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Crisis Conservation Not Working for California

To prepare for the next drought, California must rewrite its inadequate water conservation laws now.

Written by Chris Brown Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On one hand, the decision was easy. After seven out of eight years had produced below-average precipitation and warmer than average temperatures, Gov. Jerry Brown in April finally demanded that Californians cut back on water use.

On the other hand, Californians are always ready to fight about water. With a water rights and regulatory system built on 19th-century foundations of laws and customs, Brown’s historic call for mandatory conservation has led to litigation, confusion among the public and targets that vary across the state and are hard to explain.

The failure of urban water agencies to meet a goal of 20 percent conservation in 2014 (they achieved 9 percent), prompted the higher goal this year and stiffer penalties. To achieve the governor’s April order for a 25 percent reduction, the State Water Resources Control Board came up with a sliding scale of targets and fines of up to $10,000 a day on water agencies that fail to meet them.

The targets are based on how much residential water is used per person, measured in gallons per capita per day (GPCD) in each community. The reductions vary from 4 percent to 36 percent, depending on residential GPCD in each community during summer 2014.

This sliding scale recognizes that people who are already aggressively conserving water will find it more difficult to cut back than those who use a lot.

But this approach – using percentages instead of a per-capita target that everyone should aspire to reach – begs the question: Is it fair to expect the residents of East Los Angeles to achieve an 8 percent reduction when they use less than 60 GPCD, while Palm Springs gets to claim success by lowering its more than 400 GPCD to around 265 GPCD?

At what point do we decide: What is a reasonable amount of water for an urban dweller to use? We know that cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and flushing the toilet take less than 50 gallons per person per day if you use efficient appliances, take reasonable showers and fix leaks. So even people using 60 gallons per day on average have some water left over to water some plants and keep some trees alive, if not enough to water a broad expanse of lawn.

These questions have been asked and answered before in modern industrial societies. Australia suffered a 14-year drought, which brought into question the entire water rights system and expectations about what was a reasonable level of consumption. Everyone was asked to cut back and residential demand was lowered to 54 gallons per person per day. Even in the hottest, driest part of the country, average use was less than 100 gallons per day.

California’s water rights system is built upon a first-in-time, first-in-right presumption. So when drought limits supply, the older one’s water right, the less likely it will be cut back. This explains why some farmers have not been cut back at all, while others have had all of their surface water supplies eliminated. This may have worked when the population was a lot smaller and water supplies were viewed as limitless. But with more than 38 million people in California, and increasing impacts of climate change, foresighted observers feel the system is inadequate to the challenges ahead.

In 2014 California finally adopted legislation to manage groundwater resources, becoming the last state in America to do so. Unfortunately, the law allows a couple of decades for local areas to get their groundwater management in place. That’s no help this year. The prospect of regulations coming in a distant future may actually spur greater exploitation of aquifers and bigger problems later on as opportunists try to establish a right to future water by drilling or deepening wells. This is precisely what happened in Texas when, in the early 1990s, the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act put in place rules with several years between concept and actual regulation.

In comments made at public hearings and in conferences on the drought, policy makers are recognizing California has had decades-long droughts in the past and should expect them in the future. Prudence alone says that now, in 2015, serious discussions need to start about what a reasonable set of rules for water management should look like.

Legislative attempts at a solution over the previous five years left too many of the traditional power brokers and dysfunctional management in place. The first step needed is a public process addressing what a reasonable balance with limited water supplies needs to include. It is important that this takes place in a forum more diverse than the traditional stakeholders empowered by the State Department of Water Resources. The discussion needs to address differences between water uses essential for human consumption, food production and protection of the environment upon which we all depend.

Here are some basic principles that should guide this process:

– The emergency rules that have allowed the State Water Resources Control Board to collect and publicize water use by urban agencies need to be extended to agriculture, and made a permanent part of water management in California, not just for this drought emergency.

– Accelerating groundwater data collection is also essential. Only by shining the light on water use will we be able to make rational and prudent decisions.

– We need new rules that support sustainable and equitable urban water use, food production and protection of the environment. The us-versus-them culture must be replaced with a more cooperative and collaborative approach.

– Groundwater and surface water resources must be managed and regulated jointly. We cannot continue depleting aquifers in a doomed effort to maintain unsupportable lifestyles.

Forging these rules will not happen overnight. Our slow response to the current drought shows we need to start these discussions now.

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