really do reduce fluctuations, but I'd go one step at a time. (No naked shorts, just yet :)

cptstupendous6 karma

Do you have high hopes for this year's El Nino?

davidzet22 karma

Nope. Weather NEVER solves bad management.

ALWOLI6 karma

How bad is it on the West coast? When will water wars begin?

davidzet13 karma

Not bad enough. People are still watering their lawns (40-70% of urban water use).

Wars have been happening for years... in the legislature, where politicians use "other people's money" to bring water/infrastructure to their friends. It's usually corrupt. Read Cadillac Desert if you have not.

tacotruck79 karma

Cadillac Desert is a good read but it was written 25 or 30 years ago. What do you feel has changed in the decades since it was written? By that I mean what needs more emphasis in today's world as far as water policy is concerned.

davidzet4 karma

Sadly, not much has changed. Politicians still love subsidizing water use (new desal plant in San Diego would raise monthly bills by $30, but it's only going to be $5 b/c the cost will be "shared" with people who won't even get water from it.)

I'd put more emphasis on managing water as a scarce resource, which Reisner didn't really discuss (except via dead rivers; still a problem).

foomachoo6 karma

Lawn incentives:

When a house goes for sale, the real-estate agents make sure to put in a fresh green lawn to stage the house. It will increase the sale price by far more than the cost of a fresh sodded lawn.

So, what laws, incentives, etc. do you think need to enter this transaction to change the prominence of lawns in drought areas?

davidzet10 karma

Great point. Many home owners associations (and civic bylaws) require lawns. End that.

You know how you react (or I react) when I get a FREE upgrade to an SUV at the rental car company? No way I'm paying to gas that bugger.

People will turn from lawns when they see the COST of maintenance.

orthonym6 karma

Water is cheap, plentiful, and delicious where I live in Oregon. My town has it's own massive reservoirs for the municipally run water company. Is there anything someone like me should be doing to conserve, even when our water is in such abundance?

davidzet5 karma

No. You should worry more about the condition of the pipes, treated water quality and quality wastewater treatment (look into "living machines")

Other than that, protect your streams/wetlands/springs/groundwater and enjoy!

TheGlassface5 karma

What are your thoughts on the bottled water industry? Especially considering Nestle has been brought back into the spotlight?

Does California's water work like Texas's "rule of capture" system?

davidzet2 karma

Bottled water companies are vilified too often, but they can break a vulnerable system.

Rule of Capture is vulnerable, since it allows unlimited exports (see Ross Perot). Groundwater regs. need to limit withdrawals (meters on wells).

ThatDeznaGuy5 karma

Have you used any of the drought mitigation techniques that were used in Australia a few years ago? Do you have any thoughts on how the current drought in California might change people's use of water in the US in the future?

davidzet6 karma

1) People wont change if they're insulated from the impacts of their bad habits.

2) Americans have a LOT to learn from Oz on water markets. On "doing the right thing" in conserving for the community, I don't see as much hope, as Americans are more "me first" than Aussies.

3) Desal investments don't look too good now, which will prevent them in the US a little while longer...

consilience355 karma

To the best of your knowledge, is the ongoing drought a result of anthropogenic climate change?

davidzet14 karma

Ack. Tough question for a scientist. I'm not, so I'll say -- from what I've read in MANY places -- that droughts will get worse with CC. Do we really care if a 10 year drought is caused by CC or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation? No, since we're still screwed.

MANY people fail to see that CC is caused by energy use but that its effects will ARRIVE in the hydrological cycle, i.e., bigger storms, longer droughts, etc.

1timeninja5 karma

Should people in areas with plenty of water resources (for example, the northeastern US) care about local water conservation? If so, why?

davidzet8 karma

Yes, but twist it a little:

(1) Drought is relative. Atlanta was in deep trouble with "only" 15 inches of rain. So conservation matters when the unexpected happens.

