This column is published in collaboration with Connect the Drops, a partnership between business and environmental groups to promote conservation and reuse of California water supplies.
The San Francisco weather last week was rain, rain, rain. I caught myself mid-sentence complaining about the weather, but then concluded, “this is great, we need it!” and contemplated a ski trip to Tahoe to enjoy what we’ve been missing for the last four years – snow.
But these back-to-back storms make things more complicated for the State Water Resources Control Board as it contemplates what’s next for California’s emergency urban water conservation regulation. This is the 25 percent urban conservation mandate implemented by the board last June, which expires in February.
We need to stay the course and keep up our conservation efforts to protect our water future, but in the midst of El Niño storms, how do you convince stakeholders and the public that we need to remain vigilant and continue to conserve? This isn’t easy, but luckily we have a governor and State Water Board who understand that we are in a long-term game.
“Even after the current drought emergency recedes, we must continue to build on our efforts to conserve water and promote innovative strategies for increased water conservation,” says the administration’s 2016 update of the California Water Action Plan.
The state board’s draft revised water conservation regulations released last week attempt to re-think the current one-size-fits-all approach, and instead, account for site-specific factors like climate and efficient growth. In general, this seems reasonable: however, there was one proposed “credit” that appears off base.
State board staff propose a credit for “any urban water supplier that obtains at least four percent of its total potable water production from a qualifying new local, drought-resilient water supply.” In other words, communities where desalination or indirect potable reuse projects have been implemented in recent years could be allowed to ratchet down their conservation efforts.
This credit sends the wrong messages to water managers. Conservation is an extremely cost-effective strategy that should be pursued aggressively, regardless of other concurrent efforts to ensure a sustainable water supply – even if these other efforts are laudable.
California needs a multi-pronged approach to secure a sustainable water future that maximizes local water supplies through conservation, recycling and stormwater capture and use. One strategy should not be pursued at the expense of another.
Appropriately, in addition to calling for “conservation as a California way of life” the California Water Action Plan looks to increase the use of recycled water and promote projects that capture and infiltrate stormwater. If we combine conservation and local supply development, we will reduce the stress on our state’s water supply far more quickly.
If the State Water Board adopts the proposed regulation at its February 2 hearing, the state anticipates 325 billion gallons in water savings from February through October 2016. But then what?
Let’s remember that the governor’s call for “voluntary” conservation of 20 percent led to a meager 4 percent savings. The state must concurrently look to the development of long-term, non-emergency water conservation regulations that go beyond October 2016 and implement other critical elements of the California Water Action Plan that call for the development of local water projects. Our state’s water management challenges will only become more intense and severe with climate change and other stresses, so reverting to pre-drought thinking isn’t an option.
Californians should be proud of what has been achieved since the state’s emergency urban water conservation regulation went into effect in June 2015. The latest numbers show that, from June through November, the cumulative statewide reduction was 26.3 percent, or over 325 billion gallons, enough to supply over 10 million people for a year. We’ve proven that we can do it, and arguably without too much pain for most.
Let’s stay the course for the long term and make sure that California employs a multi-pronged approach to secure a sustainable water future that includes a proven, cost-effective strategy – conservation.
Top image: Denise Hurst shows the drought-tolerant garden she planted in April 2015 with the help of a city program that offers rebates. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)