Environment & Science

Water conservation rules could get a lot more complicated under new proposal

A man looks at a drought-friendly lawn in Santa Rosa, Calif. State water officials want to make conservation
A man looks at a drought-friendly lawn in Santa Rosa, Calif. State water officials want to make conservation "a way of life" in California, not just an emergency response to the drought. A new proposal outlines their vision of how to get there.
Eric Risberg/AP

Despite a wet start to the fall in Northern California, nearly two-thirds of the state remains wracked by extreme drought. In the future, climate change is likely to make dry periods more frequent, more intense and longer. Competition for water will increase, as will population.

So it's no surprise Gov. Jerry Brown says we need to “make water conservation a way of life in California.” But what’s the best way to get Californians to keep saving?

A new proposal from five state resource agencies aims to re-define water conservation in the state.

"This is a major transformation of how water use is going to be tracked and how local agencies are going to be held accountable," said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board.

Previously, water agencies have been asked to reduce their water consumption by a certain percentage. For example, a 2008 rule asked agencies to cut their use by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. And from June 2015 to June 2016, during the worst of the drought, the State Water Resources Control Board required agencies to make more severe cuts in an even shorter period of time. Some water agencies had to reduce by up to 36 percent below 2013 levels or face fines.

Despite a wet start to the fall in Northern California, nearly two-thirds of the state remained in extreme drought, or worse, as of late November.
Despite a wet start to the fall in Northern California, nearly two-thirds of the state remained in extreme drought, or worse, as of late November.

Under the new proposal, water agencies would have to meet customized water targets that factor in their local climate, how much outdoor landscaping is in their service area, and how efficiently local residents use water inside and out. For example, San Francisco might have a lower target than Redlands, because the climate is cooler and wetter and people live in apartments with little outdoor landscaping, whereas Redlands is hot and dry and people have houses with lawns.

Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s water policy center, said the plan represents an effort to shift water policy away from emergency response to long-term planning. She said it's an important initiative because "you rarely expect the results of emergency conservation effort to completely be maintained. You always expect to see some rebound when you’re no longer in an emergency situation.”

Indeed, water savings have slowly fallen off since this summer after the state backed away from mandatory conservation and returned to voluntary goals. 

But Hanak questioned whether the hands-on approach by the state was necessary going forward. She called the approach of setting customized water targets for every agency a "one-size-fits-all" policy and questioned why the state couldn't just re-up previously made conservation commitments. For example, increasing the 20 percent reduction by 2020 to 30 percent by 2030.

Gomberg, however, said while mandatory cuts were effective -- over the course of the past year and half, Californians collectively saved 2.26 million acre feet of water --  earlier voluntary efforts were not. That's why the new plan will no longer ask agencies to cut water use below an arbitrary baseline that is supposed to represent "normal conditions."

"There is no such thing as normal water conditions," Gomberg said. "We have such variable precipitation, and now with climate change, we’re even getting more extreme. That whole model was built on a shaky foundation, and we’re getting away from that."

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, worried the state's approach would be burdensome.

“It really is complicated, it’s very data intensive, and it’s very expensive to implement,” he said.

Initially, the state will calculate how much outdoor landscaping each water agency has. Quinn worries eventually this kind of detailed data collection and analysis would fall to the agencies themselves.

“If you’re a large utility in a higher income urban or suburban area in coastal California, a lot of them are already doing this,” he said. “If you’re a two or three-person operation in the Sierra Nevada foothills, that’s a pretty heavy lift for you.”

Quinn said that the agencies he represents are not trying to back away from water conservation, "but some of them would prefer a simpler approach that does not require the same level of intensity and sophistication,” he said.

Gomberg called Quinn's concern premature, given that the new rule wouldn't take effect until 2020. And he said the state would make sure small agencies were not left behind.

Some environmentalists are also skeptical of new customized water targets because they say they allow areas that already use a lot of water, like the Inland Empire, to continue doing so.

“The standards I would like to see in place are those that incentivize hotter drier areas in California to transition to more climate-appropriate landscapes,” said Tracy Quinn (no relation to Tim), a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The same plants that might be appropriate in coastal areas might not be appropriate in deserts of California. This doesn’t address those issues.”

Gomberg acknowledged that water budgets in hotter, drier areas of California would be higher than in cooler, coastal areas, but said that is justified. "Even the native plants in Redlands need more water than the ones in San Francisco do," he said. "It’s not about giving Redlands a budget to have lush green lawns. It’s about having a fair and representative budget based on temperature conditions.”

Still, Tracy Quinn would like to see the new rule include incentives for lawn removal and more of a focus on drought education and messaging.

People can comment on the draft proposal until December 19. The five state agencies will take it up again in January.