(2) Water QUALITY is really important -- and more important than quantity east of the Mississippi -- so "conservation" should include protecting your ground- and surface waters from pollution.

nanoplasia5 karma

Why is desalination not more common place in CA? As an outside observer it seems like it would be easier to source ocean water than to pipe what little is left of Shasta Lake across hundreds of miles.

davidzet7 karma

Lawsuits and money.

The State (and Federal) water projects were REALLY subsidized and they are built.

The desal plant in San Diego will cost $1 billion and supply 7% of the water to 3.1 million people (say 250k). That leaves another 20 million people (80 more plants?)

Grimgrin4 karma

Most of what I know about California water management comes from "Cadillac Desert", which is quite dated by now. What did that book get right, get wrong, and how have things changed in the last 30 years?

What do you think the likelihood is of an agreement for California to draw water from the Pacific Northwest, either within the US or w/ Canada?

Have you heard of, and what do you think of NAWAPA, and will we ever see a project on that kind of insane scale seriously proposed again?

davidzet5 karma

CD is still very relevant. Here's an update book

The Corps and BurRec are STILL insanely bad at water management. Bureaucratic, poor cost/benefit, cement-hungry.

Reisner's big point hinged in "other people's money" which is still a HUGE problem in water (everywhere), i.e., cross-subsidies from poor to rich, etc.

NAWAPA and other water transport projects are DOA. Desalination is cheaper and WAY easier politically.

ponyboyQQ4 karma

Are the water conservation efforts being put on the golf clubs as well? It's like a 500 dollar fine for misusing water. I don't think they should get a free ride to use as much water as they want because it's how they make their money.

davidzet8 karma

Depends on the law. From an economic perspective, I'd have EVERYONE pay for water, but the "water=jobs" BS tends to sway politicians. (The fact that they play golf has NOTHING to do with it.)

Anyone who uses water to make money (incl. 99% of farmers in the US) should pay for it/face limits on use.

bserum4 karma

I live in LA.

How bent out of shape should I get when I see a lady watering her concrete sidewalk?

Which happened about 15 minutes ago.

davidzet3 karma

You made it this long :)

Don't bother. Lots of people are doing silly stuff b/c LADWP is incompetent. Go get mad at THEM. This will help

Goonie_GooGoo4 karma

For the current drought in California, it's often been mentioned that farming/industry accounts for something like 70-80% of the state's water usage, so even if every single person in the state decreased their personal water usage by x%, it'd have a very negligible effect. What are your thoughts on the veracity of this?

Is my leaving it mellow when it's yellow and flushing it down if it's brown really doing nothing more than leaving my bathroom a bit stinkier?

davidzet4 karma

The stats are true. ITT, I've said that farmers have the rights to use that water. They need to sell some to cities (and each other).

Flush (or pee on the plants).

swimmerhair3 karma

What can you say about theme parks and their water usage in So. Cal? I was at Disneyland the other day and could only think of the amount of water being used for the landscaping.

davidzet7 karma

They're paying for the water to create an illusion. They may be more efficient than people with lawns since their bill is prob >$10k/month.

Vegas casinos are NOT the problem. Vegas lawns are...

TezzMuffins3 karma

In an ideal scenario of government where we had the political will and the resources to devote to it, what would be the best investment California could make for the future of its water supply going forward?

davidzet3 karma

1) Find out where the water is. 2) Find out who's using it. 3) Allocate some water to environmental flows (public goods) 4) Allocate the rest to existing claimants (or per capita) 5) Allow markets to reallocate the water


sass19873 karma

How can third-world countries tackle the water problems that they are facing? Also, water in third-world countries often tends to be unsanitary while the water in the US is treated and safe to drink safe out of the tap. Would it be more cost effective for third-world countries to follow the US model?

davidzet3 karma

Big question.

So, missing service is a huge health issue and there's not much money around. (Developed countries poured $$ into systems, often for public safety -- fires -- and health reasons.)

I'd start by making it easier for entrepreneurs to sell safe water. Sometimes they are prohibited by law or corrupt water managers. Neighborhood coops are also possible, given advances in small-scale treatment (literally tap-toilet-treatment-tap).

