California relaxes controversial new water conservation rules


In response to critics who said that proposed new statewide water conservation rules — aimed at cutting urban water use even in years when California is not in a drought — were too complicated and costly, California water regulators on Tuesday unveiled new, more relaxed standards.
Many of the largest Bay Area water agencies, which have been leaders in water efficiency for years, will not be required to make further cuts through 2035, and will face cuts of less than 5% by 2040.
Other agencies in the Central Valley and Southern California, which have not used water as efficiently, would be required by 2040 to make cuts of 30% or more from their overall use.
The rules, from the State Water Resources Control Board, are expected to be finalized in July and go into effect next year.
Last winter was very wet across California, with flooding and the biggest Sierra snowpack in 40 years. This winter, rain and snow totals are running about average so far, with reservoirs mostly full from last year, and few if any summer water restrictions expected.
But California has been in a severe drought in eight of the past 13 years back to 2012. State officials said Tuesday that hotter, drier weather from climate change means that cities and water agencies need to do more to make urban water use at homes, businesses, and government sites more efficient.
“The state is facing major water supply challenges in the face of climate change,” said Eric Oppenheimer, executive director of the state water board. “Conservation is an important tool to help mitigate the reduction in water supply.”
The landmark rules are required by two laws that former Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2018 after a severe five-year drought. Environmentalists and some water districts have supported them. 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 law, 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 set and meet appropriate targets.
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; 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.
Last August, the state water board released the draft rules.
But they came under sustained criticism. A report from the non-partisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office in January concluded that the rules could further increase water rates for low-income people, and cause confusion for the public and water agencies.
The LAO report noted that cities only use about 20% of the water that people in California consume, while agriculture uses 80%.
“Whether the benefits of the new rules ultimately will outweigh the costs is unclear,” the report says. “These doubts are particularly worrisome given we find that suppliers will face notable challenges complying with these requirements.”
On Tuesday, the revised rules granted cities and water agencies more time to meet their targets.
Under the old rules, 168 agencies that serve 42% of California’s population would have had to cut water use 20% or more by 2035. Under the new rules, just 46 agencies, representing 10% of the population, will have to cut water use that much.
Now, communities that are required to cut use by 20% or more, but where the median household income is below the state average, can stay in compliance if they reduce by 1% a year. Regulators also delayed tougher outdoor watering standards from 2030 to 2035.
Overall, Oppenheimer said, the new rules will cut urban water use 7% instead of 12%. That will mean savings of about 500,000 acre feet a year by 2040, instead of 690,000 acre feet a year by 2035 under the old rules.
Environmentalists said they were disappointed.
“It’s disheartening,” said Tracy Quinn, CEO of Heal the Bay, a Los Angeles group. “I think they caved to pressure from the water suppliers. We know that water conservation is the fastest and cheapest way to get to water reliability.”
Water agencies, however, said the new draft rules are more reasonable and attainable than last fall’s. Water use in most California cities is lower today than it was in 1990, due to low-flush toilets, more efficient washing machines and dishwashers, incentives that pay homeowners to remove lawns and other programs, they added.
“We support the goals of long-term water-use efficiency,” said Chelsea Haines, regulatory relations manager with the Association of California Water Agencies, a trade group. “It’s a really important tool in the tool kit to adapting to the challenges of climate change. But we want a regulation that finds a balance with continuing to advance water use efficiency, and which is feasible and cost effective.”


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