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How California’s water conservation strategy is falling short

A sign in Rancho Santa Margarita encourages residents to save water in July 2015. Water conservation in California has waned after the end of mandatory restrictions.
A sign in Rancho Santa Margarita encourages residents to save water in July 2015. Water conservation in California has waned after the end of mandatory restrictions. Associated Press file

Just six months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown declared that he wanted to make water conservation a “way of life” in California. His executive order laid out a framework for water suppliers to make conservation permanent and ensure that Californians continue to use this precious resource efficiently.

Today, the likelihood of that vision becoming a reality is uncertain.

This month, the agencies in charge of California’s water – the same ones that recently gave suppliers free rein to set their own conservation targets and have given more water to corporate agriculture, pushing the state’s salmon fishery to the brink of collapse – released a draft of their permanent conservation regulations.

The draft falls drastically short of Brown’s goal and threatens progress toward a water-secure future.

A 2015 report by the Department of Water Resources suggests a 48 to 65 percent loss in Sierra snowpack, which typically supplies one-third of California’s fresh water, is likely by the end of the century. As California faces a sixth year of historic drought, we can’t rest on past conservation achievements, but need a bold path forward to ensure a safe, sufficient and affordable water supply.

Focusing on smart ways to use water more wisely in cities and on farms is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way. In fact, water efficiency could save annually as much water as 20 million families use each year.

But the draft plan skims over some of the basic requirements.

For cities, the plan fails to lay out clear, specific guidelines on how conservation goals will be developed or what criteria will be used to determine compliance. Also, the plan doesn’t address an underlying issue that’s sabotaging conservation efforts. To water agencies, saving water equals lower sales and less revenue, so it’s no wonder they’re opposed to new conservation goals.

For agriculture, the largest users in the state, the draft plan misses the mark by an even wider margin. Instead of enforcing existing laws – such as measuring how much water is delivered to farmers – the plan creates a convoluted process. More than half of water districts already ignore the current, basic conservation requirements, so making things even more cumbersome is setting up the plan to fail.

State agencies would be better off increasing transparency of water use data, promoting accountability and enforcing existing laws. Water districts also should be asked to modernize outdated infrastructure (which could allow irrigation when crops actually need it) and recognize the importance of healthy soil. Most importantly, enforcement needs to be turned over to the only agency with expertise – the state water board, which is stepping up oversight of urban water suppliers but has been conspicuously absent from discussions about agricultural water use.

All in all, the current plan is a lot of well-intentioned words without an effective strategy for substantial change in California water policy. And given our nation’s current political climate, what happens in California matters more than ever.

There is still time for state agencies to revise their recommendations before the final report. If they lay out a plan for meaningful standards and enforcement tools, this is an opportunity for Gov. Brown to leave a lasting legacy of helping California secure its water future and truly make conservation a way of life.

Ben Chou is an agricultural water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Santa Monica. Tracy Quinn is an urban water policy analyst at NRDC. They can be contacted at nrdcinfo@nrdc.org.

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