There's a LOT of money wasted by corruption in LDCs.

jasonmm19793 karma

Bottled water vs tap water? Is there that much of a difference?

davidzet6 karma

Price, for sure.

Quality depends on where you are. Amsterdam tap water is awesome (they clean canal water basically), but I avoid it in Cairo.

Bottled water is usually pretty good but I'm a fan of more head-to-head competition. There are failures on both sides.

panthedeartick3 karma

What do you think about the illegal immigration problem? If the trend continues, how will millions more illegal aliens affect the water situation in the Southwest? Particularly in areas already suffering from overpopulation/scarcity of resources.

davidzet11 karma

Illegals are not as much of a problem as the local population.

They live in apartments (they are poor) that do not have lawns.

I'm a BIG fan of migration (I am one; my parents were), but I wish that policies made it clear they were paying their way. We don't hate migrants. We hate free loaders.

KeeperOfThePeace3 karma

What are the biggest sources of the drought? That is, who and what activities are exacerbating the problem the most? You mentioned farmers aren't really one of them.

davidzet6 karma

Drought means less water than usual (supply).

Shortage means demand exceeds supply.

I say that "Nature makes a drought, man makes a shortage."

Farmers are DEFINITELY part of the problem, as they use most of the water (70-80%), but they can also use less.

The real problem is failing to cut back demand effectively. That means low water prices in LA. That means allowing unlimited groundwater pumping in ag areas. That means new subdivisions...

theflyingmermaid3 karma


davidzet6 karma

Best: Helping people see the connections among things they already know.

Worst: Selfish "public servants" who are (1) corrupt, (2) lazy or (3) ideological.

boomsday3 karma

I've read that about 30% of water in the LA area is lost through leaks in underground pipes. If this is true shouldn't there be a greater push to update the water pipes that are over 60 years old and non-efficient any more?

And if the cities aren't willing to do their part in upgrading the infrastructure why should I listen to the cities telling me to cut back when they aren't upgrading or have big beautiful green yards and gardens around their city halls?

davidzet2 karma

1) It costs money to fix pipes. LOTS of money. It's usually cheaper to "go get more water"

2) Those costs will fall on YOU, the customer. Unpopular.

3) City Hall should DEFINITELY pay for water. Often, they do not (internal budgeting), which leads to waste.

4) Green lawns @ City Hall = bad signal.

Brisbane (Aus) had a bad drought 10 years ago. Everyone "decided" to have green lawns and water use dropped to 150liters/person/day. That's 1/3 of LA use now...

kerrickter133 karma

In the event that CA is split into 6 parts, how would that effect water delivery?

davidzet3 karma

Ha! If they did it right, then water would be managed in its catchment, which I recommend. It would imply an end to shipping water N-S, which I think is the ultimate way to do things. (The enviro costs of moving water are WAY higher than when those projects were designed 100 yrs ago.)

MynameisBubba3 karma

How are lawns and golf courses and farming in the southwest still legal given the water situation out there? Do you for see any of those becoming unpopular in the region or even regulated/outlawed anytime soon? Or are we just too stubborn and won't make a change until we've fucked up beyond any point of salvage?

And I don't mean just this current drought that has been attracting attention. I mean the situation that has been developing for decades.

davidzet11 karma

Australia had a come to Jesus moment when their drought hit 5 or 8 years. They ripped up (reformed) water rights into water licenses. That can happen in the US.

Rights need to be reduced (to protect instream flows) and restructured (to allow trades). After that, the market -- not someone's great granddad -- will direct water to better economic uses.

Unopregunta3 karma

How do you suggest someone invest in water?

davidzet2 karma

Water technology and utilities.

DO NOT buy "water" from a farmer without a BIG truck and many political friends

ayres_a3 karma


What do think of the new CA groundwater legislation that is currently being discussed and formulated?

Thanks, Andrew

davidzet3 karma

I haven't seen it.

If it's going to require metering/reporting, then I love it.

If it's going to cap extractions to sustainable, then I REALLY love it.

