California now has mandatory water conservation in urban areas

Despite California’s ongoing struggle with water scarcity, state regulators today enacted mandatory conservation measures that are significantly weaker and save less water than originally planned.

The rules, years in the making, were mandated by a package of laws that tasked state agencies manufacturing “Water management a way of life in California.” They force 405 cities and other urban water providers serving about 95% of Californians to meet individualized water budgets that decrease over time.

The rules, which were unanimously adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board today, usher in a new phase of mandatory conservation for California. They set long-term goals for water use that aim to take into account myriad regional differences, from climate to ownership of llamas and other livestock.

Vattenverket’s initial proposal — uncovered last year and estimated to cost $13.5 billion at the time — was met with an onslaught of criticism from water suppliers and government analysts who called the rules expensive and difficult to achieve. In March, the state water authority revised its suggestions to delay implementation of conservation goals and extend the timeline for tightening water budgets based on outdoor residential use.

Individual residents will not be regulated – only providers, who must meet their conservation goals or face fines or other penalties. The cost of complying by 2050 is now estimated at $4.7 billion — much of which is expected to be passed on to taxpayers — but water authorities and their customers will also save about $6.2 billion, largely by buying less water, according to to the authority’s analysis.

Water board staff estimate that by 2040, the measures will save 1.7 million acres — enough to feed nearly half the state’s population for a year. That’s about 73% less than the previous proposal, which would have saved 6.3 million acres by 2040, staff told CalMatters. By 2050, the savings could reach about 3.9 million acres — more than a year’s supply for the entire state’s population.

Local water providers told the board that the targets will still be difficult to achieve and warned that costs could hit low- and low-income members of their communities especially hard. They urged the board to provide more technical support and funding. Still, many applauded the changes, which they said will ease the impact on customers and communities.

“Water providers will need to develop and implement new programs that require long-term change in customer behavior and significant investment,” Chelsea Haines of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 450 public agencies, told CalMatters. “It’s an unprecedented approach that will require a level of commitment that we’ve never seen before.”

But environmental groups and lawmakers say the weakened rules are reducing and delaying the water conservation the drought-stricken state needs.

“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “While the surface reservoirs are full now, I think there is a tendency to forget water scarcity and drought.”

The authors of the bills that called for mandatory conservation rules — former state Sen. Bob Hertzberg and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman of Burbank — said in March opinion that the water board’s changes “tramp on the hard-won work done so far by allowing water utilities until 2035 or later to implement meaningful reductions.”

“The State Water Resources Control Board has decided to throw away California’s water future at a time when we can least afford such inaction,” Friedman told CalMatters after the vote, adding that California must invest more in water efficiency or be forced to spend billions on wastewater recycling and desalination.

Water board President Joaquin Esquivel said “this is not a perfect regulation. We can never have a perfect regulation. But it is significant and moves us in a direction here into the future that we can all be proud of – and it is nation-leading.”

“The conservation arc in this state has been an incredible one. Californians know that conservation is critical,” he said during the meeting. “What this creates is really a floor. And most importantly, it’s not a policy in isolation.”

Although the rules were changed several times before coming up for a vote today, the basic concept remains the same. Each local authority’s water budget is calculated based on a combination of standards for residential indoor and outdoor water use, certain commercial landscapes and losses such as leaks. Other factors, such as livestock and recycled water, are also taken into account.

Suppliers must meet the targets through a combination of rebates that encourage more frugal landscapes and appliances, and price changes that penalize thirstier water users.

An earlier, stricter version of the rule bore the brunt price tag of approximately $13.5 billion from lost revenue and the costs of funding rebates, infrastructure improvements and other conservation measures. The benefits of having to buy less water or provide expensive new supplies amounted to about $15.6 billion.

At the time, the state legislative analyst asked if the costs were really worth the benefits. “These doubts are particularly troubling given that we find that providers will face notable challenges in meeting these requirements,” it said in a January report.

But water board staff told CalMatters that the staggering costs and inflated benefits were partly due to an accounting error. Combined with policy changes and new data, the latest cost estimate is about $4.7 billion, while the benefits will drop to about $6.2 billion.

Water regulators revised the proposal to delay implementation of the conservation goals by two years, to 2027, and extend the deadline for reducing outdoor water use by five years, starting in 2035.

The rules also provide options for water suppliers who have to make substantial cuts. Those required to reduce use by more than 20%, and serving communities with household incomes below the state median, could reduce use by only 1% per year and still comply, provided they meet other requirements. Those facing cuts of more than 30% can reduce use by just 2% per year.

More than a third of the providers serving about 42% of the state’s population will not have to change their water use to meet the 2035 standards — up from 18% under an earlier version, according to state data. And 31% serving about 12.5 million people will be able to continue their current practices until 2040.

Governor Gavin Newsom has called on Californians in cities and towns to reduce water use by about 500,000 acre-feet per year starting in 2030. Under the new rules, Californians are expected to save about 235,000 acre-feet of water a year 20 years later, in 2050.

But a water board analysis reported that, combined with current conservation levels and other efforts, the new rules “are calculated to conserve water levels consistent with (Newsom’s) goals.”

Rachel Becker, CalMatters

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