California Deploying Drought Surveillance Tools to Punish Petty Water Wasters

Jake Anderson
April 15, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) As California enters its fourth year of devastating drought, the state government, led by Governor Jerry Brown, has started scrambling to conserve what little water it can by mandating that Californians slash their water consumption by 25% by the end of the year. The state’s conservation plan is designed to impose the greatest reductions on water districts with the highest per-capita water consumption, so districts that have already implemented serious conservation measures won’t be forced to add to drastic cuts that they have made already. Of course, the measures are hardly impacting the greatest water wasters in the state, which is big industry and animal agriculture in particular.

Though this plan seems equitable on the surface, CA water authorities are deploying some curious new tools to identify water wasters and hold them accountable on an individual scale. Authorities in Long Beach have started to install Smart Meter devices, which detect individual homes’ or businesses’ water consumption, transmitting news about illegal water consumption back to the Long Beach Water Department in real time. Once a suspected water criminal is located, a water agent is sent to the location to gather video evidence of the waste. The Department imposed its first fine this month; $800 to a local McDonald’s with an overenthusiastic sprinkler setup. The Department isn’t installing its Smart Meters on all homes and businesses, of course. That would be far too expensive. Instead, the LBWD installs the meters only at locations that have been reported by concerned citizens.

Though the Smart Meter certainly makes enforcement of water restrictions a lot more direct, it’s troubling that this tool, which targets individual users, is garnering so much praise from the government and the media. In point of fact, individual homes and businesses aren’t the real culprits in California’s mounting water crisis. According to the California Department of Water Resources, 80% of California’s water goes to agriculture, while the bottled-water industry pumps water right from some of the state’s most drought-ridden regions.

In light of these facts, Governor Brown’s sudden restrictions on individual districts’ water use, and the subsequent incentive for district water departments to impose Smart Meters on potential offenders, it looks like a red herring meant to direct attention away from the larger problem. As more and more citizens object to the Orwellian prospect of being targeted for surveillance and retribution by their local districts for infractions at the micro scale, little is being done to address the fact that the citizens of California are being forced to cut back because of water consumed by industry and agriculture for goods that will be sold outside the state. With the system of water rights in California as complex and antiquated as it is, corporations (agricultural and otherwise) are able to get away with what some groups are qualifying as outright theft.

Ultimately, individual-level conservation measures aren’t going to get California out of this drought, which has serious implications not only for Californians, but for food prices all over the United States. According to an editorial by NASA researcher Jay Famiglietti, California only has a year’s worth of water left, and it’s going to take some serious changes to state water policy for drought mitigation efforts to recharge California’s aquifers. In spite of recent storms to hit the state, NASA says that it will take many years for the state to emerge from current drought conditions.

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