California Forum

Water conservation is agency’s primary goal

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.
Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, sat down with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board last week to talk about the drought and the state’s efforts to mandate water conservation. The Water Board adopted emergency drought regulations this month and ordered water districts to cut usage by up to 36 percent. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

Q: What will the Water Board anticipate doing to enforce cutbacks on water agencies?

A: We are hoping people will step up and take action right away. I spent four hours recently with officials in Santa Clara Valley and they’re going to do more than we asked them to do.

We’re focused on how to give support and assistance to folks through the year. What we have put out is a suite of progressive enforcement tools that we’ll consider using. (Agencies) are reporting every month, and the transparency of the reports is a tool. This will give the cumulative totals, and the world can see how different agencies are doing.

We’ll spend time consulting with them; if we need to we’ll issue information orders to ask them questions about what they are doing. The next step will be conservation orders, which is to say, “You will do this.” And eventually, if you have a really challenging community that isn’t stepping up at all, we could go to the cease-and-desist order and $10,000-a-day fine. Our goal is not to get to fines; our goal is to get conservation.

Q: Is it your sense that public education and reducing outdoor water use will be enough in places where you’ve set the highest reduction targets, or will it take a lot more?

A: There are a whole passel of efforts, and it’s going to vary by community. The one thing that we found is that outdoor ornamental really is the biggest difference between communities, and so that is the biggest deal. It’s not just reducing by a day, it’s reducing to a day or turning the sprinklers off that can save us an awful lot of water. That’s not to say that low-flow toilets, fixtures and appliances aren’t also important. It just depends; different communities are at different stages of conservation efforts.

The behavioral changes indoors, can in fact, make a difference. If you look at where we differ from the Australians who use 35, 45 or 55 gallons per capita per day, still the biggest difference is toilets, outdoor irrigation, and they fixed their leaks. Leaks can be 20, 30, 40 percent of water use. People should do everything they can.

Q: How are we to think about these big water bottling companies? Are these guys basically ripping off the rest of the state?

A: Oh, gosh no. Here’s the thing that happens in a crisis, everybody points to their favorite use they do not like. And there are people who do not like bottled water because of the bottles. Right now, if folks have a legal entitlement to water for their personal use or economic use, they can use it as long as they have a valid right to that water. So to pick on bottled water vs. soda, which may take more water, or beer would be a good example, it may take less water to do bottled water because the processing is different. So picking on particular economic uses is something that’s a little perilous.

Q: Learning from the drought in Australia, what can ordinary homeowners do to conserve water?

A: Use a lot less water outdoors, primarily. The Australians also invested a lot in rooftop capture of water and cisterns; capturing water in rain gutters; gray water systems; retrofitting yards and gardens to be more drought tolerant. They created a conservation ethic. They are smaller and a less diverse community. They think as a community; they think in terms of ag-urban being part of a family.

The Australians didn’t do it overnight, but they went pedal to the metal on information and communication and community engagement, and got people to step up to the crisis.

They spent enormous amounts of money at the municipal level doing green infrastructure and storm water capture. And they built treatment plants in their parks, and they built giant cisterns under their parks just as L.A. is starting to do.

Q: What should we think about agriculture water use and inefficiencies?

A: Ag has born the brunt of this drought for well over a year, with hundreds of thousands of acres of fallowed fields, thousands of people out of work, rural communities running out of water. The effects of the drought have been felt there but felt unevenly, because you do have folks who have senior water rights, folks who are getting a lot of water, but the guys next door may not be getting water. So you have an uneven distribution of that pain.

You can say that ag should be more efficient in many cases, but the change from the 1990s is stunning because you have twice the amount of ag production now than you did back then precisely because ag has implemented so much efficiencies.