Atmospheric river or not, California must be ready for the next drought

The California Department of Water Resources conducts the first 2018 snow survey on Jan. 3. Despite a big storm this week, California will likely face another drought, sooner or later.
The California Department of Water Resources conducts the first 2018 snow survey on Jan. 3. Despite a big storm this week, California will likely face another drought, sooner or later. rbenton@sacbee.com

How much are Californians willing to pay and sacrifice for a more sustainable state?

It takes a lot of commitment and persistence – and that’s something of a question mark with the latest developments on water conservation and recycling.

Local water districts are rebelling against permanent statewide rules to ban wasteful practices such as hosing down driveways and watering lawns soon after rainfall, The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow report.

While it’s understandable for local officials to worry about a power grab by the state, they need to see the bigger picture: California must conserve water. Even with an “atmospheric river” bringing a big storm this week, the Sierra snowpack was still only 52 percent of normal. Sooner or later, there will be another drought.

The State Water Resources Control Board plans to try again next month to approve the regulations. Meanwhile, there are more far-reaching bills before the Legislature that deserve serious consideration. They would set overall targets for indoor and outdoor water use; for indoor use, the number would be 55 gallons a day per person, dropping to 50 gallons by 2030. Local districts could face financial penalties for missing the targets, but not until 2027. And after stalling last year, the bills give local agencies more say over how the standards get set.

As it is, California’s urban residents are starting to backslide on saving water. Their consumption rose 5 percent last year, though usage was still 16 percent less than in 2013.

In part, that’s because Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the most recent drought last April and lifted mandatory conservation measures. In response, many cities and water districts – which had lost revenue from lower water use – ended restrictions and conservation incentives. So kudos to those that stayed the course, including the city of Sacramento, which kept its twice-weekly sprinkler limit during summer.

Recycling also comes with rules and costs, so it can be tempting to pull back.

As The Bee’s Ed Fletcher reports, too many of us are putting stuff in our recycling bins that shouldn’t go there – greasy pizza boxes, batteries, loose plastic bags and more.

When recyclables are contaminated, they slow down processing or end up in the landfill instead. Already, the market is demanding cleaner recycling streams and raising costs for waste companies and governments that could eventually hit taxpayers, too. Sacramento County is seeking to reduce its recycling contamination rate from 25 percent to 10 percent, and plans to spend $330,000 a year on public outreach and $500,000 on enforcement.

Officials are trying to educate residents with do’s and don’ts. Sacramento region residents may have read a “Recycle it right” insert paid for by waste companies and local governments. But if that doesn’t work, city and county officials are getting ready to possibly fine homeowners.

It may seem like Big Brother lecturing, but we all have to do our part. We can no longer think landfill space is plentiful, or let precious water go down the drain.

These are small, rather painless decision in our daily lives – tossing the right recyclables in the bin and making sure the lawn sprinklers are off after a rainstorm. But multiplied by millions across the state, they make a huge difference toward a more sustainable California.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee