Want to solve our drought? Look to energy

Take a drive down Highway 5 through California’s Central Valley and you’ll find more signs sprouting up than plants, all protesting the water cutbacks. The farmers blame the politicians and the politicians are blaming climate change. Everyone has a scapegoat but no one seems to have a good answer. Except, perhaps, the energy experts.

Most Californians use water the way we used to use energy: unthinkingly. Not turning off the lights when we leave the house feels like a cardinal sin. Failing to reset our sprinklers and watering our lawns during a rain rarely merits a thought. More than 255,000 homes and businesses don’t even know how much water they’re using because they pay a flat, unmetered rate.

But it isn’t just the consumers’ fault. It’s not uncommon for electric utilities to pass out energy-efficient light bulbs to their customers. I have yet to see a water agency pass out low-flow showerheads. Unlike electric utilities, where revenues are decoupled from consumption, water agencies lose revenue if they encourage conservation.

Even if water agencies wanted to launch a widespread conservation campaign, they would have difficulty doing so. There are more than 3,000 local water agencies, in contrast to the three large investor-owned utilities that provide the majority of electricity in California. Unlike the California Energy Commission, which plays an active role in setting energy efficiency standards, the Department of Water Resources focuses merely on water quality.

Both our energy and our water systems rely on aging infrastructure. California’s agricultural system consumes 80% of our water. More than half of that irrigated land relies on outdated irrigation systems that waste significant amounts of water.

The state of California has recognized the challenges of an aging electric grid and has adopted the nation’s first energy storage mandate to incentivize innovative energy storage solutions in the place of costly hardware upgrades. Silicon Valley caught the drift and has been throwing money at energy storage startups. In contrast, there has been little funding for irrigation startups.

California’s energy crisis in the early 2000s spurred a sea change in how we think about energy. It is my hope that our current drought will do the same for our water policies.

Fixing consumer behavior through smart metering and education will help ensure that no one lets the sprinklers run during a rain. Decoupling revenue from consumption will incentivize water agencies to help change consumer behavior. Empowering a state agency to set water efficiency standards could lead to effective mandates. And finally, finding innovative solutions to fix our wasteful irrigation systems could significantly reduce our agricultural water use and perhaps even stop some of those protest signs.

We know how to fix this challenge. We did it with energy. Now let’s apply the same level of innovation to water.