Executive Summary for December 8th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Dec. 8, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Water Agencies Plead for Conservation Relief

It’s hard conserving water, and utilities are tired of the hard work.

Dozens of water agencies told the State Water Resources Control Board at a hearing on Monday in Sacramento that they need relief. For various reasons, they say current emergency conservation rules target them unfairly and fail to take into account their special circumstances.

“Our customers are frustrated, demanding action, and this mandate is creating trust and credibility issues with them,” said DeAna Verbeke of the Helix Water District in eastern San Diego County, according to Capital Public Radio.

The meeting was scheduled in response to Governor Jerry Brown’s recent action to extend the statewide 25 percent water conservation mandate for as much as another year if the drought continues after this winter.

The water board originally enforced that requirement over the past year by imposing individual conservation requirements on each of the state’s 411 large water agencies. Each agency’s mandate was set largely depending on how well they were already doing on water efficiency. Those who were heavy users got hit with bigger conservation requirements, while those already doing well got a lower target number.

At Monday’s hearing, the board heard from a variety of water agency officials who feel their region was mistreated by this approach. Some of the complaints sounded rather alarmist.

“It could place a hardship on growing communities and affect the economic recovery of the state,” said Fiona Sanchez, conservation manager for Southern California’s Irvine Ranch Water District, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The San Diego County Water Authority complained the state didn’t consider its billion-dollar investments in new water supplies, including the largest seawater desalination facility in the Western hemisphere, expected to come online this month. Such efforts to seek water independence from the state should be rewarded with a smaller conservation mandate, the authority’s representatives argued.

A similar argument came from officials in the Sacramento area, claiming their efforts to jointly manage groundwater should be rewarded. They also complained that the Central Valley’s hot summer climate makes conservation progress more difficult.

What didn’t get mentioned is that most of these agencies had no trouble meeting the conservation requirements over the past year. The Sacramento region, in particular, usually led the state in water conservation results, surpassing its conservation requirements almost ever month.

It’s likely that these complaints are at least partly motivated by financial strain at water agencies. Deep conservation hurts budgets for a simple reason: utilities aren’t selling as much water. Yet their operating costs are largely fixed, so as less water flows out, red ink pours in.

Utilities are notoriously skittish about raising water rates. Many have put off doing so for years out of fear they will upset customers. As a result, many of them are already starting from a position of financial strain.

Water rate increases are likely next year at many water agencies, so it is likely their leaders are seeking to ease the pain.

State water board officials are rightly wary of creating so many new loopholes in a revised conservation requirement that the rules would become meaningless.

“For us to figure out where to draw the lines is challenging,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the state water board. “What if we’re in an Australia-style millennium drought?”

Conservation at Small Water Systems

The above news concerns the state’s large urban water providers, of which there are about 411 agencies. That’s only a partial picture of the state’s water utilities.

There are some 2,600 small water utilities across California, defined as those that serve fewer than 3,000 connections. They got a break from the mandatory conservation imposed on the large utilities. But not a total break.

By December 15, the small water agencies must report – for the first time – their progress toward meeting the 25 percent conservation requirement.

This will be revealing, because these small agencies have remained out of the spotlight for the past year. There’s been no pressure from the media, the public or politicians for them to meet specific conservation requirements.

What will the results show when their reports come in on December 15? Will they have met the 25 percent goal through their own sheer will? Or did they fall short without the kind of scrutiny imposed on large water agencies?

The small water suppliers were given two choices under the emergency regulations: Either restrict outdoor irrigation to no more than two days per week, or reduce total potable water production by 25 percent as compared to 2013.

The State Water Resources Control Board will use the data submitted by small water agencies to decide if they complied with the regulations, and whether enforcement action is needed to ensure the required conservation in 2016.

Free Conservation Training Offered

The California Local Government Commission is offering low-cost training in water conservation to companies and government agencies to help their employees to more to save water.

The training is offered in 24 counties identified as those hardest hit by the drought.

Training tops include water-efficient landscaping, groundwater management, urban forest fire prevention, community-based water conservation, and others.

The goal is to help employees identify both immediate water-savings opportunities and longer-term projects that can save water.

Employers must complete some basic information on the commission’s website to determine eligibility, then they’ll receive a registration link.

Top image: A cyclist rides across the dry lake bed at the Folsom Lake Marina at Folsom Lake, in Folsom, California in October, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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