MrWx3 karma

I live in California, and my water agency has sent down some mandatory toothless reduction guidelines. We're taking steps to reduce our usage, but I have no means of comparison besides my own usage figures last year and abstracted neighborhood comparisons. What are some actual figures and target numbers I should shoot for for a suburban household of four, to see how effective our behavior changes are?

davidzet5 karma

You're ahead of lots of people.

Check to see what your use is this year vs last. Repair leaks.

If you want to "do the right thing" then use water where it's valuable to you. If you like showers, then shower. If you like a lawn, then water it AND USE IT.

If you're bored, go to water agency meetings and find out WTF they are doing :)

jpollard033 karma

David, thank so much for doing this AMA. Currently, I am working for a conservation organization in a humid state and am really interested if you have any knowledge or opinions about potential development of comprehensive state-wide water policy in riparian states in which private corporations control a vast significant majority of the rights to use. Are there any notable examples, either domestically or internationally, of governments in this types of situation, in which a initially uninterested owner, has created a symbiotic policy for water conservation/planning and industrial use?

davidzet2 karma

Can you rephrase that?

jpollard033 karma

Can you think of any example in which a local, state, or federal government has created a comprehensive water policy plan that benefits its industrial use while also advancing water conservation in an area where a private industry controls between 70-80% of the water rights and typically blocks any advancement on the issue?

davidzet3 karma

So... private industry wants to benefit from the inefficient use of the water it doesn't own by selling water to industry that needs it?

I can see that as an issue. This will screw them up

Jethro4113 karma

Isn't 80% of California water usage by farmers? Private reduction of water use only has a minimal impact overall. Don't we need to come to some agreement on agricultural decisions before we start harassing civilians whose impact is minimal? How about the water use for artificially supporting salmon that could in turn support hundreds of thousands of people? The salmon would still exist in other areas. Seems like more misguided policy.

davidzet3 karma

  • "Usage" meaning "diversion"? Yes, but remember that some of that water flows elsewhere.

  • Ag vs urban hinges on water rights. Some need to be revoked. Other rights can be traded (ag>urban). Until then, cities will hassle citizens b/c they cannot get more water -- at any price

  • Salmon (like smelt) are proxy for entire ecosystems, and we're screwed without them. Should the San J. river be dewatered for people? yes, for drinking. no, for lawns. So... people end up arguing over different uses (my book does a better job on this).

WVFTW3 karma


wacca_wombat3 karma

How much does interstate water sharing affect water usage?

Are there situations where robbing Peter to pay Paul happening?

Are there any Tribunals/Review boards that can force one state to give water to another state?

What sort of Riparian laws are in effect that help/aggravate the situation for some of the drought hit states?

How much of a 'good' winter (lots of snow) in the northern states help with the water situation in the southern states?

davidzet3 karma

  • Not much, IMO. Most states use all they can (and more)

  • Yes, San Diego paid to line a canal to "save" water. They took the water from that area (farmers) but screwed a bunch of farmers who had been using the seepage. They were Mexican, so US courts didn't care.

  • Yes, the Supremes. Look up CA vs AZ 1963

  • Riparian rights mean everyone is hit. They are rare in the western US. In the East (GA-FL-AL), riparian waters have been impeded (Lake Lanier) and that went to the Supremes. Atlanta won (sad)

  • Good snow means nothing without rivers to connect them. Pipelines to ship water cause LOTS of enviro problems. (There's no such thing as surplus where nature's concerned)

sillysifaka3 karma

What role should prices play during drought? Should we pay more for what's coming out of the tap when there's less around?

davidzet3 karma

Absolutely. See the link at Edit2, top.

MpVpRb2 karma

What is the best estimate for how much could be saved by reducing waste and improving efficiency?

davidzet2 karma

HUGE question, since it depends on your definition of "waste"

Some people see long showers as waste (in terms of cleaning) when others use them for relaxation.

I live in Amsterdam, where people use about 100liters/day (1/3 of SFO usage) and life is good. Does that mean SFO people waste 2/3rds of their water? There are culture issues.

