Water & Drought

State regulators: California water use will never be the same

Felicia Marcus, state water resources control chief, wants more “pop per drop.” At left is Kevin Hunting, chief deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game.
Felicia Marcus, state water resources control chief, wants more “pop per drop.” At left is Kevin Hunting, chief deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game. The Associated Press

This is the summer that California’s relationship with water – often wasteful – will undergo permanent change.

That was the message delivered Thursday by the state’s top water officials, days after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the first-ever mandatory statewide cutbacks in urban water use. Faced with an epic water crisis prompted by years of drought, the state’s 39 million residents will be pushed not only to cut usage this summer but also to see water as a precious commodity that must be managed through long-term conservation.

California needs to use “this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate what we know we are going to have to do under climate change anyway,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the state’s complex system of water allocations, and this spring is tasked with writing new usage regulations.

Speaking at a Sacramento forum about the state’s drought efforts, Marcus issued what amounted to a policy statement, saying California must learn to “make multiple use of each drop of water ... get more pop per drop,” by reusing shower water, for example, and no longer using water to grow ornamental lawns.

“We should not be playing Russian roulette with Mother Nature,” said Marcus, a former Los Angeles public works official and environmental activist who describes herself as an environmental therapist. “We are going to lose.”

The Thursday morning forum, held at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre, was sponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies. It drew hundreds of people representing water agencies, cities and counties, and agricultural and business interests. Panelists laid out issues facing the state as it enters a fourth year of drought.

Among the speakers were state climatologists, who emphasized they cannot predict when California’s drought will end. After three dry years, California has ended the winter season with record low snowpack in the mountains – just 6 percent of normal for this time of year. That means the snowmelt that normally provides a critical source of fresh water for the state through the dry summer months won’t be coming.

If the state were to get a series of soaking storms next December, January and February, its key reservoirs, including Folsom Lake, could fill enough to at least ease the water shortage. But over the long haul, officials said, the state should not assume historic weather patterns will prevail. Michael Anderson, a Department of Water Resources climatologist, said 2014 was the hottest year in state history, topping the previous year by 2 degrees.

“This isn’t just breaking the record,” he said. “This is kicking it to the curb.”

The governor last week issued an executive order mandating that urban water districts across the state cut consumption by 25 percent compared with 2013. The state water board followed this week with a draft framework for carrying out that order. The framework imposes mandatory cutbacks from 10 percent to 35 percent on cities and towns across the state, with water agencies that use the most water per person targeted for the biggest cutbacks. Agencies would have to reduce average monthly water use between now and February 2015 to meet their targets.

Many Sacramento communities, including Granite Bay, Carmichael, Folsom, Fair Oaks and parts of Elk Grove, are among those facing mandatory 35 percent cutbacks under the draft framework. Though the Sacramento region has made strides in conservation over the past year, most water agencies here continue to use more water per capita than the statewide average.

After a period of public comment, the water board is expected to finalize details of its framework the first week in May, with a formal start date around June 1.

State officials said most water agencies appear to be on board with the overall effort, though some question how the cutbacks are structured.

On Thursday, for example, the head of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water to cities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, suggested some agencies might end up paying a price for having worked harder than others in recent years to cut usage. EBMUD has invested $1 billion in recent years to solidify water access and reduce consumption, giving it a tougher starting point for further cuts, said General Manager Alexander Coate.

Marcus said the state is open to suggestions on different ways of implementing the cuts. “We are totally open to anything that feels fair but is also intelligible.”

State officials said local agencies will have to move fast once the new orders are in place, because the hot summer months are when residents tend to use the most water – and when the biggest savings are possible. “If they don’t get going in June, July, August, they are not going to make it,” Marcus said.

State officials will be monitoring the performance of local water districts, and publishing data on a regular basis showing progress – or lack of it.

For now, the state is not telling water agencies how to reach the conservation goals. But for some high water users, it likely will mean higher rates. EBMUD’s Coate said new pricing structures in his East Bay region will mean some customers could pay 60 percent more this summer.

Sacramento, one of the few cities in the state that does not yet have water meters installed in all homes to track usage and charge customers accordingly, is expected to rely heavily on public education and voluntary cooperation. Under the framework, it has to cut water use 25 percent.

The state can fine water agencies up to $10,000 a day if they are not taking appropriate steps to reduce usage, but it is up to local water agencies to set enforcement rules for noncompliance by individuals and businesses. Under regulations the water board adopted in March, agencies must limit the number of days their customers can water their yards and ban watering within 48 hours of measurable rainfall. In addition, they must impose certain limits on businesses, including a ban on serving water at restaurants unless a customer asks.

Marcus and other state officials said outdoor conservation will be key to communities meeting their targets. On average, outdoor irrigation and pools account for 50 percent to 70 percent of urban water use in California.

In his executive order, Brown banned the use of potable water for irrigating yards in new housing developments unless they use drip irrigation or micro-spray systems. Marcus suggested the time has come for people to rethink whether they should have a lawn at all.

“If the only person walking on (your lawn) is the person mowing it,” she said, consider taking it out.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

10 tips for cutting water use

▪ Turn off sprinklers

▪ Use drip irrigation

▪ Mulch around plants

▪ Install low-flow toilets and shower heads

▪ Shower for five minutes or less

▪ Don’t wash your car

▪ Reuse household water in the yard

▪ Fix leaks

▪ Replace lawns with less water-intensive uses

▪ View other suggestions at saveourwater.com

Related stories from Sacramento Bee