California’s historic drought led to immense pressure to conserve water, and during the last year, most Californians stepped up to the task.
State “water cops” issued warnings and fines; people stopped washing their cars; towns let their parks fade from green to brown. But during El Niño this winter, some regions received enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs and aquifers, so in May, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the statewide ban on excessive urban water use, giving more than 400 water districts the power to develop individual conservation standards.
It was a controversial decision, because sweeping rules had finally moved people to take the drought seriously. Water-policy experts fear the decision may lead to a let-up in conservation, even though nearly 70 percent of the state remains in extreme drought. That concern isn’t unwarranted: Although some districts want to keep enforcing strict mandates, others have been fighting for months to put a cap on them.
“A number of water suppliers don’t necessarily deserve (this) trust,” says Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an organization that unites water programs across the state. “It’s really dicey to return to local control, especially as we enter the hot, dry summer months.”
California’s water infrastructure is complicated: Supply comes from the snowpack, rivers, reservoirs, aqueducts and groundwater. These sources were so depleted in 2014 that Brown declared a state of emergency and asked districts to cut water use by 20 percent. When most failed to do so by 2015, Brown imposed the sharpest restrictions on water use in history: a ban on excessive water use for landscaping and urban areas that brought about a 24-percent reduction.
Under Brown’s May mandate, local agencies don’t need to meet specific conservation targets. Districts can analyze their water needs and certify conservation plans before submitting them to the state. They must ensure a three-year supply of water in case of future drought, and the agencies that will face at least three more years of drought must set high conservation standards.
Some broader restrictions from the governor’s mandate, like a ban on hosing off sidewalks or washing cars without hose nozzles, will remain in place. But theoretically, if the water supply and demand equal out, a district’s conservation target could be zero. That means people won’t face such strict requirements, which could lead to them returning to old water habits, such as watering lawns too frequently, turning on their fountains again, or filling up their pools. This new process also adds a reporting burden on the state board, which has to sift through hundreds of analyses to make sure each district is complying. It’s unclear how that will be done logistically; the board did not respond to a request for comment.
However it pans out, the new plan allows agencies to roll back conservation efforts without much consequence. Several water district managers say that even though following state standards and reporting numbers every month was a hassle, they saw huge gains that they hate to lose.
“Once you start changing behaviors, you don’t want to unwind that,” says Harry Starkey, manager of West Kern Water District. His district will continue to take detailed measurements of water usage and enforce landscaping restrictions, he says.
Other agencies are relaxing water-saving efforts because they have reserves for now. San Diego County recently lowered its reduction goal because a new desalination plant provides 10 percent of local water supply. Riverside Public Utilities says it has already exceeded conservation goals, so the district doesn’t need to enforce strict mandates. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which got so much rain the local reservoir was spilling over this winter, is cancelling emergency-conservation programs and public-education programs for conservation. Several managers from around the state added that because water efficiency is now such an accepted part of everyday life, they don’t believe residents will stop saving water.
“Even before the regulations, we had moved the needle quite a bit,” says Todd Jorgenson, assistant general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. “Conservation, drought—these are common things to us, so we expect to continue those efforts.”
Most water agencies don’t have specific plans in place yet, but water managers say every water district in California will eventually need to raise rates to make up for revenue loss in times of drought, and it’s likely that in the future, there will be policy changes for how both commercial and residential water supplies work.
Tracy Quinn, water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that it’s important for districts to keep in mind that even though local drought conditions may have improved, it doesn’t mean California is in the clear. This year, snowpack melted quickly and is now only 29 percent of its normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, says there’s a high chance for La Niña conditions this winter, which could mean another dry year ahead.
Since more extreme droughts are inevitable, Quinn says, water agencies should keep up strong conservation efforts and focus on in-depth reports for the state: “Water agencies should be cautious and plan for the likelihood that the worst may be yet to come.”
This piece was originally published in High Country News.