U.S. dumps state plan for saving water

By Peter Gleick

This essay was originally printed in the Sacramento Bee on January 6, 2007.

For six years the Bush administration has refused to take any serious actions nationwide to improve energy and water efficiency. Now it is actively thwarting the efforts of Californians to take such actions on our own. Our state, the federal government would have us know, does not have a compelling interest in conserving water or energy.

In 2002, Gov. Gray Davis approved a Legislature-passed water-efficiency standard for residential washing machines. Although the federal government currently has no water standard for washing machines, states must apply for a federal waiver before implementing their own. The Schwarzenegger administration filed for such a waiver in 2005. The U.S. Department of Energy sat on this waiver request for more than a year, only to deny it on Dec. 28 — three days before California’s rules were to take effect and at a time when people were unlikely to notice.

Modern washing machines can drastically reduce water use. A high-efficiency washer, for example, uses half as much water as a traditional machine. Had the DOE allowed California’s self-rule on this matter, the standard could have saved the state more than 33 billion gallons of water per year, enough to provide the total household needs for more than 600,000 Californians annually.

DOE tried to defend its reasons for denying the new standard. Unfortunately, the rationales fail to pass the straight-face test.

In the most perverse explanation, DOE stated that California failed to prove that it has “unusual and compelling water interests.” This claim is ludicrous to anyone who lives west of the Mississippi River. The state’s water problems have been serious and growing for a century, and have often been made worse by inappropriate, outdated and inconsistent federal water policies. In this case, there simply is no federal water efficiency standard, and California saw the need and the potential to move forward.

Another reason DOE cited was that it would force appliance manufacturers to stop selling top-loading washers in California by 2010. That is false. Manufacturers could easily design more efficient top-loading machines if they had to meet new standards.

Those manufacturers that failed to innovate would lose market share to smarter appliance makers, though their inefficient water-wasters could be sold in the rest of the United States. Furthermore, the major manufacturers of top-loading washers are already selling high-efficiency models as well. DOE is simply protecting a narrow industrial interest at public expense.

Water-efficiency standards are among the most effective ways to promote new technology. Without them, appliance manufacturers will continue to market machines that are cheaper to make and sell, but more costly to customers in the long run.

It is inefficient for 50 different states to set 50 different standards. But in the absence of any willingness on the part of the federal government to act against narrow corporate interests to protect the public interest, it should not stand in the way of those states that choose to do so. Until this happens, California will continue to waste water and energy, and emit far more greenhouse gases and other pollutants than necessary.

California’s water and energy needs must take precedence over the interests of washing machine manufacturers. The state should appeal the Bush administration’s denial immediately, with the support of the governor and all of our federal representatives.

Peter H. Gleick, PhD, is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, a nonpartisan, Oakland-based think tank. He is a MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Science.