Soapbox

Californians move beyond emergency water conservation to more sustainable practices

A permanent shift in the way Californians use water is apparent in communities where lawns have been replaced with water-wise landscapes. Water customers also are changing out toilets and indoor appliances, making meaningful water use reductions that can be sustained.
A permanent shift in the way Californians use water is apparent in communities where lawns have been replaced with water-wise landscapes. Water customers also are changing out toilets and indoor appliances, making meaningful water use reductions that can be sustained. Randy Pench

After five years of historic drought, Californians will never again look at water in the same way. Wasting water is now as socially unacceptable as littering became in the 1970s after a massive public education campaign.

This permanent shift in the way Californians use and think about water is apparent in communities up and down the state where lawns are being replaced with water-wise landscapes thanks in part to the hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates offered by state and local agencies. Water customers also are changing out toilets and appliances indoors, making meaningful water-use reductions that can be sustained into the future.

Last winter’s modest storms and smart planning and investments by local water agencies allowed Californians to move beyond drastic emergency measures required in 2015 to more sustainable practices. Yet this shift to permanent change seems to be getting lost in the focus on monthly water-use data reported by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Despite the appropriate move to a “stress test” that emphasizes drought preparedness, some continue to judge success by how Californians are performing each month compared to 2015, when state-mandated targets were in effect due to an unprecedented emergency.

The latest data show Californians continue to achieve significant water savings in the absence of state mandates. Yet some are raising concern that residents are taking their eyes off the ball because their monthly water use was slightly higher than last year’s.

Not so. A modest uptick in water use was predicted as local agencies adjusted their local requirements to emphasize ongoing water supply reliability and efficiency as a way of life. This is completely appropriate as we move beyond the extreme actions required last year – such as letting lawns go completely brown, putting buckets in showers, refraining from flushing, and basically not using water.

We knew those drastic actions weren’t sustainable, and we shouldn’t push the panic button because Californians are doing less of them.

Local water agencies and their ratepayers have been investing heavily in water-use efficiency and drought-resilient supplies for the past two decades. The fact that the majority passed their “stress tests” with flying colors and don’t require extreme actions from their customers this year is a good thing. It speaks volumes about local drought preparedness.

Yet some headlines suggest we are backsliding from last year’s “success” under state-mandated conservation. That is unfortunate. It would be a mistake to go back to the emergency approach of 2015 and re-impose extreme actions that are neither sustainable nor necessary at this time.

Even more concerning is the mixed message we would send to water customers who are doing exactly what we have asked: embracing conservation as a long-term way of life as Gov. Jerry Brown has requested. Onerous and extreme actions must be reserved for when we actually need them.

So what’s to be done? Let’s start by changing the conversation. Being prepared for drought and achieving high levels of ongoing efficiency are far more meaningful goals than imposing monthly targets on Californians.

We need to continue investing in drought resilience while raising the bar on long-term efficiency so we can prepare our communities for the inevitable droughts to come.

Californians get it. They know water is precious, and they are making changes for the long haul.

Timothy Quinn is executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 430 public water agencies. Contact him at timq@acwa.com.

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