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14 Dec 2015

Drought Debacle: Despite Impressive Cuts in Water Usage, Some Local Agencies Receive Hefty State Fines for Not Doing Enough

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As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

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