This is your public service drought allocation notice

Water rationing arrives in Berkeley, Calif. Ho hum. Tell it to the Ethiopians

Published August 7, 2008 10:06PM (EDT)

In the mail today: A "drought advisory notice" from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).

After two consecutive dry winters, EBMUD has declared a water shortage emergency. Water use restrictions are in place and customers have been assigned individual water use allocations. This letter provides your individual water use allocation and describes how your bill might change during the drought.

EBMUD has cooked up a new rate structure aimed at encouraging conservation. First, the utility calculated a "baseline" figure by averaging out my household's consumption from 2004-2007. My "allocation" is the baseline minus ten percent. As of August 1st, if I exceed that allocation, I pay a drought surcharge, in addition to a 10 percent increase in water flow charges over the course of the drought.

I have no problem at all with this. I'm a believer that a sensible water policy would be to guarantee each household a set amount of cheap water, but then start charging higher and higher rates for consumption above and beyond that baseline. You want a green lawn and a swimming pool in the desert? Pay for it. EBMUD's plan is to use the income generated by the surcharges to make efficiency improvements to the water district that would increase conservation.

In anticipation of these charges, I've been attempting, like a good Berkeley liberal, to significantly bring down my water consumption. Toilet flushing -- which represents as much as 25 percent of the average American household's consumption of water -- has gone into sharp decline. But when I examined my drought advisory notice a little more closely I noticed something I'd missed before: "Residential customer accounts that use 100 gallons per day or less are exempt from the drought rate increase and drought surcharge."

My most recent bill indicates that my household consumed under 100 gallons per day over the last two months. So! Home free! We can flush again!

Well, no, actually. I do want to see how far down I can lower the current numbers. But the fact that my household, with its dishwasher, washer and dryer, showers every day, fruit trees in the back yard, etc, wasn't consuming enough to be required to cut back, even in the middle of a pretty severe drought, was an eye-opener.

The average American uses somewhere between 70-100 (or possibly more, statistics are all over the map) gallons per day. My household includes me and two kids, who reside here fifty percent of the time. So let's say I've got a two-person household, in which case, my consumption is substantially below the national average.

Yippee for me. But I don't feel like I'm even trying that hard to conserve at all (though, no lawn, no swimming pool, no hosing down the car on summer weekends.) In fact, I'm pretty darn sure that by worldwide standards, I'm a prolific consumer. And after a little checking that appears to be true. In Europe, the average citizen consumes about half what an American does. In China, I found one estimate of per capita consumption at 23 gallons per day. In Ethiopia, 3 gallons per person per day.

So, the upshot? Water "rationing" in Northern California -- maybe not that big a deal. Yet.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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