Indoor use limits, water budgets and aerial data gathering: California's plan to wean us off water waste

Aerial view overlooking landscaping on April 4, 2015 in Ramona, California. Two new bills will help Californians save water long-term, not just during a drought emergency.
Aerial view overlooking landscaping on April 4, 2015 in Ramona, California. Two new bills will help Californians save water long-term, not just during a drought emergency.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

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In the next 18 months, a small plane will fly over every city in California, recording data on what kind of plants are growing in our lawns, parks and street medians. That data will help determine where we’re wasting water, and help cities use it more efficiently.

It’s a radical departure from the way water conservation has been done in California in the past, when, during water emergencies, state officials would simply instruct cities to cut usage by a certain percentage. 

The measure is part of two state bills designed to get Californians to use water more wisely even when there's not a drought. 

But not everyone is happy. Some water agencies say the measures go too far. Some environmentalists say they're not radical enough for our water woes. But either way, the bills have passed the legislature, and with the governor's signature, will become law.  

So…what exactly is in the bills? 

The pair of bills, AB 1668 and SB 606, introduce a number of measures: 

A sign over a highway in Glendale, California warns motorists to save water in response to the state's severe drought, Feb. 14, 2014. Two new bills will help Californians save water long-term, not just during a drought emergency.
A sign over a highway in Glendale, California warns motorists to save water in response to the state's severe drought, Feb. 14, 2014. Two new bills will help Californians save water long-term, not just during a drought emergency.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

When will the laws take effect?

The state won’t start enforcing the new, district-wide standards until 2023. Before that, the State Water Resource Control Board will be responsible for gathering the landscape data, and coming up with the new outdoor and leak standards. The first milestone is January, when the board has to report back to the legislature with its recommendation for a leak standard. 

Why are these changes happening now?

These bills are basically the legislature’s response to Governor Brown, who asked lawmakers in May 2016 to come up with a way to get Californians to permanently use less water.

Californians did a great job saving water during the drought, which lasted from 2012-2016. We achieved the Governor's goal of slashing water use by 25 percent below what it was in 2013.

But Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board recognized that those cutbacks were in response to an emergency – the worst drought in 500 years – and that the savings might not be sustainable. Therefore, something different would be required to save water in the long-term.

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart showing statewide average precipitation as he speaks during a news conference on January 17, 2014 in San Francisco.  Gov. Brown declared a drought state of emergency for  California as the state faces water shortfalls in what is expected to be the driest year in state history. Residents are being asked to voluntarily reduce water usage by 20%.
California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart showing statewide average precipitation as he speaks during a news conference on January 17, 2014 in San Francisco. Gov. Brown declared a drought state of emergency for California as the state faces water shortfalls in what is expected to be the driest year in state history. Residents are being asked to voluntarily reduce water usage by 20%.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Who supports the new rules?

Many environmental groups, and water agencies from large cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach have backed the measures.

Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the bills are less heavy-handed than the Governor's mandatory 25 percent conservation measures during the water emergency.

"There was a lot of discomfort with how the State Water Board handled the last drought," she said, when the board told each city and water agency how much to cut back. Some cities had to cut as much as 36 percent below their 2013 baseline.

The new bills, however, will customize water efficiency targets for each district, taking into account climate, landscaping and other local factors. And they won't focus as explicitly on cutting back, but rather on using water wisely.

The idea, according to Quinn, is to let state officials easily identify communities "that are egregiously wasting water.” She says the bills “should result in greater savings” than a 2009 law that required water agencies to cut their use by 20 percent by 2020, but said it's really not clear, yet, how much water they will save.

A water conservation sign remains in what was once a grass-covered traffic divider in Monterey Park, California on May 19, 2016.
A water conservation sign remains in what was once a grass-covered traffic divider in Monterey Park, California on May 19, 2016.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

So who's not in favor?

Some worry about the lack of specificity in the measures. Precisely because they don’t assign conservation targets, it’s unclear how much water these bills would actually save. And that makes some people wonder what the point is — like Gary Arant, the general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District in northern San Diego County.