The REAL problem is that YOUR waste leaves less for ME when water is too cheap, so I get mad. Higher prices would keep TOTAL use within limits, which would mean no crisis and no finer pointing...

Sorry, but I could type paragraphs. Read my [shorter] book :)

coltwanger2 karma

I've heard some friends who have been in the Sacramento river this summer that it's a decent temperature. Usually it seems quite cold, is this due to the lack of snowfall over winter?

davidzet3 karma


CC means snow melts faster, so runoff is warmer, most of the time.

Bad for fish.

irock200120012 karma

Is my garden saving or wasting water, given that I grow mostly corn and tomatoes in the Central Valley?

davidzet3 karma

Are you consuming the corn and tomatoes? If so, it's probably better (energy, etc.)

If you're exporting to a place with more water, then wasting.

(Dry Spain exports water-intensive crops to wet Holland.)

irock200120012 karma

of course I eat them myself!

davidzet2 karma

Bon appetit!

morebeansplease2 karma

Thank you for the IamA!

As an IT guy I thrive on measurements. How fast are things designed to be and how fast are they actually running? How much capacity do we have, how much capacity are we using? Without these measurements we are unable to effectively manage the network. Where can we go to check in on the water flow/usage "meta-game" the big picture? Are there resources out there, live trending data, Powerpoint presentations, anything for us citizens to get that accurate picture? If its not there do we need to put our lawmakers to work?

davidzet3 karma

You'd HATE the water biz. Many stocks and flows are unmeasured.

Smart meters have made a splash b/c they make use salient AND help find persistent leaks.

If you're into this stuff, check network leakage. Lots of action there.

jibbajabba012 karma

How do you feel about this guy's take on the issue. Spot on?

davidzet2 karma

"I own water as a resource"

I'm running the other direction. Government policy (let alone weather) can kill your investment.

TheD_2 karma

By about how much would water's price in Cali have to appreciate before the negative externalities of too much damn water usage began to mitigate?

davidzet2 karma

I'd increase residential prices by 40% (elasticity 0.5) to cut use by 20%.

I'd allow water markets, to cut ag use by 20% (LOTS of inefficient allocations in ag)

Then I'd update and look again.

mazingerz0212 karma

I read that fresh water is a finite resource and in the future it will be scarce. How much truth is there to this? Should I be concerned about my kids not having fresh water?

davidzet3 karma

No, not if it's for drinking.

Yes, if it's for the pool :)

ex_oh2 karma

What is your opinion about the viability of the current BDCP backed by Governor Brown?

davidzet3 karma

My opinion is that I stay as far away from BDCP as I can (Amsterdam at the moment :)

GreenReliever2 karma

Where would you look if you wanted to find governmental funding for research and development for more efficient water usage in CA?

davidzet2 karma

I don't think gov't has a role, since "usage" is for private purposes.

USDA, BurRec, et al. throw lots of $ at efficiency, but all it does is stretch the water over more crops (or people). It doesn't prevent shortages.

dondox2 karma

I know we can all do our part but who is really the problem here?

davidzet4 karma

Water managers who declare a shortage. They should be fired.

Politicians who direct "public" water to private use (e.g., ag vs. environment). They should be jailed.

MOST people are VERY happy and able to improve water management, but (1) they are not given any reason to act or (2) have no power over bulk water allocations.

(Read my book, for the politics of water policy. It's $5 :)

mdisles2 karma

Do you see conjunctive use becoming more common in the next 10-15 years?

What are some problems associated with conjunctive use, particularly concerning water quality?

Can you speak to the problem of potable water that becomes essentially permanently polluted (e.g. by exposure to radiation, toxic compounds, etc.), and the effective loss of this water from the water cycle?

davidzet2 karma

Conjunctive (groundwater/surface water) use is really sensible, but most laws do not recognize it. They need to be updated.

Water quality can be a problem, but it's also manageable (if known).

