Executive Summary for January 18th

California’s urban water conservation regulations are likely to get a lot looser in 2016, according to a draft of the rules released by the State Water Resources Control Board. Meanwhile, why is a giant Saudi Arabian dairy farming company buying up farmland in California?

Published on Jan. 18, 2016 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

State May Loosen Water Conservation Mandates Further

The State Water Resources Control Board has released its proposal to ease water conservation rules in 2016, and it’s planning even looser mandates than those discussed previously.

The proposal adds a raft of new exemptions that allow water suppliers to qualify for a conservation target that is smaller than what was mandated in 2015. These exemptions result from complaints by water utilities, who said previous rules were too arbitrary. The new exemptions include:

• If a water provider has a “drought resilient” water supply – one like wastewater recycling, which is not affected by drought-related shortages – its conservation requirement can be reduced as much as 7 percent.

• If a water provider is growing at a rapid clip, it can get a 5 percent break, because – allegedly – new housing consumes less water than old housing.

• If its local microclimate results in less water demand, the water agency can get a break up to 4 percent.

In total, a water agency may qualify for a conservation “discount” of as much as 8 percent. That’s double the previous proposal of 4 percent.

Water board officials admitted these changes make it unlikely that California will satisfy the governor’s 25 percent water conservation requirement in 2016.

“We could see a few-percentage-point drop in totals from that 25 percent,” said Eric Oppenheimer, the water board’s chief deputy director, according to the Sacramento Bee.

This is a surprising turn of events since, for months, water board officials have leaned on Californians to achieve the 25 percent requirement.

They’ve also repeatedly expressed confidence that it will be met this year, despite data in recent months that shows a steady decline in conservation performance.

In short, the proposal feels like state officials are throwing in the towel to appease water agencies that are tired of pressing their ratepayers to conserve.

Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the nonprofit environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance, blasted the state board for relenting on the conservation mandates at all.

“As we’ve been telling Californians for the past year and a half and longer, we need to reduce our demand by conserving and pursuing sustainable supplies,” said Sara Aminzadeh. “And so to suggest we need to conserve less … is a really misguided approach to the dialogue that we want to have with Californians.”

Even so, many water agencies are complaining the proposal doesn’t do enough for them.

“We’re very concerned about some of the decision making going on with the State Board staff right now,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, told Capital Public Radio. “We look at their emergency conservation regulations as creating very significant disincentives to the local investment that’s gotten us this far.”

Water board officials, however, emphasized that the amended regulations remain an important tool in helping the state survive drought. They also headed off criticism that even this proposal is too strict, given that the state is currently experiencing a steady flow of winter storms.

But the Sierra Nevada snowpack is merely average for this time of year. If the storms stop in February, the drought will remain severe. Even if it holds at average levels throughout winter, this won’t be enough to end the drought.

“The recent rain and snow are an extremely welcome start to the rainy season, however we have to keep conserving – El Niño or not,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the water board, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We don’t know what the next two months are going to bring.”

The rules will apply to the state’s 411 “large” urban water suppliers, or those with 3,000 or more connections, which account for about 90 percent of California’s total urban water demand.

The water board is expected to discuss and adopt the amended conservation rules at its meeting on February 2.

Saudi Arabia Buying Up California Farmland

The Saudi Arabian firm Almarai Co. announced last week that it bought 1,790 acres of farmland near Blythe, California. It is just the latest such land purchase in the region that is part of a company strategy to grow alfalfa that will be shipped back to Saudi Arabia to feed dairy cows. The sale price in the deal was $31.8 million.

The situation is painfully ironic, because the company’s motivation is to conserve water in Saudi Arabia for higher-value purposes. To accomplish this, it will now be tapping water in drought-plagued California.

“We’re letting them come over here and use up our resources,” said Holly Irwin, chair of the board of supervisors in neighboring La Paz County, Arizona, where Saudi interests are also buying up farmland. “It’s very frustrating for me, especially when I have residents telling me that their wells are going dry and they have to dig a lot deeper for water.”

Almarai is one of the world’s largest dairy companies. Its founder and largest shareholder is Saudi Prince Sultan bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer.

Farms in the Blythe area generally have ample water, because their water rights on the Colorado River predate nearly all others. However, growing alfalfa in this arid region has long been considered a questionable use of valuable water supplies, because it ranks as one of the world’s thirstiest crops.

The transaction also might result in a “hardening” of water demand in the region, since Almarai will likely want to use every drop of water available to grow alfalfa for its core business of growing cows back home. It may not be willing, as local officials in the Imperial Valley have been, to enter into water-sharing agreements like the one that has benefitted San Diego.

There is also the larger concern of global resources priorities. Shipping alfalfa grown in one desert halfway around the world to feed dairy cows in another must be one of the least climate-friendly economic strategies. That means Saudi milk and cheese likely has the weightiest carbon footprint of any food in the world.

“They will continue to come over here and buy properties where they can grow good-quality alfalfa hay and ship it back to the Middle East,” Joseph Dutra, a consultant to international companies buying farmland in the region, told CNBC News. “It makes logical sense for them to do that because they’re not going to be able to grow it in Saudi Arabia, especially for milk production.”

Top image: Lake Oroville remains severely depleted, despite recent storms. Yet state officials are proposing to ease water conservation rules significantly following complaints by many water utilities. (Calif. Dept. of Water Resources)

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