Conservation before compromise


Jonathan Parkinson's "Compromise is better than nothing" is long on provocation and short on facts (HCN, 4/13/09). He writes, "You can't conserve your way out of a drought." A good sound bite, but it's flat wrong. In fact, Southern California did conserve its way out of a drought in the late '80s and early '90s. As Parkinson notes, L.A. uses less water today than it did in 1987, despite adding more than 500,000 people. Conservation works.

Sadly, despite drought warnings, the San Diego metro area has failed to respond. In fact, since 1992 (after the end of the last drought), the San Diego metro area has also added 500,000-plus people, but its total water use through 2008 increased by nearly 190,000 acre-feet, almost 38 percent. At the same time as San Diego's water use has been on the rise, an aggressive conservation program has enabled the city of Long Beach to reduce its per capita water use to an impressive 107 gallons per day. In Australia, per capita water use is now often below 50 gallons per day. The potential for conservation is huge and, in San Diego, barely tapped.

Parkinson's argument seems to be that although desalination may be bad (it "consumes a lot of energy" and "will kill some fish"), some other things are worse. That's not a compelling argument, especially when good options -- "such as conservation, accelerating wastewater recycling and reuse, and implementing smart land-use planning" -- are very much available.

Baseless calls for compromise (which in this case read more like an exhortation to abandon principles and ignore facts) don't advance the contentious debate over Western water. There may be good reasons to pursue ocean desalination. This article, however, doesn't offer any.

Michael Cohen
Senior Associate, Pacific Institute
Oakland, California