Water & Drought

Sacramento-area communities get little reprieve under state’s new water cuts proposal

Gov. Jerry Brown talks about water conservation after a meeting with city mayors on Tuesday in Sacramento.
Gov. Jerry Brown talks about water conservation after a meeting with city mayors on Tuesday in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

A revised draft of water conservation regulations released Tuesday night by the State Water Resources Control Board offered little reprieve to Sacramento-area communities that had pushed back against mandated cutbacks of up to 36 percent.

The board released its latest draft framework just hours after Gov. Jerry Brown announced he would seek legislation to give local authorities the power to fine residents and businesses judged to be water wasters as much as $10,000 per violation.

Brown’s announcement and the revised regulations are the latest building blocks in a regulatory framework that will affect businesses and residents throughout California. As it stands, that framework is particularly tough on Sacramento communities, almost all of which use more water per person in summer than the statewide average.

Earlier this month, in response to the state’s prolonged and historic drought, Brown issued an emergency order calling on the water board to produce a plan for cutting urban water use statewide 25 percent compared with 2013 usage. The board has responded with a series of proposals for reaching that goal, targeting communities that used the most water per capita last summer for the biggest cuts.

The revised proposal leaves unchanged a tiered structure that calls for the steepest cuts to fall on the heaviest summer water users. The framework divides the state’s 411 urban water agencies into nine tiers, based on their per capita water use between July and September last year. Each tier is assigned a mandatory conservation target, ranging from a 4 percent cut to a 36 percent cut, with the biggest water users targeted for the biggest cuts.

As proposed, 10 of the region’s 23 water districts would need to cut water use by 36 percent this year. All but two Sacramento-area communities would have to cut usage by at least 28 percent over 2013 levels.

The proposal explicitly leaves it to local water agencies to decide conservation targets for industrial and commercial customers in their jurisdiction. That means a water agency could require its residential customers to conserve more – or less – based on the targets it sets for nonresidential customers.

The proposal incorporates some corrections to residential water use numbers submitted by districts. Based on those corrections, three local districts now face less stringent conservation targets than under the previous proposal. Elk Grove Water Service customers would need to cut use by 28 percent this year compared with 2013, rather than 36 percent. West Sacramento customers would need to cut use by 28 percent, rather than 36 percent. And Placer County Water Agency would need to cut use by 32 percent instead of 36 percent.

Several Sacramento-area water agencies wrote letters to the board during the last few weeks, taking issue with its methodology for setting conservation targets. Area water leaders argued the region should not be measured against coastal cities with higher housing densities and cooler climates. Some contended the state’s approach was illegal and failed to recognize the region’s superior water rights.

The board has received about 300 comments in response to its plans, many raising concerns about climate and lot size, but opted to stick with its approach. “We believe it is the approach most likely to achieve the 25 percent statewide reduction called for by the governor,” said board Chief Deputy Director Caren Trgovcich.

As to the claim that the board’s actions are illegal, Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said, “Our counsel assures us it is legal. We’d rather focus on figuring out how to make this work rather than fighting over this. Hopefully, we won’t have to spend time figuring out legal challenges.”

Brown also struck an adamant tone Tuesday as he proposed fining water wasters as much as $10,000 per violation, part of a bid to expand the enforcement power of local agencies amid California’s drought, now entering a fourth year.

Brown also said he would propose legislation to speed environmental permitting for local water supply projects, though not – significantly – for dams.

Neither proposal had taken bill form yet Tuesday, and specifics were unclear. The governor announced the measures after meeting with the mayors of 14 cities in Sacramento.

“We’ve done a lot,” Brown told reporters at the Capitol. “We have a long way to go.”

Brown said fines of as much as $10,000 per infraction would be reserved for the “worst offenders,” a dramatic increase from the current $500 maximum. The governor’s office said the legislation would allow penalties to be issued administratively.

While some water suppliers have used fines, many haven’t, according to state water board officials. The board expects to get reports from urban water suppliers beginning in June on their enforcement activities.

Marcus said fines of $10,000 would be limited to “really egregious” violations.

The legislation Brown proposed would let public agencies deputize staff to issue water-related citations, among other measures.

“You might think of this as just another installment in a long enterprise to live with a changing climate and with a drought of uncertain duration,” Brown said.

The governor announced his newest proposal a day after Assembly Democrats killed a bill designed to streamline environmental review for the Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River near Fresno. Brown said the streamlined permitting he is proposing would apply to projects that could be described as “something less than a reservoir.”

The Democratic governor has come under increasing pressure from Republicans to build more storage facilities to prepare for future droughts.

“California cannot fine our way to a water supply,” Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen of Riverbank said in a prepared statement. “California has not built water storage in over 40 years. It’s time to stop with the Band-Aid fixes and streamline water storage projects so we can capture water in wet years and prevent water crises for future generations.”

It is unclear when lawmakers might take up Brown’s proposal. The water board is scheduled to adopt final conservation regulations next week.

“We’re trying to do the best we can in a rapidly moving situation,” Marcus said. “We understand this is a big deal and a challenge for everyone, but the drought we are in is very serious and requires us to rise to the occasion. We need to take action now.”

Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.

Proposed Water Cuts

The state’s proposal for mandatory water cutbacks divides urban water agencies into nine tiers, with the biggest per capita users targeted for the largest cuts. Under the proposal, Sacramento-area agencies face some of the largest cuts in the state. The figures show how much average usage between June 2014 and February 2015 must come down compared with 2013.

Supplier name

Cutback target


- Sacramento






City of Sacramento




El Dorado Irrigation


Elk Grove Water Service


West Sacramento


Placer County


Sacramento County






Citrus Heights


Georgetown Divide




Sacramento Suburban




Rio Linda - Elverta


Fruitridge Vista


Fair Oaks


Golden State


Orange Vale


San Juan


Source: State Water Resources Control Board

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