A city dying of thirst? Seven costs.

Santa Cruz, CA just mandated a 35% reduction in water usage.
What are the actual effects?

A decade ago, a survey of Santa Cruz residents predicted dire effects from drought caused by long-term warming. Beyond the inconveniences, like reusing water, abandoning lawns, and generally using half the water per person as the rest of the state, there are less-visible financial costs coming to town. Could this happen in your town?

Santa Cruz residents climate proofing 1. Water rates  Yes, residents save money when they save water, but the water authority loses that revenue. So it’s expected to raise rates 7% to 8% each year over the next decade. The city is also considering an additional “drought cost recovery fee.”

2. Water rate penalties  Big fines are added to Santa Cruz water bills if a household uses more than their allotment. A unit of water averages about $3 but can rise to $50 above the allotment. Two water cops write tickets for irrigating during the daytime or hosing down pavement. Offenders go to Water School, similar to traffic school, and can get their first fine waived if they take the two-hour class. There’s a one-month waiting list.

3. Cost of a new water source   Santa Cruz is on the ocean, where desalination is an option. The Chamber of Commerce supports building a plant, but so far the city council has bowed to public resistance. Costs running into the millions are projected, most coming from the pockets of county taxpayers.

4. Water quality down   The drought hurts water quality. With stream flows as low as 13% of average, pollutants are not diluted or quickly washed away. The county may have to add more water treatment equipment soon, another significant cost to taxpayers.

5. Municipal financing costs up   Thanks to growing drought, in 2014 S&P lowered its rating for the local water revenue bonds. The agency pointed to the dwindling revenues from lower water use, and the need for borrowing to cover the construction mentioned above. This raises the interest rate the county will pay to borrow money. S&P said the bonds could be downgraded further if water rates aren’t raised substantially.

6. Business activity in danger  Most businesses have been exempt from the rationing, in an effort to boost the economy. But golf courses have been cut back nearly 50 percent, and restrictions could jeopardize beach house rentals to vacationers. Soon water restrictions may be applied to other businesses as well.

7. Real estate values?   One might expect rising costs in Santa Cruz to depress home prices. This hasn’t happened yet. For one thing, past water shortages have led to construction moratoriums that contributed to sky-high local real estate prices. For the same reason, property values could be climate-proof for a while.

Santa Cruz has one special defense against adversity – its attitude. I’ll discuss that in a later post.


A city dying of thirst? The prequel.

At about a 30% water shortage, residents predicted the city would deteriorate.
35% reductions have just been mandated.

Santa Cruz, a county of natural beauty between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains, is rated at “Extreme” risk for long-term water shortages. (400 American counties have such ratings. Another 600 are rated “High” risk.)

Notice to residents: Santa Cruz is not climate-proof. Way back in 2003, to involve its residents in visualizing the problems ahead, the city asked how people would feel at various levels of water rationing. Looking into the future, the predictions were scary.

At 10-20%, reduced outdoor watering, shorter showers and other small measures would be “inconvenient.”

20–30% reductions amounted to “hardship.” Fines would begin. Multi-family dwellings would need rules and enforcers. New domestic habits would become “disagreeable preoccupations.”

At 30-50%  most landscaping would be gone, pools and common laundry facilities closed, money spent to find and fix leaks. Lifestyles would be “significantly affected.” Personal finances would start contracting. Families would begin moving out.

Many businesses depend on water, and when it becomes unavailable, they move too. The landscape industry would be the first to go. As restrictions rise past 30%, restaurants would struggle to maintain health standards. Hospitals and clinics would cut services, maybe handling emergencies only. Golf courses would close and revert to rough ground. Visitors will stop coming. Jobs would disappear. As water sources dry up, water quality can drop too, requiring investment in more expensive water treatment.

50-60% reductions, residents said, would be “catastrophic.” Parks and playing fields would turn to dirt. The town would lose its looks. Serious conflicts among neighbors and the municipal government were expected. Property values would plummet. Programs sponsored by federal taxpayers would likely grow. Many residents would leave.

We’re no longer looking into the future. Last week state restrictions, as high as 36%, were announced. Are the privations matching the predicted pain?


Is your state bracing for drought?

Sure, California and Texas are worried about water shortages.
But Montana? Delaware? Rhode Island?

Drought predictions by state

In March, California announced mandatory water conservation rules. Most Americans, aware of California’s pain, are sympathetic. And thankful that it’s not happening in their state!

But planners in other states who are paid to look a decade or so down the road are seeing drought in their futures too. The GAO has surveyed state water agencies.

- Montana legislators have directed the state to plan for expected “statewide” water shortages.

- The Kansas Water Office has called for urgent action to reduce drought risks. Given the state’s infamous budget deficit, emphasis has been placed on creative water project financing, perhaps using new public-private partnerships.

- North Carolina has increased the governor’s emergency powers and called for conservation programs.

- Delaware and Rhode Island are predicting water shortages for whole regions of their states. Even Vermont and North Dakota are making plans to increase resilience in the face of expected local shortages.

