This summer, a 90-year-old water pipe burst under Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, sending a geyser 30 feet into the air and a flood of troubles over the UCLA campus. Raging water and mud trapped five people, swamped 1,000 cars and flooded five university buildings — blasting the doors off elevators and ruining the new wooden floor atop the Bruins’ storied basketball court.
As the campus dried out, though, Angelenos seemed less upset about the replaceable floorboards at Pauley Pavilion than they were over another loss: 20 million gallons of freshwater wasted in the middle of the worst drought in California history. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti took heat for his earlier campaign promise not to raise water rates in a city with a long backlog of repairs for aging water pipes.
Five days after the L.A. pipeline rupture, officials in Toledo, Ohio, declared the tap water for half a million people unsafe to drink, tainted by toxic algae spreading in the warm waters of Lake Erie. As residents of one of the most water-blessed regions in the world waited in lines to buy bottled water, an issue that had held little political urgency rose near the top of Ohio’s gubernatorial and legislative races. Former Toledo mayor Mike Bell held back an “I told you so” for council veterans who’d resisted rate increases to pay for upgrades to the city’s 73-year-old water-treatment plant.
In Los Angeles and Toledo and across the U.S., historic drought, water-quality threats heightened by warming waters and poorly maintained infrastructure are converging to draw public attention to the value of fresh, clean water to a degree not seen since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The problems are also laying bare the flawed way we pay for water — one that practically guarantees pipes will burst, farmers will use as much as they can and automatic sprinklers will whir over desiccated aquifers.
Squeezed by drought, U.S. consumers and western farmers have begun to pay more for water. But the increases do not come close to addressing the fundamental price paradox in a nation that uses more water than any other in the world while generally paying less for it. And some of the largest water users in the East, including agricultural, energy and mining companies, often pay nothing for water at all.
As a result, we’re subsidizing our most wasteful water use — while neglecting essentials like keeping our water plants and pipes in good repair. “You can get to sustainability,” says David Zetland, a water economist and author of the book Living with Water Scarcity. “But you can’t get there without putting a price on water.”
Cheap, Abundant Illusion
Water is the most essential utility delivered to us each day, meeting our drinking and sanitation needs and many others, from fire protection to irrigation. Incongruously, it is also the resource we value least. This is true generally for both the way we use water and the price we put on it. MORE
By Cynthia Barnett