California water use numbers should flow freely

A large bed of flowers grows in front of housing in Newport Beach. Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent cut in urban residential water use.
A large bed of flowers grows in front of housing in Newport Beach. Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent cut in urban residential water use. The Associated Press

There has been too much finger-pointing, but if we’re going to target the biggest water users, everyone should be on the firing line – not just suburbanites with lush lawns or farmers with thirsty crops, but also industrial plants and commercial businesses that guzzle water.

Unfortunately, we rarely know who the biggest water users are. Blame a huge loophole in California’s public records law that allows water agencies to decide whether disclosing how much specific customers use is in the “public interest.”

Usually, agencies opt for secrecy. But surely, it’s in the public interest now that we’re in the middle of a record drought. Wouldn’t it encourage conservation if Californians knew who the biggest users are, and whether they’re cutting back? Wouldn’t it let us judge whether the water-saving burden is being spread fairly?

While intended to protect individual privacy, the 1997 change in the Public Records Act went too far. Legislators ought to fix it, at least by requiring disclosure of usage by industrial, institutional and commercial customers that don’t need the same level of confidentiality.

Many Californians complain loudly that agriculture isn’t part of the 25 percent mandatory cut in residential urban water use ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown. But commercial, institutional and industrial customers aren’t being required to meet specific conservation goals, either.

Instead, the State Water Resources Control Board says it’s up to each agency to figure out how to reach its target through reductions from residential and non-residential customers alike.

The board notes, however, that commercial properties with large outdoor landscapes present “significant opportunities for water savings.” In a fact sheet on the draft regulations, it also cites non-residential users in hypothetical examples; in one, it says that in a district that must cut use by 12 percent overall, families would be told to cut their use by 15 percent because a manufacturing plant uses 20 percent of the district’s water and “cannot reduce its use.”

The water board should be pushing for more disclosure as well.

Some cities and water agencies used to make usage data public, including the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District in Southern California, which have some of the state’s highest per-capita water use. But after The Desert Sun newspaper in March 2014 published who was pumping the most groundwater, both agencies stopped.

The First Amendment Coalition sued the agencies to obtain usage data for major businesses. Desert Water settled and agreed to make the numbers available; they show that golf resorts and country clubs are among the biggest users. Coachella Valley, however, refused – and won in court last month.

The coalition hasn’t decided whether to appeal. Executive Director Peter Scheer rightly points out that corporations aren’t people and don’t deserve the same privacy protection.

The city of Sacramento hasn’t publicly named its biggest water users since 2010. That year’s top 20, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all water consumed, included city government, the county, school districts, hospitals and bottling plants.

Asked last year for the list, the utilities department refused, saying it didn’t want to vilify large users or somehow tell small residential customers that it didn’t matter how much they saved. But in a document filed with its $215 million water bond issue in 2013, the city did list the top 10 users. They included city, county and state government; Procter & Gamble; and three apartment complexes.

One major commercial customer wants the city to release more data. Nestlé says it’s being unfairly criticized, even though the 50 million gallons a year it buys for its Sacramento bottled-water plant is less than 1 percent of what the city consumes. Protesters picketed the plant last month, and an online petition is urging state regulators to stop the company’s bottling operations in California.

Tim Brown, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, made the rounds last week to get his message out that his company is using water much more efficiently. Over the last three years, the amount used to produce 1 gallon of water going into bottles has dropped from 1.5 gallons to 1.3, Brown told a member of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.

Brown says that Nestlé wants to set an example on transparency because too much of the drought debate has focused on the search for villains – without full and accurate information.

He’s right.

If we’re all in this together, we need to know who is using how much water – no matter whether it’s corporate farms siphoning rivers or underground aquifers, apartment complexes irrigating landscapes or industrial and power plants piping in water. Secrecy and misinformation breed suspicion, and that only makes it more difficult to come up with smart and fair solutions.