Water & Drought

California drought regulators move to ease restrictions for inland areas

The drought has taken a toll on Folsom Lake, the primary drinking water source for about 500,000 suburban residents. Bee file photo.
The drought has taken a toll on Folsom Lake, the primary drinking water source for about 500,000 suburban residents. Bee file photo. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Hot, inland regions such as Sacramento wouldn’t have to conserve quite as much water in 2016 under proposed regulations released Monday by California drought regulators.

The proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board would also mean less onerous conservation mandates for California’s fastest-growing communities, as well as those that have created new “drought-resilient” water supplies for themselves through recycling, desalination or other means.

The board has been ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown to update its urban conservation plan for 2016, assuming the drought remains in effect. Under the current system, urban Californians have to reduce consumption by 25 percent, as compared with 2013, although the mandates vary according to historical per-capita consumption patterns.

Agencies from the Sacramento region, hit with some of the toughest mandates in the state, have urged the state to revise its system for 2016 to reflect inland California’s hot, dry weather. The average Sacramento water agency has had to cut consumption by 30 percent, and some agencies in the region are facing 36 percent mandates.

Regulators listened to the complaints. Under the new system, which would run through October, agencies in the hottest climates would see their current mandates fall by as much as 4 percentage points.

“That’s a start,” said Rob Roscoe, general manager at Sacramento Suburban Water District. Water targets “in inland regions should be adjusted for climate,” he said. Sacramento Suburban has been facing a 32 percent mandate.

The board plans to vote on the updated regulations sometime in early February.

In a staff report, the board said easing the mandates would come at a price: Giving a break to the hottest cities, for instance, would reduce water savings by an estimated 1.4 percent statewide. So far, Californians have cut water use by 27 percent since June.

Critics said the board would be making a mistake by softening the mandate.

“As long as we continue to exist in an emergency state, then we need to be pursuing this 25 percent mandatory reduction, and any of these adjustments and credits and exemptions are taking us away from that,” said environmentalist Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “Now if our emergency state changes and we’re no longer in an emergency situation, then we can take some more time to develop some regulations in the long term that are workable for all areas of the state.”

But Roscoe and others in the Sacramento area said they need a breather.

The math is simple, Roscoe said: Due to evapotranspiration, it takes more water to keep a similar-sized patch of lawn alive in Sacramento than in Monterey or other coastal areas. Evapotranspiration is the loss of water due to soil evaporation and plant transpiration.

The state’s proposed new system “may not fully compensate for the difference in landscape,” said Shauna Lorance, general manager at the San Juan Water District, “but it obviously is going to help.” San Juan has been in the highest conservation tier, with a requirement to cut water use by 36 percent.

Regional Water Authority Executive Director John Woodling said Sacramento-area water districts would likely see conservation target cuts of 3 or 4 percentage points under the proposal. “I think it moves us in the right direction,” he said.

In its proposal for 2016, the state board would also decrease mandates by 4 percent for communities that have used desalination or other methods to generate new supplies. The San Diego County Water Authority just dedicated a $1 billion desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and has complained that it wasn’t getting any credit for that investment. Other coastal communities are proposing to build plants, too.

In addition, the state would ease off on communities whose populations have grown significantly since 2013.

Despite pressure from water districts, the state is not recommending giving them credit for maintaining sustainable groundwater reserves. That is disappointing to Roscoe: Sacramento Suburban Water has spent much of its resources in recent years building up groundwater storage. Some of the region’s districts are tying pipes into Sacramento Suburban and other districts with groundwater reserves as a bulwark against surface water losses.

Regardless of the groundwater question, local water leaders said the proposed new regulations make them optimistic about next year. Even with targets that don’t account for climate, most local water districts are meeting their conservation goals. Lorance said the new recommendations, along with a pledge from state and federal officials last month to restrict drawdowns from Folsom Lake, show that state officials “are understanding that we stepped up and did everything we are supposed to,” she said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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