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California conservation rules could lead to further water cuts

As California faces a hotter, drier future — punctuated by extreme weather events — state officials are moving forward with a new framework for urban water use that could force some providers to proceed. to reductions of 20% or more from 2025.

Most of the providers facing the most severe reductions are located in the Central Valley and the southeastern part of the state – large, warm and mostly rural areas that have historically struggled to meet their conservation goals.

In Los Angeles, where the Department of Water and Energy has reported significant progress in energy conservation over the past decade, further reductions would not take effect until 2030. , according to state data. Other nearby water providers, such as the City of Beverly Hills and the Municipal Water District of Las Virgenes, would be required to make reductions of 18% and 13% respectively within two years.

The proposed settlement, dubbed “Making Conservation a California Way of Life,” would set tailored goals for each urban retail water provider in the state, giving them more flexibility to accommodate local conditions, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

This decision marks a departure from the one-size-fits-all approach that has governed California water for years. If passed, the new rules would require the state’s more than 400 urban water providers to submit a new water use budget every year starting in 2025. They could face hefty fines if they do not meet or achieve their goals.

The regulations stem from two landmark 2018 bills that directed the state to adopt new standards, including permanent water consumption goals.

“This legislation and the board’s bylaw truly mark a major turning point and improvement in state water conservation policy,” said Eric Oppenheimer, the board’s chief deputy director.

Past policies have often applied uniform reductions across the state, such as the 20 x 2020 plan, which called for a 20% reduction per capita by 2020.

The new approach will allow suppliers to weigh local factors such as climatic conditions, population and batch size – and take into account previous investments in conservation, Oppenheimer said.

“It incorporates more of a water-budget approach, which allows for much better consideration of each of these unique characteristics,” he said.

This approach means that some regions will face much larger cuts to comply.

Nearly 230 agencies serving 27 million urban water users in the state are already on track to meet 2025 standards, according to interim data released by the Water Board. But at least 36 agencies serving about 1.42 million users will need to make significant cuts of 20% or more to meet the goal.

Goals are based on a formula that calculates efficient indoor and outdoor water use, leakage losses and other factors. Targets can also include variations based on unique local conditions – such as areas with high livestock populations – and bonuses for investments in water recycling and other incentives.

The standard for indoor water use will be 47 gallons per person per day by 2025 and will drop to 42 gallons per person per day in 2030.

“I think the standards are important to help communities better prepare for a hotter, drier climate,” said Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank in Oakland. “This is an important step in the right direction to help communities become more resilient. »

Cooley and other researchers estimated in a report last year that California could reduce total urban water use by 30% or more by using existing technologies and practices to improve water efficiency. water.

She said efforts to develop the targets so far, such as collecting data on differences in local climatic conditions and development patterns, have helped create a tailored approach to tracking effectiveness, which that will help cities and agencies adapt their policies.

“Admittedly, the data is not perfect. And I think it’s important to continue to improve data collection and our understanding of our urban spaces over time,” Cooley said. “But I think it provides new tools for water providers to better manage water resources across the state.”

Providers facing hefty cuts include Oildale Mutual Water Co. and the West Kern Water District in the Lake Tulare region, as well as the Central Valley towns of Livingston, Riverbank, Kingsburg and Lemoore, which each face cuts 30% or more to meet 2025 standards.

The city of Brawley and the Desert Water Agency in the Southeast Colorado River District will both face 21% cuts by 2025.

The planned cuts would affect increasing numbers of Californians over time.

In 2035, 18% of urban water users would live in areas to be reduced by 30% or more. By then, suppliers serving more than half of urban water users are expected to cut their spending by at least 10%.

Suppliers could face fines of up to $1,000 a day if they fail to meet their targets, or up to $10,000 a day in a drought-related emergency, according to the council administration.

Experts say a more personalized approach to conservation makes sense.

“The water supplier-friendly approach is very important in California,” said Cody Phillips, policy analyst at the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “California is a huge state with tons of different climates, and to say that what constitutes efficient water use in a humid coastal area is exactly the same efficient water use in a dry desert area is not just not achievable, and it’s not. It doesn’t make sense.

Much of the Los Angeles area – as well as much of the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California wetlands – has already made significant conservation progress and will face fewer reductions as the framework is rolled out.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity, for example, will not need any reductions to meet the 2025 standard; a 9% reduction to meet the 2030 standard and a 12% reduction to meet the 2035 standard, according to the data.

However, some suppliers in the South Coast region are facing steep cuts, including the city of Glendora, Los Angeles County, which will require a 28.5% cut just to meet the 2025 target, according to the data.

Phillips said he’s heard some vendors express concern that outside goals aren’t achievable — at least not immediately. Outdoor water accounts for the lion’s share of urban use, but making significant gains in this category requires large investments, such as replacing lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping, which can take a long time. and money.

“That was one of the main debates that took place in the Water Board,” Phillips said.

Cooley, of the Pacific Institute, said the goals are achievable, generally speaking.

“It will require communities to make changes, but these are changes that will make them more resilient and less vulnerable to climate change,” she said. She said she hoped the targets would be combined “with capacity building, with incentives and financial support to be able to achieve them”.

This framework could save more than 400,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030, according to the council, enough water for more than one million homes.

Suppliers could use a variety of tools to help achieve the goals, including better leak detection, rate reforms, watering rules, rebates for efficient appliances or incentives for replacing lawns, have Council officials said.

They noted that a more flexible framework is needed as California continues to experience large swings between drought and flooding due to human-induced climate change — a phenomenon known as weather whiplash.

“The settlement really represents a significant opportunity to save the state a substantial amount of water,” said Charlotte Ely, the council’s climate strategy adviser. “And in doing so, it’s just going to help better position California to adapt to the water supply challenges that we know climate change is going to bring.”

Indeed, calls for uniform conservation efforts have met with mixed results. During the 2012-2016 drought, former Governor Jerry Brown ordered 25% statewide reductions, and residents largely responded by reducing water use by 24.5%.

But during the latest drought, which ended after this year’s wet winter, urban water users failed to respond to Governor Gavin Newsom’s request to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%.
Statewide savings were 7% — less than half of Newsom’s goal — and varied widely by region, with the North Coast saving the most, 14%, and the Colorado River region, the least saved, 2%.

In a water supply strategy released last year, Newsom called for a series of actions to prepare the state for an estimated 10% decrease in California’s water supply by 2040 due rising temperatures and decreasing runoff.

The decision to increase water efficiency in cities does not diminish the importance of also managing water use in agriculture, which represents a large part of the annual water consumption of the California, Cooley said.

“It’s about all sectors taking action to help make California more resilient,” she said. “And it can be different depending on whether you are an urban area or an agricultural area. But I think it underscores the importance of efficiency in helping us achieve our goals.

The formal rule-making process for the new framework began in August and will include a public comment period and a public hearing. If adopted, the framework would come into effect on October 1, 2024.