Before throngs of TV news cameras in April last year, Gov. Jerry Brown stood on a patch of bare Sierra dirt that should have been covered in snow and told Californians they had to be unified in conserving water.
Noting that his call for voluntary conservation had not resulted in a significant change in habits among urban and suburban residents the previous summer, Brown said that he had no choice but to order urban water providers to collectively reduce water use by 25 percent compared with 2013. “We’re in an historic drought,” Brown said. “And that demands unprecedented action.”
Flash forward to this week.
From a statewide perspective, conditions have marginally improved: Northern California had a good winter, and reservoirs are healthy. But Sierra snowpack remains well below average, and much of the state remains in a drought. What’s strikingly different is the message delivered this week about how conservation will play out in 2016.
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The new rules adopted Wednesday by the State Water Resources Control Board allow more than 400 urban water agencies to propose their own conservation standards. Agencies will “self-certify” a target based on their assessments of the health of their water supplies and anticipated local demand.
On Thursday, several California water agencies told The Sacramento Bee that, based on the new rules, they expect their assessments to show they have plenty of water, and to largely back away from requiring customers to reduce water use tied to a specific target. That was the response from agencies in the Sacramento region, where a relatively wet winter has bolstered reservoirs and where groundwater supplies remain strong. But also, more surprisingly, from agencies in Southern California, which received very little rainfall this year.
For instance, water officials in Riverside, in a region deemed to be in “extreme drought,” said they aren’t likely to be setting a conservation target.
“We’re going to self-certify ‘zero,’” said Todd Jorgenson, an assistant general manager of the city’s public utilities department. “From what I’m hearing, most people have sufficient supplies based on the rules (the water board) set out.”
Jorgenson said he expects to hear a lot of “grumbling” from state water regulators and environmentalists in the coming weeks. But he offered no apologies. His district was the only urban water agency in California to sue the state board last year in response to its order for across-the-board cuts that targeted heavy water users for the heftiest cuts, regardless of the state of their local supply.
Jorgenson said Riverside gets its water from a huge groundwater basin that has been regulated for decades under a court adjudication that prevents it from being overdrawn. He described the 28 percent reduction in water use his agency was required to meet last year as “arbitrary and capricious.”
“We have a lot of water,” Jorgenson said. “We draw only a small amount off the top (of the basin) ... We can deal with a 20-year cycle, rather than a four- or five-year cycle.”
Brandon Goshi, manager of water policy and strategy for the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said its 26 member agencies also are unlikely to set reductions close to the average savings of 22 percent they were ordered to meet last year. Goshi said investments in storage, conservation, innovations and new water agreements over the years have left Metropolitan’s member agencies positioned to meet expected demand.
Closer to Sacramento, Ross Branch, a spokesman for the Placer County Water Agency, said his agency has “more than enough supply to meet our demands” and that it will tell the state its conservation target should be zero.
“We’ve planned for future growth,” he said. “Our water supplies match that anticipated growth.”
Have conditions really changed so dramatically from a year ago? Or is the water board correcting course for what many districts said was an overreaction?
In an hourlong interview with The Sacramento Bee before Wednesday’s vote, water board Chair Felicia Marcus indicated it was a bit of both. She said the shift from the mandate for statewide shared sacrifice to a more locally driven approach reflects the reality of a winter and spring that substantially improved water stores in half the state, even if the south state remains parched.
In addition, she said, board members now think some water districts raised valid concerns that the one-size-fits-all approach didn’t give enough credit for investments they’d made to shore up long-term reserves.
“We came at them really quick,” Marcus said. “No state’s ever done this. They didn’t expect it, so they didn’t plan for it.
“That’s why I think one year of that pain, especially with a 500-year-worst snowpack, I don’t have any trouble doing that. But continuing that pain for another year and not considering both hydrology and the fact some of them actually have done this supply augmentation – either as groups or individually – seems too harsh.”
The “self-certification” process will require individual districts to forecast their local 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.
Marcus said the “trust but verify approach” is better than “being patronizing at the state level, saying ‘we know better,’ because some agencies are actually doing a fabulous job and other agencies aren’t.”
“I think this data is going to show it and allow us to be more targeted in response,” she said. “We can put a spotlight on those folks who go right back to using maximum amounts” of water.
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, said he also thinks the changes make sense. The game-changer, he said, was Northern California’s wet winter.
“If we continued the statewide curtailment even though at least half the state – certainly the northern half of the state – has essentially a surplus of water this year, then you’re risking crying wolf,” he said. “And one of the things that you really want to safeguard in the drought is your credibility with the public.”
And, like Marcus, he said the state still has the power to intervene if districts don’t step up or conditions get worse. “Certainly the state has shown it’s willing to step in if things get out of hand or have the potential to get out of hand,” he said.
For many environmentalists, on the other hand, the shift in approach represents a stunning retrenchment. They argue that California, as a whole, uses water as if much of the state isn’t desert, and that one year of forced conservation isn’t long enough to change habits.
“We have this program that’s been hugely, hugely successful,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “And what is the state water board’s response? You get a little bit of rain and they walk away from it. ... We know that these voluntary soft programs don’t work.”
Local water district officials said they are still studying the new provisions for setting targets, and most could not say for certain how they would respond. They have until June 22 to submit their new conservation plans. But, based on a preliminary review, many said they likely were looking at minimal or voluntary targets.
“We think given our sustainable supplies, (conservation targets) will be low,” said Maurice Chaney, a spokesman with the city of Roseville’s environmental utilities department. Last year, the agency was under orders to reduce water use by 28 percent.
Folsom was given a 32 percent target last year, which the city failed to hit. This year, it will submit a mandatory target of zero but ask residents to voluntarily cut use by 10 percent, said Marcus Yasutake, the city’s director of environmental and water resources.
Rob Roscoe, general manager of Sacramento Suburban Water District, said his district has groundwater in reserve and he doesn’t expect the board to impose mandatory conservation. Last year, it was required to cut usage 32 percent.
Sacramento city officials are still deciding how much to lower conservation targets, which mirrored Roseville’s last year. “It looks like it will be less than 28 percent,” said Jim Peifer, principal engineer at the city utilities department.
Water district officials say they don’t expect to see a big rush to turn on the sprinklers even as they move away from the state’s targets. They say the drought remains on customers’ minds and that habits have changed over the past year.
“I would definitely expect it to be a slow ramp-up in regards to water use,” Shauna Lorance, general manager of San Juan Water District, said last week. “I don’t expect we’ll get back to where we were.”
Lorance’s district, which serves Granite Bay, one of the more affluent cities in the region, took the controversial step in March of telling customers they no longer had to follow the conservation target of 36 percent mandated by the state. Folsom Lake, the district’s primary source of supply, was so full that it was spilling for flood control.
Lorance said there are no plans to set a mandatory reduction going forward. “However, we are very strongly going to encourage customers to still voluntarily conserve 10 percent in recognition of the drought situation throughout other parts of the state,” she said.