Concern Raised Over Water Agencies’ Stress Tests

A new water conservation process adopted by the state allows local agencies to avoid strict water conservation mandates. Analysts worry these ‘stress tests’ may cause problems if the drought worsens.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
In this April 8, 2015 file photo, gardeners remove grass plants trimmed ahead of planned watering reductions at the Greystone Mansion and Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. California water officials have dropped a mandate requiring conservation in the state's fifth year of drought.Damian Dovarganes, AP

California has shifted its message on the drought. Now, instead of calling on residents to cut their water consumption collectively by 25 percent, water agencies are saying something akin to this: “Trust us, it’s all under control.”

In May, the State Water Resources Control Board threw out the numerical conservation mandates it had imposed on more than 400 California water agencies. Instead, it adopted what it calls a “stress test.” Water agencies must show that they have enough water to serve customers for three more years, based on average demand during the just-concluded 2012-2015 drought period.

If a water agency can’t prove this, it will be required to revert to a numerical conservation requirement.

Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the water board, said a less rigorous conservation requirement is appropriate because water supplies are adequate in most areas now. The state’s mountain snowpack was only 85 percent of normal at the conclusion of winter, and that was far from enough to recover from three prior years of water shortages. But it was enough, he said, to prevent the need for mandatory conservation in many urban areas.

“It’s just not the type of situation now where we felt it really warranted continuing that really unprecedented, top-down regulatory action where the state is setting those type of targets,” Gomberg said.

But Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it’s too soon to ease off. The moderate winter just concluded could be just a blip in a much longer dry cycle. If that’s the case, state and local water managers will have to start all over again with mandatory water conservation targets. The back-and-forth could confuse water customers and delay further progress on conservation.

Water suppliers could show that they would completely run out of water by the end of 2019 and still not be required to do mandatory conservation,” Quinn said. “We can’t continue to be reckless while we wait for rain.”

Capitola City Council member Dennis Norton usually showers in his outdoor shower, where he can easily capture overspray in a bucket to water plants with later. The city is served by Soquel Creek Water District, which is forgoing the state's "stress test" process in favor of a 25 percent water conservation requirement. (Soquel Creek Water District)

Capitola City Council member Dennis Norton usually showers in his outdoor shower, where he can easily capture overspray in a bucket to water plants with later. The city is served by Soquel Creek Water District, which is forgoing the state’s “stress test” process in favor of a 25 percent water conservation requirement. (Soquel Creek Water District)

Water agencies were required to submit their “stress test” reports to the water board about two weeks ago. Those reports are available for public viewing on the board’s website.

But it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to deduce much from the reports, Quinn said, much less analyze whether they are accurate. That’s partly because there is no readily available, independent way to know all the water sources available to a particular water agency, much less how much they hold.

The state water board itself does not plan to analyze every report to verify the accuracy of their water supply claims, Gomberg said. The board’s staff, he said, will check to see if instructions for submitting the reports were followed correctly and look for obvious omissions.

In some cases, the board might be aware that a water agency shares a particular reservoir with other agencies, but failed to account for that in its analysis. Or it might be able to supply water for three years, but only with catastrophic results to its groundwater aquifer. In such cases, the board will conduct further analysis. But it won’t be able to do that kind of analysis with every water agency.

“Where there are questions or concerns about what is submitted, we’re going to look closely,” he said.

Gomberg said the board expects to complete its review of the reports by the end of July. Agencies that can’t demonstrate they have a three-year water supply will be required to adopt mandatory conservation requirements.

Conducting the stress test reporting is optional for water agencies. If they choose, they may continue to operate with a mandatory conservation requirement. The water board plans to reassess its drought response in January, after some data come in about winter conditions.

Most agencies are expected to opt for the stress test path, because it is easier than imposing a conservation requirement.

Also, said Paul Helliker, general manager of Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, most water agencies simply have enough water now, after last winter, to serve customers without imposing conservation mandates.

These agencies don’t have water supply shortages, so you could argue they don’t really have a drought in their water supply,” Helliker said. “But there are areas of California that do.”

Helliker said his own agency has no plans to require conservation, because it has adequate water supplies to meet demand. He said the stress test is a useful tool because it provides a good forecast of future water demand based on the trying conditions of recent drought years.

“It’s a recognition that the requirements should and will be based upon what the actual water-supply situation is,” said Helliker, a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. “It’s not like it’s letting water agencies arbitrarily choose what their situation is. I think it’s a disclosure process that’s pretty significant.

Soquel Creek Water District near Capitola is one agency that is skipping the stress test and sticking with mandatory water conservation. Shelley Flock, the district’s conservation and customer service field manager, said the district will remain in “Stage 3” water alert because of groundwater depletion.

The district serves about 40,000 customers and is entirely dependent on groundwater. Flock said the district considered adopting the stress test process, but found the process didn’t work very well for an agency that relies on groundwater. Accurately measuring total water stored in an aquifer is more difficult, she said.

In response to such feedback, the state water board modified the process to better serve groundwater-dependent agencies. But Flock said this just made the process more cumbersome.

“That was quite complicated,” she said. “It would have taken a lot of time to go through that process, and there wasn’t really any guarantee that it was going to give us an effective target or a realistic target.”

In recent months, Soquel customers have achieved or exceeded the 25 percent conservation requirement set by the district, which surpasses the 8 percent mandate set by the state earlier this year. Flock credited the state’s efforts to draw attention to the drought crisis, saying it helped her customers view their local water shortage more seriously and begin to meet the conservation target.

But she said the district decided not to follow the stress test process to avoid sending customers a confusing message about conservation. The district is working on long-term water supply solutions, which may include wastewater recycling, buying water from the city of Santa Cruz or participating in a regional seawater desalination project. These projects will take years.

In the meantime, customers needs to stretch groundwater supplies as far as possible.

“I don’t think people are feeling really comfortable that the drought’s over yet, at least not locally,” Flock said.

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