Sprinklers spray water onto grass as a jogger runs through a city park in San Diego, California. REUTERS/Mike Blake

California's drought demands an answer, but as homeownership rates drop, the question has implications for the whole country.

We’ve heard all about California homeowners adapting their households to help meet the 25 percent statewide water cut mandated by Governor Jerry Brown. After tearing out their lawns and #droughtshaming free-sprinkling neighbors, they actually exceeded the Governor’s goal in June.

Yet renters, who make up nearly 17 percent of the state’s 38.8 million residents, have had few opportunities to put the mandate into action. Here’s why, and what can be done about it.

Yes, there is a problem

Alongside Governor Brown’s statewide 25 percent target, the State Water Resources Control Board assigned local reduction targets to each of the state’s urban water districts. These ranged from 4 to 36 percent. (Palm Springs, famous for its verdant golf-courses and poolside oases, found itself on the higher end of the scale.)

But renters are largely in the dark about local conservation goals. In a recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, homeowners were more than twice as likely as renters to say that they knew how much of a reduction their water district was required to make. Homeowners were also more likely to follow news related to the drought, and to say that they thought water supply was a problem in their community.

There’s clearly room for a conservation campaign specifically geared towards renters in urban areas. Slogans and advertisements may rarely influence behavioral change, but they can certainly raise awareness, which much of the renting community seems to lack.

Individual meters in new buildings

It’s not too surprising that renters are disconnected from drought issues. After all, most don’t pay directly for their water, since it’s often included in the price of rent. That’s because most multi-unit buildings use a single meter to track the entire building’s water consumption. Without a monthly bill reminding renters, in dollars, of how much water they used, they aren’t really incentivized to use less. That sucks for the environment, and it sucks for landlords, who have little room to pass rising water costs onto renters, especially in rent-controlled buildings.

A water meter is installed at the site of a new home under construction in Fresno, California. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

Why not just give each unit its own meter? Sub-metering, as that practice is called, can be prohibitively expensive for buildings that already run on a single meter—costing thousands per unit, according to the L.A. Times. Renters might use less water in the future, but experts worry that the expense of retrofitting buildings would outweigh the benefits.

It does make sense to outfit new units with individual meters. There’s state legislation in the works that would require new developments to sub-meter units. It might not have much effect in the short-term, but it definitely could in the future.

Updated appliances, on the landlord’s dime

Landscaping accounts for some 50 percent of all residential water use statewide. Generally speaking, people who live in multi-unit buildings don’t have much landscaping to worry about. That’s a big part of why renters don’t use nearly as much water as homeowners typically do, in addition to lot sizes being smaller.

But renters still take showers, flush toilets, and wash dishes. That’s where efficient appliances can come in. Upfront costs of new machinery can be prohibitive for lower-income renters, even with rebates offered by local water districts, and forking out thousands for a new dishwasher might also not make sense for renters who don’t plan on staying put for long. Landlords and property managers, then, should be the ones to take advantage of those rebates, whenever possible. After all, in most cases, they’re the ones actually paying for the entire building’s water use.

A fair rate

Let’s say we get to a point when renters are highly aware of water issues, live in units with individual meters, and have access to all the efficient appliances they can dream of. There’s still one crucial piece missing: a fair rate structure.

Low-income individuals and families are often renters. If they’re going to pay for their water directly, rather than as part of their monthly rent, water agencies must be careful to charge them an appropriate rate. Tiered rate structures (where bigger water users pay more per unit than smaller users) and subsidized “lifeline” rates can help protect low-income residents from paying disproportionately high costs for water, particularly as the cost of water steadily rises.

”The challenge of water rates and low-income communities will go well beyond this current drought,” Caitrin Phillips Chappelle, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, told CityLab in April.

The question of how to encourage water conservation among renters will only become more pressing—in California and across the country. American homeownership rates are dropping by the day. Besides California, the Southwest and Central Plains are likely to see long stretches of severe drought in the coming decades, too. Right now, California has the opportunity to figure out an answer.

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