The underlying question goes beyond cosmetics: Is it acceptable to waste water during a drought even if you're willing to pay exorbitantly for it?
Water prices vary widely across the state but normal household use costs roughly $20 to $100 per month. Yet, add an average size lawn with several waterings each week and the bills here soar because water companies charge higher rates plus penalties as consumption climbs.
A clerk at the local water company says she’s seen monthly bills over $5,000 for wealthy residents determined to retain lush landscapes. Put another way: they would rather pay than conserve.
Drought conditions across much of the West have worsened over several years. California Gov. Jerry Brown has set a water conservation goal of 25 percent and the state issued a raft of regulations to force compliance. Yet, for individual homeowners the inconveniences remain minimal. Landscape watering is limited to two days per week, runoff is to be monitored, washing cars requires hoses with special shutoff nozzles, etc.
The carrot for those not otherwise conservation-driven is still money, with tiered rates requiring consumers to pay more per unit as their overall usage increases. California points to a 2009 study by researchers from Harvard and Yale concluding that price is the most effective tool for reducing consumption, as opposed to mandatory restrictions.
Even the pricing approach was thrown a bit of a curve in April when a state appeals court ruled that local municipalities may not charge tiered rates for water unless they can demonstrate that the actual cost of delivery is similarly tiered.
As if things aren’t complicated enough, local water companies stand to lose money as residents conserve more. Variable costs of delivery go down, but fixed costs of operation along with maintenance and research expenses remain the same. To compensate, some water companies are levying drought surcharges.
And this is just on the residential side. Agriculture is California’s largest water user, and the state has recently moved to limit farmers’ water supplies for the first time since 1977.
But back to the moral question confronting homeowners. In time of drought is it reasonable to buy as much water as you want if you don't care what it costs?
The poster community for this questionable behavior is Rancho Santa Fe in Southern California, known for its lavish estates, numerous golf courses – and per capita water use that is five times the state average. To the horror of all but the most dedicated lawn preservationists, Rancho Santa Fe’s water use actually climbed by 9 percent immediately after the governor urged a statewide reduction.
Wealthy Rancho Santa Fe residents insist that water is a natural resource to which government should not restrict access. The counter claim is that such resources, although vast, are finite and must be conserved – by law if necessary.
So, should it be illegal to have a lawn? Government wouldn't dare issue such an edict, preferring onerous water pricing and penalties. But that will only guarantee that in drought areas large lawns are eventually for the super rich instead of just the rich. A more equitable solution, if it comes to it, would be true rationing: each homeowner gets his share but may not buy up to a higher level.
In the long run the best solution is a combination of price persuasion and peer pressure. It’s only a matter of time before society concludes that lush lawns aren’t just wasteful, they’re also ugly. It’s the same sort of evolution that has shifted our tastes away from large, gas-guzzling vehicles.
We'll know we're there when it becomes fashionable to observe with envy that the grass is always browner on the other side of the fence.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle sysndicate.