 “It’s a hell of a lot of work,” to comply with the new standards, he said, “and I don’t know if it results in any more savings or not.”

He also feels the measures are overly controlling. 

“The way I view it is, a very small group of people, like the environmental community, is using these regulations to impose their lifestyle perspective on everybody in California,” he said. “They believe we use far too much water. But our water consumption has gone down dramatically in the last 10 years.”

Indeed, Arant’s customers are still using less water than before the drought began, although their usage has ticked up since Governor Brown called the drought off last April.

A sign encouraging people to save water is displayed at a news conference in Los Angeles. Two new bills will help Californians save water even during wet times.
A sign encouraging people to save water is displayed at a news conference in Los Angeles. Two new bills will help Californians save water even during wet times.
Nick Ut/AP

How much is 55 gallons for indoor use anyway?

That's a target for every time you use water - wash the dishes, take a shower, flush the toilet. It shouldn’t be that hard to meet actually because in some cities we’re actually doing that already. And residents of Huntington Park and East Los Angeles, for example, each use less than that in total, indoors and outdoors.

Which is a reason why some environmentalists oppose the bills — because they don’t go far enough.

Sara Aminzadeh, Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, said the 55 gallon indoor water use standard could be much more ambitious.

“Rather than setting a target that we can strive toward, it’s a very conservative number that almost everybody is already meeting,” Aminzadeh said.

And that's 55 gallons of fresh, drinkable woater. Recycled water isn't restricted, which also bothers Aminzadeh. 

“We think all water should be valued and conserved, especially that as expensive to generate as recycled water,” she said.

If I use more water than that, will I be penalized?

Not by the State Water Resources Control Board. The new indoor, outdoor, and leak targets apply to water districts as a whole, not individual people. But in order to comply with the new standards, water districts may step up enforcement of water use by their customers, or change the way water rates are structured.

Gary Arant, for example, said he’ll have to completely overhaul the way he charges his customers for water. Right now, customers in his district pay a flat rate for water. No matter how much you use, you pay the same amount. Under the new bills, Arant says he will have to change his rate structure to give every customer guidelines to using water efficiently on their property, known as a "water budget". If they go over the budget, they’ll pay a fine or higher rates. 

First we had a drought, then we didn't — what's the latest forecast for our water supply? 

We're doing OK this year. The snowpack in the mountains above the Colorado River, which provides up to a third of Southern California's water, was 70 percent of normal. And in the Sierra Nevada, our other primary source of drinking water, snowpack was half of normal. Not great, but not a crisis, either.

However the outlook for the future is not good, as climate change threatens both sources of our drinking water. The Colorado River's flow has shrunk by seven percent over the past 30 years due to rising air temperatures that suck moisture into the atmosphere from the snow and from the river itself, according to the US Geological Survey. And if we do nothing to control our greenhouse gas emissions, Sierra snowpack could be 64 percent smaller by 2100 than it was at the end of the 20th century, according to a recent UCLA and Oregon State study. 

Low water levels are visible at the Stevens Creek Reservoir on January 30, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Santa Clara County reservoirs are at three percent of capacity or lower.
Low water levels are visible at the Stevens Creek Reservoir on January 30, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Santa Clara County reservoirs are at three percent of capacity or lower.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Our groundwater, a key source of supply for many cities and agricultural areas, isn’t in good shape either. Local aquifers sank to historically low levels during the drought and still not have rebounded. A new study in Nature by NASA found that Southwestern California lost 4 gigatons of freshwater from 2007-2015, enough to fill 1.6 million Olympic swimming pools. And the study authors are pessimistic about whether those aquifers will ever recharge, unless we dramatically reduce the amount of water we’re using.

“I’m extremely concerned about water supplies in the next 5 to 20 years,” said Sara Aminzadeh from California Coastkeeper Alliance. “We’ve always been water challenged as a state. All studies indicate we’ll see more frequent droughts and more severe droughts” punctuated by extreme flooding.