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It seemed like the sort of thing any drought-wary Californian could support.
The state's water cops were poised last month to pass a set of rules prohibiting what most everyone agrees are wasteful water uses –like letting water from a hose without a nozzle flow into a storm drain.
But no change in California water policy ever comes easily. The State Water Resources Control Board's proposal to impose permanent conservation rules – such as prohibiting hosing down driveways, watering lawns less than two days after it rains and washing a car without attaching a shut-off nozzle to the hose – ran into a cascade of opposition. Leery of ceding any power to the state, practically every major water agency in California, from Sacramento to San Diego, stepped up to complain the water board was overstepping its legal authority.
The board postponed its vote.
The controversy comes at a delicate time. Eleven months after Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the drought, water usage is starting to creep back up in California: Urban consumption increased 5 percent last year as mandatory conservation restrictions were lifted, although usage was still 16 percent below the 2013 baseline figures used by the state water board.
Now, with California experiencing a dry winter and the possibility of another drought, Californians' stomach for conservation is about to be tested again. The state water board plans to resurrect its proposal in April. Separately, the Legislature is working on a pair of bills that in some respects would go even further in governing how much water Californians are allowed to use.
Designed to make conservation "a California way of life," the legislation would impose a long-lasting, comprehensive framework on water usage – drought or no drought. AB 1668 and SB 606 would establish overall standards for indoor and outdoor water consumption. Local water agencies would have plenty of input on how the standards are set, but if they miss the targets they could get fined thousands of dollars.
The idea is to get Californians to gradually consume less water.
"There's a lot of things we can do to be more efficient, and that's the goal of this," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, author of AB 1668. "It's very important considering that we're going now into another drought, it looks like."
State officials are convinced that Californians are committed to saving water. During the drought, when mandatory cutbacks were imposed, the most frequent complaint from the general public was about neighbors over-watering their lawns and flouting the rules, said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.
"The average Californian wants to conserve and wants everybody else to conserve, and wants it to be as fair as possible," Marcus said. A Field Poll in 2016, when the drought was still severe, showed that 74 percent of Californians said curtailing water use was "very important."
Nonetheless, local water agencies are constantly on guard against efforts at the state level to restrict local water usage. They fought the cutbacks Brown mandated in 2015, during the worst of the drought. It cost them millions in revenue; and most water agencies in the Sacramento area said it was unfair that they had to slash use by 36 percent even though the region's actual water supplies were in fairly good shape.
"Most agencies didn't have a need to take a 36 percent cut," said John Woodling of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, which represents area water agencies. "They had more water supply available than that. That was really state top-down rationing."
So perhaps a blowup over the state water board's proposal was inevitable. Marcus' agency is proposing to permanently ban certain practices that were temporarily forbidden during the drought. Hotels and motels would have to remind guests, in writing, that they can reuse their towels and sheets. Cities wouldn't be allowed to water grassy medians, with certain exceptions. Homeowners couldn't water their lawns so heavily that the water runs into the sidewalk or street.
The board says it has ample legal authority – granted by the state's Constitution – to impose restrictions on the "waste and unreasonable use" of water. Nonetheless, the proposal was tabled after local water agencies protested. The agencies didn't disagree with the proposals themselves but said the board was going too far in defining what's considered an "unreasonable use" of water. That phrase is a crucial element in California's complicated system of water rights.
"You're impacting water rights plain and simple," Sacramento attorney Rob Donlan, representing several local water agencies, told the board in February.
Jeffrey Mount, a water-policy analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the water districts fear one regulation will lead to another. "If the state is going to step in and regulate how long you can hold a garden hose on your driveway, why wouldn't they step in and regulate everything else?"
The state's farm lobby is equally concerned. Farm groups say the water board's proposed rules on urban water usage could eventually lead to regulations on the types of crops farmers can irrigate. "There's the potential they'll make similar decisions encroaching on agriculture," Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition said in an interview.
Marcus said fears of a runaway regulatory train are unfounded. The water board is only prepared to take steps that are in line with societal views on water use.
"It's not like we're saying, 'Don't have a lawn,'" she said. "Plenty of people have suggested we should ban lawns, but that's not reasonable yet. Someday it might be, but not yet."
So if a simple ban on watering driveways stirs up a fight, how can the Legislature expect to pass an even more ambitious series of conservation measures? The answer lies in the local control that AB 1668 and SB 606 allow water districts to keep.
After going nowhere in the Legislature last year, the bills have been revised to give local water agencies a greater say in establishing the usage targets they'll have to meet.
"We felt it was extremely important to go bottom-up instead of top-down," said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, co-author of SB 606. "We're going to respect these (local) districts."
The drought emergency mandates required local districts to slash usage by as much as 36 percent, depending on historical consumption patterns. The legislation takes a different approach.
For indoor use, the legislation would set a single statewide target for local districts to meet: 55 gallons a day per person, gradually declining to 50 gallons by 2030.
For outdoor use, the targets would be set by the state in consultation with the local districts. The Department of Water Resources would set targets for each district based on data supplied by the district on climate, landscape sizes, available water supplies and other factors. Agencies that have broadened their supply portfolio through recycling or other means would have greater leeway to use their water even in dry conditions.
The Sacramento region, where lawns are big and summers are hot, traditionally has been one of the heaviest water users in the state. Last June, for instance, the average city of Sacramento resident used a total of 144 gallons of water a day, according to the water board. The figure was 76 gallons for Los Angeles and 47 for San Francisco.
The plan proposed by the Legislature, by acknowledging differences in climate and other factors, could give Sacramentans greater leeway to continue keeping their lawns green. Woodling, of the Sacramento water authority, said area water agencies are becoming more comfortable with the legislation.
The state's largest water agency is already on board.
"It's recognizing the unique circumstances of each agency," said Deven Upadhyay of the influential Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is supporting the legislation. "As many of us are looking at making investments in things like recycled water, some in seawater desalination, some in storage, you want to know you're going to be able to utilize those supplies as you go into drought. That's why you invest in those things."
Failure to meet the targets would leave districts open to financial penalties, but fines wouldn't kick in until 2027. "It's a very gentle glide path to start moving people to these efficiency standards," Hertzberg said.
Environmental groups tend to favor very strict regulations on water use, but some are on board with this relatively moderate piece of legislation. Tracy Quinn, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bills strike the right balance between conservation and local flexibility.
"It is a much more equitable way of ensuring long-term reliability of our supplies," she said.