The San Diego County Water Authority is calling on residents across the region to significantly increase water conservation as it works with state regulators to improve draft water-use regulations released this week. The Water Authority is recommending fixes to ensure that the final regulations don’t punish ratepayers who already have conserved, undermine communities that have invested in new supplies, or unnecessarily threaten state and regional economies.
On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board released a proposed framework for meeting the statewide 25 percent water savings target announced by Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1. The state board identified specific reduction standards for urban water agencies across California. Under the proposal, the Water Authority’s local member water agencies were given water-use reduction targets of 20 percent to 35 percent. Those targets will be very challenging to meet, both for local water agencies and their customers given the region’s remarkable record of conservation since 1990. Potable water use in San Diego County was 12 percent lower in 2014 than it was in 1990 despite an increase of more than 700,000 residents and more than an 80 percent increase in gross domestic product.
“The Water Authority strongly supports additional conservation and the governor’s goals are laudable – but they haven’t been translated yet into proposed regulations that are equitable, protect our economy or advance sensible long-term water policies,” said Mark Weston, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “The Water Authority has met every objective in California’s Water Action Plan, which promotes regional self-reliance, and yet the proposed water-use mandates ignore the investments that this region has made to diversify our water supplies and protect our $206 billion economy. The current approach will stifle economic activity and undermine the long-term ability of water agencies to invest in new supplies if ratepayers don’t stand to benefit from investments they are asked to make.”
Weston was in Sacramento on Wednesday to share his concerns with the governor and other state officials. The Water Authority will file formal comments with the state board by its Monday deadline to encourage a more refined approach to regulating water conservation.
The Water Authority will propose that agencies that have invested in highly reliable supplies such as the Carlsbad Desalination Project receive credit for their investments. Also, the Water Authority will recommend the state board not impose potentially crippling cutbacks to industrial “process water,” water for local farms or other water needed to support the economy until it is absolutely necessary for the protection of health and safety. The agency will recommend the state board remain focused on cutting discretionary outdoor water use. This could be accomplished by establishing statewide restrictions, such as limiting the irrigation of ornamental landscapes to 1 to 2 days per week statewide, based upon climate.
The state board is expected to take final action on its proposal May 5 or 6, and its regulations are expected to take effect June 1.
The Water Authority’s main concerns are:
1. The proposed water-reduction target punishes those who have conserved and rewards those who have not.The state’s proposal to use 2013 as the baseline year against which to measure conservation seriously disadvantages communities that already achieved major, sustained water conservation prior to 2013. For example, water use in San Diego declined 20 percent from 2007 to 2013. By failing to account for this conservation, the proposed regulations punish those who have conserved and rewards communities that did not make such early and sustained commitments to conservation.
2. The proposed framework punishes those who have invested in new supplies while rewarding those who have not. The state’s current approach does not give any credit to agencies or regions that have made substantial investments in water supply reliability, thus eliminating the incentive to increase regional self-reliance as called for in the Governor’s California’s Water Action Plan. For more than two decades, the San Diego region has diversified its water supplies at a substantial cost through a historic water conservation-and-transfer agreement with Imperial Valley for independent Colorado River supplies and construction of the Carlsbad Desalination Project. The desalination plant is more than 80 percent complete and on track to begin commercial production this fall, producing up to 56,000 acre-feet of drought-proof supplies annually. Under the State Board’s proposed regulations, the ratepayers in San Diego County who are funding this $1 billion project would experience no benefit from water produced by the plant.
3. The proposed framework threatens industrial and commercial production, and local agriculture. State board regulations have shifted from focusing on achieving savings in discretionary outdoor water use to targeting commercial and industrial water uses that are critical to maintaining the livelihood of businesses and the regional economy. The proposed regulatory framework will hamper economic recovery in San Diego and statewide because it treats economic uses of water the same way as ornamental landscapes. Unlike agriculture in other areas of the state such as the Central Valley, agriculture in San Diego County is treated just like residential landscapes under the proposed regulations. This approach ignores the fact that agriculture is a major economic driver for our region. In 2013, the value of agriculture in San Diego County totaled $1.9 billion. If left unchanged, the proposed regulations would devastate local agriculture.
Despite strong disagreements about the state’s proposed approach, the Water Authority agrees that the need for saving water is becoming clearer every day, particularly given the dismal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada (which measured at 5 percent of average on April 1).
“While the Water Authority advocates for more equitable treatment in Sacramento, San Diego County must do its part by stepping up its efforts to save water, both for this year and to prepare for the potential of a dry 2016,” Weston said. “It’s critical that every resident and business in the county immediately reduce non-essential, discretionary uses of water. Outdoor water use accounts for more than half of the water used at the typical home and should be reduced significantly by cutting back or eliminating lawn watering. Public agencies, commercial property owners and landscaping companies should immediately cut back on watering outdoor landscapes, as well.”
For information about drought conditions and conservation-related resources, go to www.whenindrought.org.