Oh, and Texas’ response to drought? Yep, a Rainy Day Fund!

If you’re thinking about climate-proofing your family budget and lifestyle, you should take a worried look at the little-noticed risks from water shortages.


Carbon tax stirrings could boost oil prices

Peak oil is dead, they say.
Three events say “maybe not.”

Just yesterday, it seems, the cost of oil and gas dropped by half. Almost overnight the world had learned to frack. President Obama started talking about “our 100-year supply of natural gas.” Warnings about the upward pressures on petroleum prices were rescinded.

Cigarette taxes reduced cancer. Could a carbon tax reduce warming?

But will energy prices soon join the other climate-driven costs we need to navigate – thanks to a tax on carbon?

We’ve imposed a similar tax before, on tobacco. People stopped smoking. Cancer deaths dropped. So did lung, heart, and pregnancy healthcare costs. We used the tax to fund children’s health coverage.

Could we raise the price of oil and gas with a carbon tax and get similar benefits? There are straws in the wind.

1. Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz introduced a carbon tax bill last winter in the Senate. They think conditions have changed enough to give it new appeal to Republicans. They’re even pitching the idea this month to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

2. Conservative think tanks, including the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and the American Action Forum have endorsed a carbon tax.

3. BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total last month asked the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to “introduce carbon pricing systems where they do not yet exist at the national or regional levels.” Whoa!

Who knew taxing carbon might begin to appeal to conservatives?  It should. And it will help make our grandchildren’s world safer. In our lifetimes, however, the tax means we should start climate-proofing our personal budgets against yet another rising cost.


We couldn’t do that to our children!

Protect the family budget from the effects of warming?
Our children wouldn’t stand for it!

Climate-Proof Your Family Budget book cover

The insidious costs of warming are beginning to hit our family finances. There are many tactics for protecting ourselves, but they just won’t work in some families because . . . what would the kids think!  

 - Move to a more climate-proof town? What, and disrupt their lives?

 - A smaller house? They’d be coming down in the world!

 - Lower-cost vacations? What would the kids tell their peers?

 - More modest clothing budgets? You obviously don’t know much about clothes in high school!

 - Siphon more income into savings?  From where?

Hey, but how about we trade in Molly’s old Chevy for a new hybrid? She’d like that! That’s green, right?


Is self-esteem so important? Is it a better foundation for life than, say, an early habit of frugality and saving, or growing up in a climate-safe hometown, or creating climate-resistant personal finances to dampen future risks?

Should we just ignore the extra costs of drought, flooding, heat, taxes, government service cuts, and more that will characterize the warmer world that’s coming?

We couldn’t do that to our children!


The cost of more frequent heat waves

Heat-related health problems will grow fast . . .
. . . depending on where you live.

On the first day of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, the temperature hit 106 degrees, and the heat + humidity index rose above 120. During the following days, Chicagoans suffered under daytime temperatures between the 90s and low 100s. Night temperatures stayed up in the 80s. Patients were turned away at 23 hospitals, which were overwhelmed and closed their emergency rooms to new patients. Many lost electricity for a while. Heat danger depends not just on how hot it gets but also how long it stays hot, and by the time cooler air returned a week later, 700 Chicagoans were dead.

Warming hits the family budget for healthcare too, and not just for allergies. California’s two weeks of extreme heat in 2006 (which killed 655) created 16,000 additional emergency room visits and boosted hospitalizations by 1,620. The result was nearly $5.4 billion in healthcare expenses.

Heat waves like these are coming more frequently to a city near you. This interactive, courtesy of Climate Central, predicts the number of days that heat will exceed today’s maximums for 87 US cities. What are the predictions for your area?

Almost two months of days over 110º in Phoenix by 2050. Four-and-a-half months over 90º in Miami. Maybe those are imaginable. But more than five weeks above 90º in Bozeman, MT? And more than six weeks in Chicago?

Most of the impacts on our personal finances from global warming will be indirect, via our food, water, taxes, etc. But there will be a big impact from heat itself, depending on where you live. To climate-proof your life, at least from heat-wave dangers, you may need to move.


When did anxiety begin?

Looking around the horizon, alone 1,000 miles from land, I wasn’t afraid.
Then I looked down.

Carbon pollution in the oceanFor me it was 1977. I was halfway across the Atlantic, squinting into a bucket of seawater. Specs of brown were floating in it, along with microscopic grey things. What is this stuff? And why is this patch of water, so far from humans, so polluted? I emptied it back over the side, sailed a few more days, and pulled up another bucketful. Same specks; same tiny grey things.

Who did this? The pollution made me feel anxious. That seemed silly; the sailing was routine and relaxing. I’d just been reading the very reassuring Soft Energy Paths by Amory Lovins, a pioneering and encouraging view of how to beat the rising price and pollution of energy. Solar and wind, together with energy conservation and efficiency, would make the last quarter of the century safer, cheaper, and less anxious.

