The Value in Conservation

To value conservation, in our society, is to put a price on it. What is it worth to a community to make water available to its residents? What is it worth to residents to forego some of the use value that they presently obtain from their water?

To answer this question ultimately requires a mechanism for price discovery on the part of the buyer and the seller — that is, how much is the community willing to pay and how much is the end user willing to sell for?

Policymakers can choose to take water governance out of the hands of the population. They can raise prices, establish quotas, penalize water wasters, humiliate you compared to your neighbors, etc. Engineers can build more elaborate systems for producing, distributing, and storing water in order to deliver it to meet demand. But the sustainability of water will be found when we connect the value of our supply of water to the value of water conservation. When we empower our communities to preserve their own water supplies, we will ensure that they are supplied for decades to come.

We can keep water affordable for those most in need, provide plenty for our farms and businesses, and maintain adequate flows in our streams by connecting water conservation to water scarcity.

To see how conservation works, take the average home, which will average about 250 gallons per day for a family of four. This usage is seasonal — summer is higher than winter — so we can estimate 300 gallons per day for half of the year and 200 gallons per day for the other half. If we consider outdoor water use to be completely discretionary, we can eliminate 100 gallons per day for six months right away. If each of the four family members reduced their 2.5 gallon-per-minute shower time by one minute per day, they would save an additional 10 gallons per day. And if the kids remembered to turn the water off when they brushed their teeth, the family would save another five gallons per day. These small actions would save 23,725 gallons per year. The bill savings would be negligible — around $5 per month — but the water savings would be enough to support one additional member of their family at no net increase in consumption.

If each household in a community of 100,000 residents saved the same amount of water, there would be enough left over to support 25,000 new residents at no net increase in water consumption or cost to the community.

The family saving the water is sacrificing the value they obtain from outdoor watering (at least the option of using drinking water to maintain their lawn). Evidence from existing conservation efforts suggests that this happens already, even without an expectation of direct benefit. We conserve today because it’s the right thing to do. If all residents followed suite and switched from drinking water to recycled water for outdoor irrigation, there would be no net loss of water value in the community.

To return briefly to our example, what if the community decided that providing water for an additional household was worth $1,000 per year. It could pay our savers a penny per gallon for the water they saved and come out ahead. Would you give up your lawn and a minute on your shower for an extra $20 per month? In more dire circumstances, the price could be raised and the savings banked to offset the effects of a drought.

Putting a price on conservation is an odd concept in the United States because our water suppliers are in the business of selling us more water. But as we have shifted into an era of scarcity, the value of conservation has increased. We are now at the point where it is more valuable to use water more efficiently than it is to try to procure new supplies. The best way to achieve conservation goals is not to sell less water (though conservation will likely result in lower sales), but rather to purchase water savings achieved by those willing to conserve.