Just a year ago, California regulators ordered cities and suburbs across the state to make drastic cuts in water use, telling residents the time had come to make longstanding lifestyle and landscaping changes consistent with a state with limited water.
One modestly rainy season later, the State Water Resources Control Board has backed off its sweeping mandate, issuing draft revisions to its conservation regulations that would allow individual water agencies to propose their own standards for water use.
In a marked shift from a year ago, the revised rules wouldn’t require one region to cut water use based on the overall health of the statewide water supply. Instead, beginning June 1 and lasting at least through January, urban water agencies would be allowed to conserve on a sliding scale tailored to their local water supplies.
The proposed revisions would lift the mandatory urban water cuts in place since June, which required savings of 25 percent statewide, on average, compared with 2013. Under the existing rules, most Sacramento-area water agencies – traditionally among the state’s heaviest per capita water users – have had to cut consumption more than 28 percent.
By contrast, the head of the agency representing the Sacramento region’s water districts said the new rules could mean mandatory conservation targets of zero given a rainy winter that has bolstered Northern California reservoirs, and the region’s healthy groundwater reserves.
The draft proposal unveiled Monday centers on a “self-certification” process in which individual water districts would forecast water demand and supply for the next three years, assuming continued below-average precipitation. Districts would be required to reduce water use by an amount equal to their projected shortfall. For example, in a district where three more dry years would leave a district 10 percent short of anticipated supply, the mandatory conservation target would be 10 percent.
John Woodling, executive director of Sacramento’s Regional Water Authority, said he expects local water districts would be in position to forecast adequate supplies for the region and could tell the state that mandatory conservation targets are no longer necessary.
“By any reasonable scenario, I think we can say both surface water and groundwater are covered for this three-year period,” Woodling said.
Water board officials say the revisions walk a fine line, taking into account improved water supply in Northern California, while still requiring districts to operate within sustainable limits.
“It’s a pretty hefty target. It’s not nothing,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “This is a little more complicated than what we’ve been doing in the past, but it’s not a cakewalk.”
The release of the draft rules came on the same day Gov. Jerry Brown issued a new executive order declaring that drought conditions persist and that the state must take permanent action to mitigate the likelihood of more frequent droughts. But this, too, stood in contrast to the stark order Brown issued a year ago, when he said California’s drought was entering uncharted territory and ordered the state’s first-ever across-the-board mandatory water cuts.
A year ago, Brown said conditions required sacrifices across the state, and the regulations that ensued targeted the biggest per capita water consumers for the biggest cuts. The statement Brown issued Monday instead calls for conservation targets in future years to be tailored to “the unique conditions of each water supplier.”
The order does make permanent some key restrictions included in the 2015 action. Urban water districts will be required to report water use monthly to the state. It bans practices deemed wasteful, including hosing off sidewalks and driveways, washing cars with hoses that don’t have a shut-off nozzle, irrigating lawns in a way that causes runoff and watering within 48 hours of precipitation.
It calls on state officials to ramp up efforts to help water suppliers curb leaks in their delivery systems. And it requires the water board and Department of Water Resources to create permanent water-use targets across California.
“Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before,” Brown said in a news release. “But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.”
The new order makes no mention of two restrictions that were part of the original order: the ban on serving water at restaurants unless a customer asks, and requiring hotels to encourage customers to skip daily linen cleaning.
It’s not nothing. This is a little more complicated than what we’ve been doing in the past, but it’s not a cakewalk.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman, State Water Resources Control Board
Several environmental leaders interviewed seemed stunned at the day’s developments. They bristled at the prospect of lush green lawns returning to California’s hot, dry interior after a single year of moderate rainfall, calling it short-sighted policy.
“I think it’s concerning,” said Tracy Quinn, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re likely to see a significant reduction in conservation going into the hottest, driest and highest water-using time of the year.”
Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, said the proposed revisions are a capitulation to water agencies that have complained that the conservation mandates were too onerous. She said she’s worried that the self-certification process could be exploited to hide serious deficiencies in a district’s water supply.
“There is a vocal minority of water suppliers … who are really questioning conservation,” she said. “To allow those entities to make up their own destiny on conservation is really scary and could undermine what we’ve achieved.”
Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, said adoption of the rules would result in the region betting its water supply on predictions about future reservoir levels that often fluctuate.
“Do you realize how impossible that is? It is. You can’t,” he said. “If you’re getting your water from Folsom, first of all, you have no idea how much is going to be there next year.”
Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the state water board, said that while the water supply data that districts submit would be self-certified, there would be consequences for those who try to game the system.
“We’re going to ask for detailed calculations and assumptions, and that will all be posted so anyone can go in and audit it,” he said. “The board is maintaining its authority so that if any agency is fabricating or falsely providing information, the board has remedies for that in terms of enforcement actions and fines.”
For Sacramento-area water districts, the board’s proposal marks a clear victory. The districts – and a chorus of others around the state – have complained loudly and consistently that the one-size-fits-all rules in place since June didn’t account for variances in regional climate, and didn’t give enough credit to improvements some districts have made to shore up local supplies. Some said the decline in water use had created unexpected funding shortfalls.
“For the most part, we’ve got assets that we didn’t have 25 years ago. We’ve spent in the neighborhood of $20 billion for drought-resilient local supplies and those needed to be accounted for when you’re managing a drought, and this new order allows us to do that,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.
To some extent, Woodling said, the old conservation targets were based on a fiction: a gallon saved in Sacramento is a gallon that can be put to use somewhere else.
“People in Southern California still have water supplies that are broken,” he said. “They don’t have the ability to move the water.”
Southern California also remains in drought. An El Niño weather pattern delivered more rain and snow this water year than during any other year of the drought, but mostly in Northern California and not as much as state officials had hoped. About three-quarters of the state remains in severe, exceptional or extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Even so, the state’s two largest reservoirs – Shasta and Oroville – stand above historic levels for this point in the year, as does Folsom Lake.
Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said she thinks the proposed action strikes the right balance.
“We don’t want to cry wolf,” she said. “And we also don’t want to put our heads in the sand.”
The board is expected to vote on the new rules at its May 18 meeting.