Executive Summary for December 22nd

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. 22, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Conservation Rules Tweaked for Local Climate

The State Water Resources Control Board plans to adjust next year’s urban water conservation requirements based on local microclimates.

That’s the most significant change to the board’s proposal, released in draft form Monday. In short, it means that hot, dry inland cities will get a break on their water conservation targets of as much as 4 percent. The reasoning behind this is that these warmer regions have a basic need to use more water because their landscaping requires it to survive.

The adjustments for microclimate will be based on the local evapotranspiration rate, which measures water uptake by plants.

Water agency officials who pressed hard for the changes are not exactly thrilled by the proposal. Which suggests, perhaps, that the water board has struck a good balance.

“Our desert’s average evapotranspiration rate is more than 25 percent greater than the statewide average, and a 4 percent adjustment to our conservation mandate cannot make up for that dramatic difference,” said Desert Water Agency general manager Dave Luker, according to the Desert Sun newspaper.

“I think it moves us in the right direction,” John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, told the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

Environmental groups also weren’t pleased, saying the changes move water conservation in the wrong direction amid a crisis. It will be that much harder to meet the governor’s 25 percent statewide water conservation requirement.

“As long as we continue to exist in an emergency state, then we need to be pursuing this 25 percent mandatory reduction, and any of these adjustments and credits and exemptions are taking us away from that,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.

The adjustment for microclimates makes sense because it is logical and measurable. But it’s also dubious, because warm, inland regions also tend to have larger residential lots with landscaping that is not climate appropriate (translation: big lawns). So the changes seem to be excusing this kind of thirsty living.

In addition, many inland areas have already proven they can meet the existing conservation rules. The hot Sacramento Valley, for instance, consistently led the state this year in water conservation, often exceeding its conservation target significantly.

Also, the proposal appears to shift the burden of statewide conservation toward coastal cities, since they don’t get any breaks under the revised rules. This is inappropriate, because they already use less water than inland regions, and have less “fat” to cut from their water consumption as a result.

The water board analysis indicates the adjustment for microclimates will reduce statewide conservation by 1.4 percent. It’s unclear how that will be made up.

But that isn’t the only adjustment proposed.

The board also proposes to allow 2 percent less water conservation in communities that have seen lots of growth since 2013. That may seem counterintuitive. But new housing generally uses less water than old housing, due to the use of frugal, modern appliances and their smaller yards. So it is harder to make big water conservation strides in newer homes.

This adjustment is expected to cost another 1 percent toward the statewide 25 percent conservation goal.

Also recommended is a break for water agencies that have adopted seawater desalination and/or wastewater recycling. This is estimated to bring a 0.6 percent hit toward the statewide conservation goal.

The board staff rejected a number of other proposals from water agencies, including: adjustments for cities with heavy seasonal tourist populations (such as Palm Springs); adjustments for a heavy reliance on groundwater; and adjustments for “isolated hydrologic regions” that do not depend on water imported from elsewhere.

Public comments on the proposal are due to the board by January 4. It plans to discuss the proposal at a meeting in January and adopt it in February. If approved, the amended rules will be in place through October 2016.

Does Drought ‘Shaming’ Help the Cause?

We’ve all seen the stories in recent months about certain celebrities who have failed to trim their wasteful water habits. These have come about because some water agencies have decided to release the names of heavy water users, even though the law makes that optional.

Alex Breitler at the Stockton Record newspaper takes a look at this phenomenon and finds that a number of experts think it isn’t helpful.

“I see more potential downside than upside of naming names,” says Ellen Hanak, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California. “You don’t necessarily know what the situation is. Maybe there are household members who have certain homecare needs. Or it could be a bad month, and they had a leak.”

“Sometimes public shaming is an additional incentive to take action to cut wasteful water use,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “But I also believe very strongly that water agencies, before they release the names of big water users, should work really hard one-on-one with them to help educate them.”

The California Public Records Act generally forbids disclosing utility information, but there are exceptions. One requires agencies to release utility consumption data on elected officials. And a number of them throughout the state have been revealed as heavy water users – even as they plead with the rest of us to cut back.

Another important exemption allows disclosure of consumption data on any customer when water providers determine that the public interest in releasing the names outweighs the public interest in holding them back.

We’re clearly in that kind of situation now, and those water agencies that have released names should be commended. While some experts may hedge, the public has clearly responded to all the news stories on celebrity waste. Each one of these stories forces us “commoners” to look at our own water use, and there’s no question that helps our communal conservation effort.

Top image: In this July 29, 2014 file photo, Nik Martinelli, a water conservation specialist for the city of Santa Cruz, finds a broken sprinkler head at an office park in Santa Cruz, Calif. The State Water Resources Control Board plans to ease water conservation rules next year based on local climatology, which could shift the burden onto cities such as Santa Cruz. (Patrick Tehan, Bay Area News Group, via Associated Press)

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