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California Changes Course in Fighting Drought

A new Executive Order by Gov. Jerry Brown and a draft plan by the State Water Resources Control Board staff puts in motion big changes to California’s emergency conservation mandate.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
On July 2, 2015, cars in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., drive by a sign encouraging residents to save water. Members of the state’s Water Resources Control Board will decide May 18 whether to remove an 11-month-old statewide conservation order.Chris Carlson, Associated Press

Those at the helm of California’s drought response and water policy have decided to make a tactical shift. “What we are doing today is making a pivot to a long-term strategy,” said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board.

Yesterday Gov. Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order “making water conservation a California way of life.” The order is a transition from the state’s emergency conservation mandates for urban areas enacted last spring, to more permanent and longer-term changes to address water consumption.

Certain conservation measures in the emergency order will become permanent, such as outlawing washing hardscapes like driveways and sidewalks, washing vehicles without shutoff nozzles, and inefficient watering of landscapes that result in runoff.

It also tasked the Water Board with putting together a proposal for long-term water conservation goals for the state by January 2017. Agencies will work together to “craft an implementable, enduring plan that will ensure that we use water efficiently whether wet or dry and are prepared for the longer, more severe drought cycles that we know are in California’s future,” said Mark Cowin, director of California’s Department of Water Resources.

This April 23, 2016 photo shows how low the water is in South Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada near Bishop, Calif. A nearly average amount of rain and snow this winter has eased California's dry spell, filling key reservoirs in Northern California. Officials warned, however, that the state remains in a drought. Residents of drought-stricken California doubled their water conservation efforts in March compared with the month before by turning off their sprinklers when the rain fell and changing habits, officials said Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

This April 23, 2016 photo shows how low the water is in South Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada near Bishop, Calif. A nearly average amount of rain and snow this winter has eased California’s dry spell, filling key reservoirs in Northern California. Officials warned, however, that the state remains in a drought. (Brian Melley, Associated Press)

Urban water suppliers will still be required to submit monthly reports on water consumption, but the order opens the door for the Water Board to make big changes to the state’s 25 percent compulsory conservation mandates for urban water suppliers that went into effect last June. Water suppliers have been pushing for changes to the mandate to reflect more local conditions.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the Water Board, described last year’s emergency regulations as “effective, but a somewhat blunt instrument.” They were a necessary response to critical drought conditions that saw snowpack at its lowest level in 500 years, but the Water Board is now ready to respond to changes in the state’s hydrology this year, she said.

A new draft plan from Water Board staff calls for allowing water suppliers to develop their own plans based on each area’s unique conditions. This would require water suppliers to self-certify that they have adequate supplies for three additional dry years with conditions similar to 2013, 2014 and 2015. If suppliers face a shortage in any of the upcoming years in the plan, then conservation levels are to be set commensurate with the level of shortage, explained Gomberg.

All suppliers’ plans and documenting information will be published online. “They get more local control and we all get more transparency,” said Marcus.

The staff’s plan will be reviewed at the May 18 meeting of the Water Board and if passed, will go into effect June 1. Gomberg said that the Water Board would be prepared to return to mandatory measures next year if conditions warrant it.

“While the drought is most certainly not over, the severity of the emergency for California has diminished and we are optimistic that California residents will continue to conserve water going forward,” he said.

Marcus stressed that California’s long-term water future is still serious. “While we didn’t get the Godzilla of all El Nino’s worth of rain many pundits predicted, we did get the Godzilla of all wake up calls during the past four years of drought,” she said. “What happened these last four years is what will happen more often as climate change accelerates. We simply have to become more efficient in how we use water and must do it sooner rather than later.”

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