Conserve More Water

Water Conservation versus Dams

Courtesy of Friends of the River. Click to enlarge.

California is a semi-arid state, and our water problems will only intensify with climate change and a growing population.  While we have had some success with water conservation policies, we can – and ultimately, must – do better. 

As the accompanying charts (left) show, the costs of water obtained through conservation are low compared to the costs of two proposed dams (Sites Reservoir Dam in the western Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River.)  Correspondingly, the water yield from conservation is higher than that projected for the dam projects.

The only real beneficiary of these proposed dams would be corporate agribusiness. Urban ratepayers would not derive increased water security or additional water supplies.  Moreover, ratepayer water bills could rise as a consequence of these projects.  As these charts show, these projects have extremely high costs relative to the water they produce.


Similarly, two-thirds of the billion dollar cost for the proposed enlargement of Shasta Dam would be borne by taxpayers in the name of a larger cold water pool for salmon. But these “salmon benefits” are illusory:  the only true winner of this boondoggle would be the Westlands Water District.  See the comments of C-WIN and the California Environmental Water Caucus on the enlargement of Shasta Dam here.

A 2008 study by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation found that urban water conservation was a desirable policy for both economic and environmental reasons.  The inquiry determined that water derived from conservation cost about $280 per acre-foot compared to the $760 to $1,400 acre foot costs for water from “surface storage” – dams and reservoirs.  (An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water for two typical California households.)

The Pacific Institute arrived at a similar conclusion in its report, Waste Not, Want Not: The Potential for Urban Water Conservation in California:


    “…The largest, least expensive, and most environmentally sound source of water to meet California’s future water needs is the water currently wasted in every sector of our economy…Furthermore, the state’s natural ecological inheritance and beauty do not have to be sacrificed to satisfy our water needs…”


In another report issued by the Pacific Institute on agricultural water conservation (More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta), researchers concluded four strategies could reduce Delta groundwater overdraft, contribute significantly to ecosystem health and help meet legal restrictions of Delta water withdrawals:

  • Modest changes in crop rotation
  • "Smart" irrigation scheduling
  • Advanced irrigation management
  • Efficient irrigation technology


Citing federal and state studies, the Pacific Institute also noted that permanent retirement of 1.3 million acres of drainage-impaired San Joaquin Valley lands would save 3.9 million acre feet of water a year, reduce pollution mitigation costs and minimize the social and environmental impacts of contaminated drainwater.  The institute’s broad view of California agriculture can be found in its report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.

The California Water Impact Network is deeply concerned about the egregious waste of our state’s scant water resources.  We believe our water policies must be reformed to protect ratepayers, assure water security and restore Delta and Central Valley ecosystems. We do not need draconian and disruptive policies to attain these goals.  Through conservation, we can limit taxpayer costs, promote a sustainable job sector, restore damaged ecosystems and the threatened species that depend on them, and eliminate the need for ruinously expensive water development projects that disproportionately benefit small constituencies at the expense of rank-and-file ratepayers.


Use the Pacific Institute’s WECalc survey tool to determine your water footprint and learn about personal water conservation strategies.