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Connect the Drops

The Most Important New Water Bills Facing California Lawmakers

The Golden State can take a big leap toward water sustainability with a group of bills before lawmakers this legislative session that address conservation, reuse and equity, says Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
California Department of Water Resources senior engineer Glenn Moeller visits the site of a new water well being installed in Porterville, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2015.Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

With the snowpack in California’s Sierr­a Nevada now at 20 percent of average – lower than at the same time three years ago, the driest year on record – Californians are girding for a repeat of drought conditions. Water scarcity seems likely to be a recurring part of our future.

Legislators in Sacramento, therefore, would be remiss to delay the adoption of a group of bills that would place the state on a path to ensuring more sustainable water supplies. February 16 was the last day that new bills could be introduced for consideration during this legislative session, and among them are some extremely important water bills, including several that are carryovers from last year.

Importantly, voters also will have the opportunity to consider a new water funding mechanism this year: Proposition 68, the California Clean Water and Safe Parks Act, will be on the June ballot, stemming from the passage of Senate Bill 5 last year, to help ensure our water infrastructure is up to the task of delivering clean water. The proposition would allow the state to issue $4 billion in general obligation bonds to spend to help prepare for the next drought and increase local water supplies among a number of worthy priorities.

Water Efficiency and Drought Planning

Two water efficiency bills that have been taking shape for months are high on the priority list for consideration this year. Assembly Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 606, introduced by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and Senators Robert Hertzberg and Nancy Skinner, aim to maximize the water supplies we have by developing efficiency goals based on local conditions and improving drought planning efforts, so that our communities – both urban and rural – are prepared for the next drought, which could be just around the corner.

Californians rose to the challenge of conservation during our epic five-year drought – with residents statewide cutting back 24 percent on water use during the year following Governor Jerry Brown’s June 2015 declaration of a water emergency and conservation mandate. However, a new study published in Water Resources Research in December showed that when consumers and property managers thought a water crisis subsided, they relaxed their conservation efforts. The study, by two Stanford researchers, found that what’s needed is sustained policy and media attention of water conservation in order for most people to continue with water saving behaviors.

Thus, smart policy that keeps us on a prudent path is necessary.

Assuring Safe, Clean, Affordable Drinking Water

Incredibly in this wealthy, high-tech state, more than 1 million people have been served water with health violations in the past year and 300 communities do not have access to safe, clean drinking water from their faucets on a regular basis. These 300 water districts are deemed chronically out of compliance with federal safe drinking water standards, and there are also more than 1 million domestic wells where little is known about the water quality. Mostly in rural, low-income areas, the water districts out of compliance in the state are typically strapped for funds to operate and maintain water treatment facilities. California decision-makers need to step up to the plate and get this done.

Last year, Senator Bill Monning introduced Senate Bill 623, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which was backed by a broad group of environmentalists, human rights advocates, farmers and businesses. The bill proposes raising funds to help ensure clean drinking water for all communities by collecting a nominal fee from the state’s residential and business users of water and a fee from agricultural fertilizer distributors and dairy farmers. It was held over to this half of the session.

In January, Brown signaled his support of the Fund when he unveiled a budget that includes a funding mechanism for assuring safe and affordable drinking water for all Californians. So, one way or another, legislators will be asked to approve funding for safe and affordable drinking water, either through the budget deliberations or through passing SB 623.

If Rain Doesn’t Come

Given California’s dependence on rain and snow to fill the reservoirs and replenish the groundwater basins that serve as the water supply for cities and farms, it’s become clear in recent years of scant precipitation that smart water policy must reach beyond conservation. We need a comprehensive water strategy that includes recycling water.

An onsite water recycling bill has been introduced by Senator Scott Wiener to encourage gray-water recycling in buildings.

Wiener’s bill, Senate Bill 966, would help communities create water recycling programs for nonpotable uses of water by requiring the State Water Resources Board to issue regulations, including health and safety standards, that cities could then use in permitting.

In introducing the bill, Wiener said a lack of statewide permitting standards has kept cities and communities from encouraging water recycling. San Francisco, however, has its own gray-water recycling ordinance that requires developers of new commercial buildings of significant size to include installation of on-site gray-water recycling systems. In fact, San Francisco’s new tallest building, Salesforce Tower, will include an advanced water recycling system, which recycles all the water used in the building and treats it for nonpotable uses.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

Water flows in California dictate our state’s water security, be it melting snow flowing from the mountains to the flatlands in streams and rivers or conveyances from Northern California to Southern California. But without knowing specific data about this water flow, it is more difficult to provide that security. A new bill, Senate Bill 919, would have the State Water Resource Control Board develop a plan to deploy a network of stream gages to better understand flows and better manage our water resources.

SB 919 will complement the Open and Transparent Water Data Act of 2016 (AB 1755), which we supported two years ago. The Department of Water Resources and other involved agencies recently released a draft progress report and strategic plan on implementation efforts to date and much has been done. These data collection and dissemination efforts will help California better plan and manage its increasingly valuable resource.

In sum, this year gives legislators and constituents alike the opportunity to make positive changes to our tight water situation in California. Together, new regulations, proposed legislation and voter choices about water resources stand a good chance of getting us back on track.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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