When I reached land, I learned the pollutants I’d hauled up across the Atlantic were from petroleum products. The brown specks were tar globules, maybe from a drilling rig, maybe a tanker flushing its tanks illegally. The microscopic gray particles were fragments of plastic bags, torn by the waves into morsels.

Today, well into the first quarter of the next century, pollution from petroleum is not better; it’s lots worse, with impacts on my family’s finances and lifestyle.

That afternoon in 1977 I knew those specks of tar and polyethylene wouldn’t sink my boat, affect my drinking water, make me sick, or cost me a dime. But almost 40 years later, Lovins’ dream has yet to come true and a bigger consequence from petroleum – CO2 pollution – is now sinking our towns, affecting our water supplies, making us sick, and damaging our personal finances.

My anxiety eventually grew to where for years Hilary and I helped organize events promoting energy conservation. These days I’m trying to help families understand the steps we can take and attitudes we can cultivate to protect us from the effects of energy use. Hence my website, my Where-To-Live indicators, and my book, Climate-Proof.

It seems like yesterday I was wondering whom to blame for that bucketful of anxiety. My kids are not going to have to wonder, 40 years hence, who’s to blame for their problems.


New: towns graded for retirees and young families

Where-To-Live Reports contain up to 21 measurements.
Now readers can be a bit more selective.

WTL C+ gradeNot all aspects of a town matter to everyone.

- Your family may have no school-age members for whom a declining quality of education matters, no asthmatics affected by poor air quality and pollen.

- You may be young and healthy with the quality of healthcare low among your priorities.

- Some people can’t or won’t bike or use public transport.

- Retirees aren’t usually concerned with employment opportunities, at least for themselves.

This means that, for some, the Overall grade we calculate for a town doesn’t tell you much. You need to collect the individual grades that are important to you, a time-consuming job if you are comparing multiple towns.

So we’ve done a little of the work for you. Check out the OTHER section at the bottom of each Where-To-Live Report for our new Young Family Grade and Retiree Grade. Unlike the Overall Grade, these average only selected measurements in the report. The Young Families Grade emphasizes education and jobs, the Retirees Grade Healthcare, Taxes and Cost of Living.

An oversimplification for sure. But we hope it will speed up comparisons for some users. (Remember that our reports grade only a town’s potential to protect residents from the predicted threats for this decade. They do not cover quality of life, amenities, and other important consideration about where to live – for which there are many other sources.)

Please let me know of any other selective grade we should calculate – or anything else you’d like to see in the Where-To-Live Reports.


Where is Sputnik when we need it?

The first man-made satellite, launched in 1957
sparked huge educational reforms in the US.

study just out shows – yet again – that Americans are markedly less well educated than our major competitors: 9th of 13 in literacy, 11th in math, 8th in problem-solving-using-computers. Even high-scoring Americans are a smaller percentage of the population than in Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Where to live for America's really good schools?The question is not “Are we less skilled than Finland?” We know that. The question is “What would make us care?”

Given that 80% of Americans (and 60% of American teachers) probably can’t find Finland on a map, it’s not surprising there’s no reaction to our inferiority. The ever-present threat to eliminate the Education Department in Washington suggests that our politicians do not see an “education problem” either.

Back in 1957, however, Americans turned on their radios one morning to hear bleeping sounds from Sputnik, a Soviet-made satellite passing over their heads. The reaction was galvanic. Within months, violent hands were laid on America’s education system to wrestle our skills up to those being demonstrated by the Soviet Union. Some of those changes are still evident today.

We know it takes a dramatic event to galvanize change. Studies and reports can’t do it. So will something come along and bleep at us soon? Or, even if the US doesn’t see the need to raise its game, will some families think differently about how to school their kids – and maybe where to live - to make it more likely their kids can get skills that compete with the rest of the world?


Drug prescriptions inconsistent depending on where you live

Some drugs are risky for patients.
Some doctors are more conscious of this than others.

Many drugs, like Proton pump inhibitors (heartburn), SRI’s (depression), dementia medications, and new sedative-hypnotics (insomnia), don’t work for many patients. They’re called Discretionary medicines, and they can bring other problems.

Use of potentially harmful  medications among Medicare  beneficiaries

new study published by the Dartmouth Atlas Project tells us

“Discretionary medicines have less certain benefits, but may be effective in a subset of patients. For some patients such drug use will involve meaningful tradeoffs involving both side effects and cost.”

In other words, these drugs may not work for you; they may harm you; and they can cost a lot.

And here’s the kicker: “The use of discretionary medicines is common and varies widely among patients living in different regions.” And from the study’s press release, “Patients in Alexandria, La., (43%) were more than three times as likely to receive at least one high-risk medication as patients in Rochester, Minn. (14%).

Among the many provisions of the Affordable Care Act, some are aimed at refining and encouraging best practices in care. Let’s hope they become widespread soon. In the meantime, you might ask your doctors whether you’re on any Discretionary meds, and how you’ll know if they’re worth the trade-offs.