The Net Zero Shell Game, or Where’s the Water?


Our Ventura Water agency rightly boasts about our water saving success. We saved approximately 40% for June and July, beating the governor's requirements for municipal water conservation.

Now we have an innovation called NetZero. The catchy term implies a simple formula: more conservation plus more usage adds up to zero. There's no net increase in overall water consumption. Pretty good, no?

Well no.

Usually when you save things you do so for that “rainy day.” Under NetZero, what you save gets used by someone else.

Who? “Saved” water will be piped to new users in newly built developments, who have not been struggling like us to conserve at all.

The game starts with the water you saved under a shell on a table with two other shells, which are then twirled around and you have to guess where the water went. Under the first shell? No. Under the second? No. Aha! then under the third. No again!

Where did it go? The water actually disappears into bureaucratic thin air only to reappear in its sweet liquid form in some new user’s supply line—some net, some zero.

The water we save allows more new buildings to get new water hookups, putting more pressure on our very limited water sources, now and in the future. How might it work?

In the past, developers stiffed the city for 750 acre feet of water rights they sold before they applied for development approvals. Now NetZero proposes that upright developers who need city water can donate to the city's conservation program for things like low flow toilets for public housing. In return the developer gets the water such a monetary contribution generates. No one knows how much will actually be saved or shifted. Where’s the calculations?

The Water Commission must grapple with these NetZero details. At a public meeting, some commissioners were already skeptical. Assurances by Shana Epstein, head of Ventura Water, that this won’t be implemented until the drought’s over “because we have no water,” seemed contradicted by her statement that it will be implemented now, but not activated. Presumably a developer can pay now for future water credits. And, who declares the drought over to start water transfers?

Contrariwise, without such a declaration, we would continue to pay the higher tier rates for water. Will new users under NetZero be as conscientious as existing users, saving 40%? With only financial penalties for overuse, new users could use excessive amounts of water and simply pay a higher price for whatever they want.

Many of us called for a moratorium on new building while the drought endures and our reserves continue to dwindle. Potentially damaging El Niño downpours this fall and winter will not refill our depleted aquifers. This takes seasons of steady soaking rain over many years, if that “old normal” ever returns. With global climate change, we may have reached a much-reduced “new normal.” And, we might already be “built out” when it comes to reliable water availability.

NetZero is a shell game to foster growth and accommodate development during times of extreme drought, when we should impose a moratorium on new water hook ups by pausing all development itself.

NetZero aims to create new users not new water.


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