El Niño is finally making its presence felt with a series of welcome storms. Since we don’t yet know if it will put a significant dent in California’s epic drought, state regulators are preparing the next version of an emergency regulation that has required statewide mandatory conservation in urban areas since last June.
An initial framework released last month by the State Water Resources Control Board staff, however, is raising deep concerns that the regulation could take a critical tool off the table – local water projects developed to buffer the effects of drought.
Focusing almost exclusively on mandatory conservation could deny communities the benefit of billions of dollars invested in projects such as water recycling, water storage and desalination designed to make them less vulnerable to multiyear droughts.
Not only does this undermine the value of these public investments, but it also runs counter to Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan and its call for more such investments in the future.
Under the current regulation set to expire in February, urban water suppliers are required to meet conservation targets ranging from 4 percent to 36 percent, compared to 2013 levels. Californians have responded heroically to the conservation mandate, exceeding Brown’s goal of reducing water use by 25 percent statewide.
Conservation remains important, but ratepayers have supported and financed water supply projects no less heroically. They expect to see their benefits in times of drought.
Since the last major drought in the early 1990s, local water agencies have invested about $20 billion to augment and diversify their water supplies through recycling and conservation, water storage projects, groundwater cleanup and brackish water and ocean desalination. These investments are widely credited by the Public Policy Institute of California and others with keeping the state’s economy largely unscathed through four years of severe drought.
If the State Water Board’s current approach continues in 2016, there could be little incentive for public water agencies and their ratepayers to invest in additional drought-proof supplies. Water agencies also could see damage to their credibility with customers if they cannot use the very tools paid for with ratepayer dollars.
The State Water Board must rethink its approach. Water supply tools are just as valuable – if not more so – than demand management tools such as conservation. State regulations for 2016 should recognize both types of tools as equally important and fully credit local agencies for their investments.
The board also should provide a clear end to the regulation should El Niño end the drought emergency. We owe it to Californians who’ve entrusted us to invest wisely in our local water resources.
Timothy Quinn is executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 430 public water agencies. He can be contacted at email@example.com.