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Some water agencies say 'no' to mandated water cuts despite drought

Sprinklers water a lawn. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Municipal water agencies across California are required to report to state officials by midnight Wednesday on whether they have enough water to withstand three more years of drought. If they don't, a new state conservation plan requires them to calculate how much they need to start saving to meet anticipated demand. 

Officials with the State Water Resources Control Board are calling it a "stress test."

But what if many of the state's 400-plus local water agencies don't find much stress?

In Southern California, the city of Long Beach and the water provider for most of the Coachella Valley have gone on record saying they have identified enough water sources to meet demand, even if the state's historic drought grinds on to 2019. 

Under a complex calculation handed down by state water officials, local agencies have to quantify future water supplies given the assumption that California won't receive any more rain and snow in the next three years than it did over the previous three.

Water agencies then have to measure those supplies against anticipated demand. If demand outweighs supply, the agencies will have to start saving water immediately to make up the difference. The amount of the shortfall will be the new water conservation standard agencies will have to report to state officials.  

'Zeroing out'

As was mentioned, Long Beach and the Coachella Valley Water District say they've "zeroed out" — in effect they have identified enough water to meet anticipated demand down to the last gallon. Many other water agencies across the state are expected to similarly zero out.

It's unclear whether the state's largest water retailer — the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — will also claim zero conservation. DWP representatives said they planned to submit the their stress test to the water board by the midnight deadline. 

The water board won’t be making the stress tests public until next week at the earliest, and will then spend weeks scrutinizing the tests to make sure they are accurate. But some area water agencies have already published theirs on their websites, and already it’s clear that a number of water agencies are abandoning mandatory water conservation entirely.

The Coachella Valley Water District — which serves Cathedral City, Palm Desert and other cities — relies on groundwater replenished largely by water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California.

The district’s conservation manager, Katie Ruark, said CVWD's supplies vastly exceed demand, and the agency will no longer require customers to make mandatory cutbacks. But Ruark said the agency is trying to make sure water use doesn't spike going forward by reducing the amount of water customers are allocated in their “water budget.”

The district sets aside a certain amount of water to each customer based on lot size, structure size, the number of people served and other factors. If users exceed their budget, they'll pay higher rates for water. Going forward, Ruark said, those water budgets will eventually be 25 percent smaller.

CVWD is also backing away from the severe penalties it had last year for exceeding water budgets, which Ruark says is “an effort to move away from an emergency situation into a long-term sustainable situation.”

CVWD had struggled to meet the state's initial conservation mandate of a 36 percent reduction, and was fined $61,000 for failure to comply. The fine was eventually waived after the district agreed to create a program to promote water efficiency in outdoor watering.

For its part, Long Beach also reports a zero stress test. On its website, the city water department said it will also stop requiring mandatory water conservation going forward due to the availability of groundwater and imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. Last week MWD, the region's largest water wholesaler, said it had enough supply to meet the needs of its customer agencies and the 19 million people they serve.

Long Beach has also credited its zero stress test to its growing use of recycled water and  “the extraordinary efforts of Long Beach residents and businesses to embrace water conservation as a way of life even before the onset of the current drought."

Water reliability and local conservation

Ultimately, the stress test for any agency depends on its local climate, where an its water comes from, and how secure that supply is.

Last spring, Gov. Jerry Brown passed the state’s first-ever mandatory water conservation requirements, assigning each water district a target based on past conservation efforts. Targets ranged from 36 percent for high-usage districts like the Coachella Valley to 8 percent Irvine Ranch, a recognized leader in water conservation.

But after a wet winter of that left some Northern California reservoirs brimming, many water agencies felt it was unfair to continue with the mandatory conservation targets.

The snowfall, “has really improved the outlook for our urban areas,” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board. “Things are better than they were last year even though we’re still in a drought.”

So in May, the water board decided to ease off its mandatory restrictions. Instead, it asked water agencies to prove they have enough water for three more dry years by completing a stress test.

“For communities that can demonstrate they have adequate supplies, they’re not going to have mandatory conservation,” Gomberg said. “But they will still be expected to message their customers about the need for on-going conservation.”

Gomberg has said that water officials reserve the right to re-impose mandatory cuts if enough of the state starts to backslide in conserving water. Agencies will still be required to report monthly water use that will be compared to consumption in previous years.

Zeroing out, a conservation cop out?

Still, some worry that the state’s decision to let agencies set their own targets sends a mixed message about the importance of water conservation — particularly at time when more than 80 percent of the state are still under drought conditions.

“We’re going into the hottest and driest part of the year. Really, this is the most important time for us to conserve, and yet people are starting to water their lawns again,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a confusing time and we’re doing a poor job conveying the importance and severity of the continued drought.”

But at least one local water agency decided to skip the stress test altogether and stick with the state mandated conservation target. 

The city of Ventura is keeping its 16 percent water conservation target it’s had for the past year. That means, among other things, Ventura residents can only water their lawn two days a week.

Ventura’s water supply is more uncertain compared to the Coachella Valley, which has plentiful groundwater and is able to import water from several sources.

“We rely 100 percent on local sources,” said Joe McDermott, assistant general manager of Ventura Water. It doesn't get any imported water. 

McDermott said Ventura’s local supplies are “still quite low,” so it makes sense to continue conserving. Plus, the city’s sizable sustainability-oriented residents are gung-ho about saving water, winning a national water conservation contest in April and participating in “Dirtiest Car” contests sponsored by Ventura Water to see who has can go the longest without going to a car wash.

Even though Ventura is still using the state’s conservation target, McDermott said he agreed with the state’s decision to let water agencies set their own goals.

“The water agencies know their systems the best. Believe me, they don’t want to run out of water,” he said, adding that the stress test system, “isn’t perfect but it’s better than the percentage the state just dictated.”