July 20, 2024
Regulations will require cities to use water more efficiently, whether or not a drought is occurring

Dozens of California cities could be required to impose permanent water conservation measures starting in about a year — and keep them in place even when the state is not in a drought — under proposed new rules from state water regulators.

The landmark rules are required by two laws that former Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2018 after a severe 5-year drought. Environmentalists and some water districts support them, saying they are critical as the state grapples with climate change and more severe droughts. But some water agencies have been strongly opposed, saying Sacramento is beginning a new era of micro-managing how local communities use water.

Under the new rules, roughly 400 of the California’s largest cities and water districts are required to come up with a water use budget every year beginning Jan. 1, 2025. They could eventually face fines of up to $1,000 a day — and $10,000 a day during drought emergencies — for failing to write a water use budget or meet their targets.

“We see conservation as one tool in the toolbox to address the water supply challenges that are going to result from climate change and a hotter, drier future,” said Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We know that the water supply in some areas is going to be reduced due to aridification, and demands are going to increase as it gets hotter.”

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 to meet their targets, even when droughts are not occurring.

The targets will vary by community. They are based on a formula made up of three main factors: a standard of 47 gallons per person per day for indoor water use — dropping to 42 gallons by 2030; and an amount for outdoor residential use that varies by community depending on regional climates; and a standard for water loss due to rates of leaks in water system pipes.

This week, the first detailed look of how they could affect each city was made public.

By 2025, at total of 228 cities and water agencies that serve 73% of California’s urban population would not be required to make any changes because they already use water efficiently enough to meet the new state standards, the State Water Resources Control Board estimated.

Those include most of the state’s major water providers, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, San Jose Water Company, city of San Diego and others.

But 80 water agencies representing 15% of the population would need to reduce use by up to 10% starting in 2025, the board estimated. Those include places like Livermore, Hollister, Newport Beach and Ukiah.

Another 51 water agencies representing 8% of California’s urban population would need to reduce their water use by 10% to 20% starting in 2025, the state board estimated. Those include places like Tracy, Martinez, Fresno, Modesto and Beverly Hills.

Finally, another 37 water agencies representing 4% of the state’s urban population would have to cut water use by 20% or more starting in 2025, the state board estimated. Those include places like Los Banos, Bakersfield, Merced and the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs.

Generally speaking, the places that are expected to be required to make the biggest cuts are in the Central Valley and Southern California, particularly desert communities, while communities in the Bay Area and much of coastal Southern California would have far fewer, or no required reductions in the first few years.

State water board officials say that the initial targets are their best estimate. The targets could still change because cities and water agencies will be allowed to get credit under the law if they use recycled water, have significant population changes, or other factors.

But the new state estimates clearly show that by the end of this decade, most major water providers could have to reduce their use.

By 2030, the state water board estimated, only 97 agencies representing 28% of the state’s urban population would have no required additional conservation. Another 88 with 18% of the state’s urban population would see cutbacks of 10% to 20%, and 134 representing 19% of the state’s urban population would see required cutbacks of 20% or more.

Environmental groups say the rules are common sense. Water that cities save can be used to reduce the severity of mandatory rationing during droughts, said Tracy Quinn, CEO of Heal the Bay, a Los Angeles environmental group.

“When you talk about building new water supplies, they are generally more expensive than water you get from conservation,” Quinn said. “Reservoirs and desalination plants are multi-billion dollar projects, and somebody has to pay for those.”

Opponents of the laws say that the decisions are best left to local water agencies, and tough state-imposed urban water budgets could harm smaller, less wealthy communities.

“This regulation could have a really significant cost impact on water suppliers and their customers,” said Chelsea Haines, regulatory relations manager for the Association of California Water Agencies. “We want to make sure the standards are feasible and are going to be attainable. We want to set California up for a successful water-efficiency future.”

Some independent analysts say the rules could spark a major controversy as the state water board imposes them over the next year.

“Why would the state want to get into this business?” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “Most of the urban water agencies are doing a pretty good job. They understand that droughts are getting worse, and seem to be preparing for that in their own ways.”

Public hearings on the draft rules begin in October. A final vote by the state water board expected next summer.