Saying that goals to reduce water use in cities and towns would be expensive and difficult to achieve, water agencies across California are raising concerns about an ambitious state proposal that would will require greater statewide water conservation beginning in 2025.
The regulations proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board would require conservation measures in more than 400 cities and water agencies that serve approximately 95% of Californians. The measure would save about 413,000 square acres a year by 2030, enough to serve about 1.2 million households annually.
During the severe drought of the past three years, which ended this year, the Newsom administration set voluntary conservation goals that were largely ineffective. Californians used only about 6% less water from July 2021 to the end of last year compared to 2020, lower than the 15% goal of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The new rules are required by a package of laws, enacted in 2018 by the Legislature and former Governor Jerry Brown, that aim to make “water conservation a way of life in California,” not just a emergency measure against drought.
Water providers from the Mojave Desert to Sonoma County and beyond warned at a board workshop Wednesday that the regulations will be a challenge, especially since many will have to make significant cuts to outdoor water use. During the meeting, which lasted more than eight hours, about 80 people spoke, mostly representatives of water agencies.
The regulation will cost water providers about $13.5 billion between 2025 and 2040, more than 40% of which will fund rebate programs and other efforts to reduce household water use, according to the water board. But the benefits are expected to reach about $15.6 billion between 2025 and 2040, largely due to reduced water purchases by suppliers and customers.
“It’s uncomfortable, because we’re committed to water efficiency,” said Ryan Ojakian, manager of government relations for the Regional Water Authority, which represents providers in the Sacramento area. “The question is whether the regulations are feasible. Are the costs and benefits worth it? And what are the consequences of complying with the regulations?”
The water board is expected to vote next summer on the rules, which will take effect next fall.
“Even if we had all the money, we couldn’t convince our customer base to participate at the pace we needed.s. “We can build it, but they don’t have to come.”
Water suppliers, not individual customers, must meet the targets, and each supplier must develop its own strategy. These may include rebates that encourage customers to trade in thirsty lawns for more drought-tolerant landscapes or rate structures that penalize heavy water users.
Water providers said it would be difficult to demand more conservation from their customers.
“They want us to save water at such a fast rate that even if we had all the money, we wouldn’t be able to convince our customer base to participate at the rate we need to,” said Joe Berg, director of water efficiency. in the Municipal District .of Orange County. “We can build it, but it doesn’t have to come.”
The state agency formula sets goals for each water agency based on goals for indoor and outdoor residential water use, commercial landscapes with dedicated irrigation meters, losses such as leaks, and other variables, such as the presence of livestock in a region.
In the rules, the state’s goals for indoor and outdoor water use in residential areas will be gradually reduced, starting in 2030 and then in 2035.
Suppliers who fail to meet their stipulated water budget could face escalating consequences that could eventually lead to a fine of $1,000 per day starting in 2027 or $10,000 per day during a drought.
Tracy Quinn, executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay, told the board that water conservation measures are critical as California faces a water shortage ahead.
Between declining snowpack, ongoing trade-offs in Colorado River water use, groundwater regulations and estimates that climate change could dry up 10% of the state’s water supply, “there is one “There is an extraordinary need for us to create regulations that will require the efficient use of water,” he said.
Some 231 agencies serving nearly 27 million Californians are on track to meet 2025 goals without reducing their water use, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California . And 71 agencies serving 8.5 million Californians are also expected to meet the 2035 standards, including the city of San Diego, San Jose Water Company, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Water District of Irvine Ranch and the town of Santa Ana.
Together, the rules are expected to save about 6.3 million square acres between 2025 and 2040, mainly through habitat measures.
Berg said implementing the regulations could cost Orange County water agencies more than $707 million over 11 years. But more than that, he said, he worries that the standards for water conservation are going out too fast.
“When an agency looks at the cost of compliance and compares it to the cost of fines, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just say, ‘Okay, we’ll just accept the fines,'” Berg said.
Claire Nordlie, water efficiency supervisor for the city of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, echoed those concerns during the workshop.
“I really want to emphasize that it is difficult to achieve sustained water savings. “It takes decades of time and a significant investment of resources, as well as a population and culture within your service area that wants to participate,” he said.
Nordlie said fewer people are participating in the city’s grass removal rebate program, which offers $1 for every square foot of grass removed. Customers surveyed said mowing the lawn costs about $7 per square foot. That cost, said Nordlie, is a big obstacle.
“If customers don’t want to participate, we can’t force them to do so,” he said.
Jay Lund, director of the Watershed Science Center at the University of California, Davis, told the board he was concerned the regulations would affect public trust.
“Honestly, certain aspects of our society change more every time you do a new regulation, so I think we have to take that into account,” Lund said. “Because that failure would be too bad for many things more important than this.”
Smaller water agencies, especially in inland regions, will be most affected. Ten providers serving about 200,000 Californians are expected to face cuts of more than 30% by 2025, but the number has increased to 84 providers serving 3.7 million people. California in 2035. Including the cities of Atwater and Kingsburg, Oildale Mutual Water Company and the West Kern Water District, according to state data.
“There are not many opportunities to save our community because we have done so much. “A lot of people don’t even water their homes.”
Jennifer Cusack, director of public and government affairs for the Hi-Desert Water District in Yucca Valley, on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, said the water agency has long struggled with its water supply and has little room for further conservation. Many ornamental grasses have been removed and indoor water taps have been improved.
“There aren’t a lot of savings opportunities in our community because we’ve already done so much,” he said. “Many people do not even water their houses. “They have plots of land or maybe some trees.”
However, the desert water provider is expected to miss the 2030 and 2035 targets, which, he said, “just raises a red flag.”
In response to earlier calls for more flexibility, state regulators offered an alternative path that would give some providers, such as those serving poor communities, more time to meet the 2035 goal of external water use, as long as they meet certain criteria.