Drought or no drought: Jerry Brown sets permanent water conservation rules for Californians

Although he declared an end to California’s historic five-year drought last year, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed two new laws that will require cities and water districts across the state to set permanent water conservation rules, even in non-drought years.

“In preparation for the next drought and our changing environment, we must use our precious resources wisely,” Brown said in a statement. “We have efficiency goals for energy and cars – and now we have them for water.”

Brown signed two bills, SB 606 by Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and AB 1668 by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), that require cities, water districts and large agricultural water districts to set strict annual water budgets, potentially facing fines of $1,000 per day if they don’t meet them, and $10,000 a day during drought emergencies.

Under the bills, each urban water provider will be required to come up with a target for water use by 2022. Fines for agencies failing to meet their goals can begin in 2027.

The targets must be approved by the State Water Resources Control Board between now and then, and will vary by city and county.

Standards will be based on a formula that is made up of three main factors: an allowance of 55 gallons per person per day for indoor water use — dropping to 50 gallons by 2030; a yet-to-be determined amount for residential outdoor use that will vary depending on regional climates; and a standard for water loss due to leak rates in water system pipes.

The new laws make it likely that water agencies will need to offer more rebates for home owners and business owners who replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants and who purchase water efficient appliances. The agencies could also limit the hours and days of lawn watering, even when droughts are not occurring.

The laws are a response to complaints from some water agencies that the mandatory water targets the Brown administration put in place during the drought were too inflexible and didn’t take into account local water supplies, population growth and other factors. Those limits ranged from an 8 percent reduction in water use to a 36 percent reduction, based on each community’s per-capita water use.

The months-long debate over the new laws split the water community, environmental groups and business groups.

Organizations who supported the new laws say it makes sense to reduce demand as the state’s population grows, and allow each local area the flexibility for devising their own plan while California continues to develop new supplies, from recycled water to storm water capture to new reservoirs.

Supporters included business groups such as the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, along with water agencies like the Contra Costa Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Environmentalists supporting the laws included the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“They are definitely a step in the right direction,” said Tracy Quinn, water conservation director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the new laws. “The framework strikes the right balance between local control and necessary state oversight.”

Quinn said that most cities and water districts in California already are close to, or under, a standard of 55 gallons per person per day for indoor use.

Last year, urban Californians used an average of 90 gallons of water per person per day for indoor and outdoor use combined, down from 109 gallons in 2013, according to the state water board. Most communities using more were located in hot places in Southern California and the Sacramento area, while cities with smaller yards and coastal areas with cooler climates used less. In the summer at least half of residential water use in most communities goes to watering lawns and landscaping.

Environmentalists like Sierra Club California said the rules didn’t go far enough. Of particular concern was a compromise inserted in the bill that allowed cities and water districts to get 15 percent credit on their water use totals if they produce certain types of recycled water.

“All water should be valued,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, which opposed the bills. “With energy, we wouldn’t want to offer incentives for the wasteful use of solar or wind energy. Likewise, we want to make sure all water is used efficiently.”

Some of the state’s major water agencies also opposed it, many on the general argument that Sacramento shouldn’t be telling local government what to do. Among the opponents were the Alameda County Water District, Kern County Water Agency, San Diego County Water Authority, and the Zone 7 Water Agency in Livermore.
“Every local water agency supports conservation and has a responsibility to make sure its water users use water efficiently,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which opposed the bill. “This was never about whether we should be pursuing conservation. It was about how.”

By Paul Rogers
Via the San Jose Mercury News

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