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Flushing Away a Resource

April 08, 2002

Although our hot-tub and carwash culture takes the stuff for granted, water is a life-and-death matter in California. Yet lowly toilets consume about 25% of all indoor water use in the state. Since 1992, federal codes have required that all new toilets be the low-flow variety, using 1.6 gallons per flush, compared with 3.5 gallons for the old ones. Over the years, builders have installed the water savers in new and remodeled homes. But millions of older homes continue to waste tens of millions of gallons a day with high-flow toilets.

Back in 1991, the Legislature killed a prescient bill to require that the old toilets be replaced with low-flow models when a house changed ownership. Now, in times of much shorter water supplies, the measure has resurfaced as AB 2734, by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura) and sponsored by the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the Natural Resources Defense Council, with support from the San Diego County Water Authority.

Californians already must retrofit hot water heaters with earthquake safety straps and smoke alarms at the time of sale. It only makes sense to have a similar rule requiring low-flow toilets because the change after 10 years would save an estimated 350,000 acre-feet annually: enough to fill more than 22 billion of those five-gallon water cooler jugs, enough to meet the total household needs of about 700,000 families, enough to take care of half the total water use of Los Angeles.The measure would also provide (if a future bond comes up with the money) a sales tax break to buyers of water-conserving clothes washers, require use of water-stingy shower heads and demand tougher local ordinances governing water use in large landscaping projects, saving an additional 250,000 acre-feet.

The bill, which faces its first committee hearing Tuesday, has broad support but is running into a buzz saw of opposition from real estate interests. They claim that the toilet measure would lock moderate-income families out of the housing market. The new toilets cost about $100 and a homeowner or handyman can easily install one. A couple of new toilets in a $150,000-$200,000 house do not seem an onerous burden. The city of Los Angeles has had the toilet retrofit requirement since 1999 and housing sales here seem to be doing fine.

In fact, lawmakers who ignore the real estate industry's false alarms will be doing it a favor. The need for water is a human absolute, a biological imperative. The state expects 15 million new residents by 2020, and if there's not enough water to sustain them, the housing market too will dry up. The Legislature should pass this overdue bill, and Gov. Gray Davis should gladly sign it as an insurance policy against future drought and shortages.

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