Study: Affluent Areas Use Many Times More Water Than Poorer Ones
Larger, landscaped lots bear much of blame, but bad habits must be taken into account
With another drought beginning in some parts of the United States’ West Coast, much attention has again focused on water conservation. This renewed scrutiny has revealed a dramatic fact: There’s an extreme disparity between water use in affluent areas and water use in lower-income neighborhoods, a dynamic that holds in other areas of the U.S. as well.
While irrigation of lawns and landscaping in high-income neighborhoods accounts for much of the conspicuous consumption, habits also play an important role. Residents for whom water costs are “a drop in the bucket” are often reluctant to change bad habits.
In one water district of Malibu, water use was recorded as using 255 gallons of water daily per capita, or 300% of the American average. In stark contrast, lower-income areas with fewer lawns had sharply lower use: Huntington Park cut their use to only 34 gallons per capita.
While impending drought is posing a direct threat to Southern California at the moment, this disparity in water use rates has held in other parts of the state. In the Bay Area, for instance, two communities, San Lorenzo and Diablo, illustrated the contrast. San Lorenzo, a working class East Bay suburb, used only 51 gallons per person daily, while affluent Diablo, only 24 miles away, used more than 345 gallons daily per person. Can education change habits? One resident of San Lorenzo stated:
If I moved to Diablo tomorrow on a similar or even a slightly larger lot, I cannot conceive how I could use 350 gallons of water today with what I have learned about saving water.
A recent study in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that the water usage differential between affluent and lower-income areas holds in Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City, Utah, Phoenix, Arizona, and Austin, Texas. The study, led by Portland State University’s Heejun Chang, found that in the four cities, less water was used in longer established downtown areas and more was used in newer suburban areas. The research provides more evidence that city land use planning and water planning should be integrated.
What’s Being Done?
In the winter of 2016-17, an abundance of precipitation led to the lifting of restrictions in place during much of California’s 2013-17 drought. But, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, by February 2018 almost half of the state had returned to severe drought conditions.
That month, considering potential water scarcity, members of the California Water Resources Control Board put off a decision on whether to reinstate wide-ranging water-use restrictions, from allowing restaurants to serve water only if requested, to watering a lawn to the point that water runs into the street.
A lack of strict enforcement has called the effectiveness of such regulations into question, but according to Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the control board, they’re “the least we should do.” Marcus continued:
We’re not in an emergency right now, but shame on us if we just bury our heads in the sand [and] allow people to go out and waste water by washing down the driveway with a hose when a broom would do.