Environment & Science

Water board releases updated proposal for mandatory cutbacks

A freeway sign alerts drivers to the state's ongoing drought -- now in its fourth year. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
A freeway sign alerts drivers to the state's ongoing drought -- now in its fourth year. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

After an outcry from cities, the State Water Resources Control Board has updated its plan to achieve a 25 percent reduction in water use from California cities, shrinking required cuts on some communities while demanding even larger cuts from the heaviest users. 

Earlier this week, scores of urban water suppliers complained the original plan calling for a sliding scale of reduction targets from 10 to 35 percent was unfair and unattainable.  The tweaked framework for the regulation acknowledges some of those concerns but appears to reject others.

INFOGRAPHIC: Comparing cutbacks called for in state water conservation proposals

Board chair Felicia Marcus clarified in a press teleconference Saturday that the agency has not formally proposed these regulations.

"What we've been doing is first setting out, as we did earlier, a framework to focus discussion between agencies and ourselves to even do that," Marcus said Saturday morning. "The draft we put out this morning is the next step in this conversation as informed by the very good suggestions that we got.

The board will be accepting more comments from the public before a final proposal is readied for approval. 

Addressing feedback

Communities like Eureka that saw significant rainfall last winter and don’t import water can petition to get their reduction target down to 4 percent.

With a per-person rate of 236 gallons a day, the city of Beverly Hills originally faced cuts of 35 percent. Beverly Hills’ interim City Manger Mahdi Aluzri argued that restrictions were infeasible to implement quickly and would “place a significant burden” on its residents. He said the city's "daytime" population is responsible for most of the city's water use and that it would be unfair to the city's permanent residents to shoulder the burden of a 35 percent cut. He also argued that many homes in Beverly Hills need a vegetative buffer around their properties because so many are tucked into hills prone to brush fires. 

The arguments don't appear to have swayed state water officials.

Chief Deputy Director Caren Trgovcich said during the conference call the water board took those concerns into consideration when drafting the new proposal, but asserted that many of those concerns "are very worthy of discussion for a longer-term conservation policy."

She said California is "in an emergency, and we need to secure our water supplies in case the drought continues."

RELATED: 10 things to know about California water use

The new draft framework would increase the amount Beverly Hills must cut to 36 percent but reduces demands on the city of Compton, requiring just an 8 percent cut in water use. In a letter to regulators earlier this week, Compton had argued that its residents, some of the poorest in the state, were still suffering from the last recession, and that a proposed 20 percent reduction in its use was difficult to achieve. “If you drive through the City of Compton, most of the front lawns are brown,” wrote the city’s Chad Blais. 

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power argued it deserved lower reduction targets and credit for past conservation efforts. Under the new plan, Angelenos will have to cut water use 16 percent rather than 20 percent as originally designed.

The board was supposed to have moved Friday to release a revised plan for achieving Gov. Jerry Brown's order to slash water use in cities 25 percent by the end of next February.

Reasons for toughening restrictions

California is in the midst of its fourth year of a drought that some scientists say is the worst in the last 1,200 years. 

In response, state officials have been gradually tightening water restrictions, culminating in Brown's executive order earlier this month requiring urban water users to cut consumption 25 percent by the end of next February.

"The voluntary efforts and the baseline regulations that have been in effect since last summer frankly just have not provided us with the water savings that the situation warrants now that we're in the face of another dry year," Felicia Marcus said.

Marcus said that Californians should take a lesson from the Australians' response to their millennial drought, which lasted about 10 years.

"Their advice has been to conserve early to avoid harsher and more expensive measures later on."

Fines and Enforcement

Earlier this week, state water officials received more than 200 letters commenting on the proposed mandatory cuts — most of them critical.

Some cities complained they would need more time than allowed to hit their proposed reduction target. Some were particularly worried about penalties that would fine cities up to $10,000 a day if they didn't achieve their cutbacks.

"The point here is to get conservation, not fines." said Felicia Marcus. "Fines are a tool."

As for enforcement, the conservation orders are subject to a $500 per day penalty for water agencies. Suppliers might incur the $10,000 if they are issued and subsequently violate a "cease and desist" order.

The proposal package also includes a mechanism to acquire water usage information from suppliers that may not be meeting the conservation targets. The board has also proposed using a new enforcement tool to let agencies know what measures to take to meet their goals, including requiring agencies to increase rates, change their public outreach campaigns or perform system maintenance on leaks, for example.

Agricultural, commercial, industrial and institutional use

Other concerns from urban water agencies centered around their water deliveries to commercial agricultural customers — some pump as much as 70 percent of their water into this sector.

The new plan proposes that suppliers who send more than 20 percent of their water to commercial agricultural users be allowed — with the appropriate documentation — to subtract that amount from their production baseline, in order to justify a reduction in their conservation mandate.

Officials said Saturday that, rather than provide individual guidelines for urban agencies that have commercial, industrial and institutional (CII) customers sucking up a lot of water, the board would be letting those suppliers decide for themselves how to proceed with implementing restrictions.

One "strong" recommendation the board did make to suppliers was that they target large ornamental landscapes on commercial property for water reduction.

Self-supplied CII customers, like some golf courses, who have their own water supply will be restricted to a two day per week limit on irrigation or the alternative of reducing their consumption 25 percent, the same restrictions for small water agencies.

Expanded restrictions

Restrictions imposed last year prohibit the use of potable water in outdoor landscapes where runoff occurs, to wash cars without a hose shutoff nozzle, to water driveways and to use in a fountain without a recirculation pump.

Last month, the state board added restricting the watering of landscapes within 48 hours of a measurable rainfall, prohibited restaurants from serving water to customers before they ask, and directed hotels and motels to give their patrons the option to not have their towels and linens washed daily.

Small water suppliers serving 15 to 2,999 connections already had a two day a week restriction for landscape irrigation with the alternative to cut consumption by 20 percent. The watering restriction still stands but now allows for an alternative 25 percent reduction. 

The board will seek more feedback between now and April 22, and will release its final proposal on April 28. That proposal will be considered for adoption at the May 5 and 6 board meeting.

This story has been updated.