There's really no such thing as permanent if you apply enough technology. It's just a question of money. What's interesting is how we've taken fossil groundwater out and added it to the cycle. One estimate is that 20-25% of sea-level rise (to date) is from this water ending up in oceans.

thebeast_622 karma


davidzet6 karma

We're peeing in your reservoirs to get you to release it to us!

chooglincharley1 karma

I am from Upstate NY, off of Lake Ontario. I lived in Denver, CO for 6 years and was introduced to a whole new perspective of water; hell, water law is unheard of in the northeast. I travelled to NM, AZ and Cali as a budding golf course designer and saw such inefficient use of water throughout those three states (with golf courses as a prime example, although they were frontrunners in water conservation and reuse).

With California previously purchasing rights to other state's water, how does the state you live in help our evergrowing problem of the mis-use of water in semi-arid and arid climates?

Denver had laws regarding the amount and time of water use for residential lawns; they allow for the reuse of gray water for irrigation, but don't allow for the easy use of capturing water for reuse as it is the rights to someone down stream. How do we solve this issue in an environment that would greatly benefit from alternative sources of irrigation water (rain harvesting) since everyone out there believed they needed a green lawn like their counterparts in the northeast?

davidzet1 karma

  • CA has its own water and Colorado River water based on the Compact of 1922. It can't "buy" water.

  • Denver's restrictions are a poor substitute for EXPENSIVE water, esp. when you consider subdivisions and population growth.

  • ITT, I bashed laws against rainwater harvesting. People wouldn't have green lawns if water was more expensive.

biochromatic1 karma

I don't know much about the situation in California (not being a California resident myself), but I did hear that they might go ahead with enforcing a previously voluntary water conservation effort.

  • Who will be in charge of enforcing that people aren't using too much water?
  • What methods can they use to actually catch someone who is using too much water?

It seems to me like making the lower water usage "mandatory" isn't really enforceable. I've heard of the "water on the street" rule about watering your lawn, but how will they actually catch people with water on the street? Just neighbors snitching on their neighbors?

davidzet1 karma

Roderick1111 karma

As a Las Vegas resident, seeing Lake Meade getting drained, I can't help but be baffled and a little irked that somehow we are getting blamed. California has an entire ocean of water to extract from.

Why isn't California looking into mass desalinization plants, some models of which use almost no energy at all but rely on wind currents and condensation? You guys are bleeding us dry out here.

davidzet2 karma

It's more complex.

NV has rights to 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado. California has 4.4 MAF.

Both places are using too much water, so they want more, but the Colorado is WAY over allocated.

Desal cannot work on the scale you're talking about.

From my book

As a thought experiment, let's consider the cost of sourcing all the water used in California from desalination. That solution would allow all the state's precipitation to run down the rivers and streams, rebuilding and nourishing ecosystems that have suffered from the impact of 38 million people. Take out the back of an envelope and write down these numbers.

Californians now demand 49,000 GL of water (40 million acre feet). The conventional wisdom is that it costs about $1 to desalinate a cubic meter of water, so the annual cost of producing that much water would be $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the state, or $3.50 per day (on top of the current cost of delivery, which does not include water costs). The 640 desalination plants supplying that water would cost about $500 billion, or $13,000 per Californian.

Roderick1111 karma

It's that expensive because no one in California has thought up any solution to alleviate their water problem except to suck more and more water from the Colorado river.

Solar powered desal plants with a little research would be cheap and relatively self-sustaining. Just need to hire some folks to scrape out the salt from the bins after the distillation process.

Where's the innovation? Sucking the Colorado dry isn't exactly a long term solution.

davidzet1 karma

Sucking the river is cheaper than desal, so people do it.

If you've got a cheap desal plant, I've got $5 billion in contracts for you, now.

pums1 karma

What's a good place to get started in terms of reading regarding how to address water-related externalities via pricing (or I guess other mechanisms) in the western United States?

davidzet2 karma

What you're looking for is reading on the policies that affect the division of water into economic and environmental uses (quality and quantity).

It's a bit selfish, but my book deals with those issues, externalities and pricing.

You can also look for reports from PPIC, Carpe Diem and the Western Governors Association. Pacific Institute doesn't handle externalities very well.