California Drought Update and New Conservation Standards

Jun 7, 2016

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As of May 27, 2016 43% of CA was still in exceptional and extreme drought conditions (red). Only 5.5% of the state is at “normal” conditions. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor.

In April 2016 the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) accepted public comments on the Urban Water Conservation Workshop in response to the February 2016 adjustments. The Board received almost 100 comments from different entities including the general public, water districts, irrigation districts, utility departments, local governments and more.

Environmental organizations urged the SWRCB to change regulations only in response to conditions, not pleas from water agencies. They also supported keeping regulations in the areas of the state still experiencing drought conditions. Water agencies in northern California grouped together to propose an exemption from the conservation requirements based on drought conditions heavily improving within their service areas. Agencies down south, where drought conditions are still significant, grouped together to urge the SWRCB to consider advanced planning and groundwater storage as adequate supplies that can be relied on during the drought. The common themes throughout the comments? Northern California reservoirs have significantly improved and regulations should thus be lifted and southern California agencies have planned and stored significant amounts of water and should thus be exempt from restrictions based on a supply-based approach.

The Central Valley residents have different thoughts, and suggest that all areas using the same water resource be put under the same restrictions. One resident of the Central Valley writes that “it is hard to feel as though my restrictions are making a difference when I see water being wasted every day in Southern California in ways that we would never allow in the area of the base of the problem.” This begs the question, is it fair to let the majority of California use drinkable water on their yards because it is available when part of the state is still struggling to even get drinking water to drink? It’s the new “age old” question that we seem to be running into each year as the drought continues and the summer weather approaches—should outdoor irrigation continue to be thought of as a reasonable use of water?

On May 9, 2016 Governor Brown extended California’s water restrictions in Executive Order B-37-16 to “Make Water Conservation a California Way of Life.” The new EO directed the SWRCB to extend emergency conservation regulations through January 2017. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) was directed to work with the SWRCB to create new targets that build upon the current law that asks the state to achieve a 20% reduction in urban water usage by 2020. The EO also has directives to eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience and improve agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning.

In response to the Governor’s EO—and taking the comments into account—the SWRCB adopted a stress test approach to water conservation regulations on May 18, 2016. This new approach lifts current conservation restrictions for urban water suppliers that can demonstrate they have sufficient water supplies for at least three consecutive dry years. Agencies that cannot meet this requirement will receive a conservation standard equal to the shortage; a 10% shortfall would equal a 10% conservation standard. These new standards take effect in June 2016 and will remain in effect through January 2017. Though there has been some backlash on these new standards, it will be interesting to see the outcome of supplies and how it affects conservation habits. We can certainly hope that after four years of intense drought—and with dry conditions persisting as we head into summer—Californians have learned how to use water more wisely and that conserving water has become a reflex that persists with or without mandates.

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