Will California Ditch Water Conservation Mandate?

California’s emergency water conservation mandate was extended until October, but the Water Board is contemplating changing it after pressure from water suppliers that would like to see regulations eased or eliminated.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Back in February 2014 morning traffic heading to downtown Los Angeles along the Hollywood Freeway was greeted by an electronic sign warning of severe drought.Richard Vogel, Associated Press

It seems like just yesterday that Californians were patting themselves on the back for their conservation efforts in the face of an historic drought. Thanks to a sweeping statewide emergency conservation mandate for urban water suppliers from Gov. Jerry Brown last spring, the state saved 1.15 million acre-feet (1.4 billion cubic meters) of water from June 2015 through January 2016 – a nearly 25 percent reduction in use.

But El Niño has rained on the conservation parade.

There is now growing pushback from water suppliers across the state to further amend or eliminate the mandate. In February the emergency regulation was extended until October 2016 and it was also revised slightly, which made it easier for some water districts to comply. Now the State Water Resources Control Board will decide in May if it wants to make further changes, and there is mounting pressure to do so.

The much-hyped El Niño was not a drought buster for California, but it did deliver near-average precipitation to Northern California, which has been enough to fill Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, the two biggest reservoirs in Northern California.

Full reservoirs along with an April 1 snowpack reading of 95 percent of normal for the Northern Sierra, has led many water supplies in Northern California, and particularly in the Sacramento region, to declare that the drought emergency for their region is over.

Andy Fecko, the director of resource development for the Placer County Water Agency, told the Water Board last week, “In the American River Basin, the Sacramento region, we are not in a drought emergency any more.” And John Woodling, the executive director of the Regional Water Authority that represents 20 water agencies in the Sacramento area, affirmed, “The emergency status of the drought has abated for the Sacramento region.”

 Water sprays from sprinklers outside of a home in Hillsborough, Calif., in April 2015. An emergency mandate has sought to limit outdoor water to conserve water, but the State Water Resources Control Board is considering making changes to it.

Water sprays from sprinklers outside of a home in Hillsborough, Calif., in April 2015. An emergency mandate has sought to limit outdoor water to conserve water, but the State Water Resources Control Board is considering making changes to it. (Jeff Chiu, Associated Press)

On March 23 the board of the San Juan Water District, which serves eastern Sacramento and southern Placer counties, voted to move from stage four to stage two drought, which knocks conservation regulations down to a voluntary 10 percent reduction and eliminates a drought surcharge on bills. This was done despite the fact that the state’s emergency conservation mandate was still in effect.

“Though we anticipate the State Board will eliminate or reduce the conservation requirements in May, there is a chance they won’t,” the district reported. “This could mean San Juan would be required to reinstate a higher drought stage. Because of this, we ask customers to be aware of this possibility when replanting landscapes.”

East Bay Municipal Utility District in the Bay Area didn’t go to such lengths but they did suspend their excessive water use penalty ordinance, which fined high water use customers.

“It’s never OK to waste water, the district’s conservation program remains strong and we’ll focus on working with all of our customers, including these customers, to keep water levels low,” said Andrea Pook, senior public information representative with East Bay MUD.

Pook said it is difficult to ask residents to pay penalties when reservoirs are going to be filling up this year. But she acknowledged, “It’s kind of a mixed message” because the drought is easing but not over.

“We just want to be in alignment with our local conditions, as well as what the state is seeing,” she said in regards to efforts to ease conservation mandates. “We recognize that we’re not alone, we’re in it together. But we also recognize that water agencies have different conditions – Southern California is not in the same shape as we are.”

Los Angeles Water and Power moved this week to set fines as high as $40,000 for “unreasonable” water use. But the region’s wholesale water provider, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and other Southern California water suppliers are calling on the Water Board to make big changes to the emergency mandate that would allow water suppliers to self-certify the capacity of their supply to meet demand projections instead of abiding by mandates set by the state.

It’s a position supported by California Urban Water Agencies. But Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “I do have concern that relaxing or eliminating mandatory targets for water suppliers while we still are in an emergency situation, sends a terrible and conflicting message to Californians.”

The NRDC, she said, would rather see modifications to the existing structure of the mandate if changes are to be made on the temporary regulation. “In large part, water supply throughout California is interconnected and interdependent,” she said. “So although we have regions that got normal precipitation this year, if that water supply diverts from the Delta water system then there is still a need for them to conserve because there are so many other Californians whose water depends on that supply.”

Despite the fact that many large reservoirs in Northern California are in good shape, Central and Southern California received much less precipitation, said Quinn. And another concern is snowpack. Statewide snowpack at the April 1 reading was 95 percent normal for Northern California and 85 percent normal across the entire Sierra Nevada. But in less than a month warm temperatures had made a significant dent in that. By April 26 the snowpack dropped to 61 percent normal across the state and 65 percent of normal for Northern California.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University also predicts a 70 percent chance of La Niña conditions by fall, which could mean more dry weather for California.

And then there is California’s groundwater problem. “During the drought we’ve turned to groundwater to supplement surface supplies and we have overdrafted major aquifers throughout the state to the point where we have seen subsidence in some,” said Quinn. “We need to make sure that people understand that despite recent rains we are still in an emergency drought situation and we certainly can’t suffer the short-term memory loss that often follows a little rain.”

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