Little Noticed Bill is a Step Backward for Water Conservation

As the 2013–2014 water year turns into the worst drought ever recorded in California water history, the state legislature has begun urgent discussions about the last unregulated water supply in the state: groundwater. Recent proclamations by the State Water Resource Control Board have limited access to surface water supplies of junior water rights holders, and have signaled that we may see restrictions on senior water rights holders as the summer goes along. While these responsible, although controversial, steps have been proceeding, a little-noticed Assembly Bill 2067, introduced by Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and supported by the San Diego County Water Authority, has been wending its way through the legislative process.

Scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Natural Resources Committee on June 10, this bill would reduce the information reported by urban water agencies about what the exact number and costs of conservation measures they perform. Why is this important? You the customer pay more for any new source of water added to your community’s water supply, so conservation will save you money in the long run.

The detailed information required by current statute includes the type and quantity of conservation practices implemented, including, when applicable, costs of the conservation programs and explanations for why demand management measures listed in the California Water Code are not being implemented. The Bill has gotten this far without a negative vote because there is a long list of outdated practices in the Code, and a number of them should be discarded. But hold on, there’s a baby in this bathwater. Four lines at the end of the list of measures require detailed information about what an agency is doing and not doing to save water.
The Water Authority is promoting removing the detailed financial information and justification for both what water agencies are doing and when they are not implementing programs that are recognized to save water. Perhaps they are concerned about future comparisons of the costs of their conservation programs versus the expensive new desalination plant they are building. But even if a desal plant is not on the horizon for all communities in California, there are two very good reasons to reject this approach.

First, with the growing impacts of global warming, dry hot years are more likely, and even in wetter years we can expect the snowpack that supplies most of the state’s water to melt quickly, leaving a longer summer dry period. This is the time of year we have historically irrigated our landscapes and farms. Second, the last time the state experienced drought, in 2009, we set a goal of 20% reduction in per capita water consumption for urban users and, as of the most recent Urban Water Management Plans (submitted in 2011), according to the Department of Water Resources report to the legislature, the cumulative target of reporting agencies fell short of that goal.
So, here we are in another drought fewer than five years later, expecting hotter dryer years ahead and yet failing to meet the goals set after the last drought. We need more information, not less, about what is working and what is not. We need to know where and how much money is being spent on water conservation by those who manage our water supplies. Allowing a public resource which is necessary for human health and safety to be reported narratively rather than detailed quantitatively as the current Code requires, will leave us begging for the “rest of the story” in future droughts.

Admittedly, changes are needed to the Code to eliminate the measures that are no longer relevant. But this bill needs amending. And while the legislature is at it they should also consider establishing goals for even further reductions in water use beyond 2020. Global warming is not going away and, unless a lot of people now living in California decide to leave, we will all need to waste less water. After a 14-year drought, Australians cut per capita water use to 75 gallons per day. Contrast that to the 192 gallons per day urban Californians are using, as last reported to DWR. We have a long way to go to reach maximum efficiency, and the public has a right to know how well we are doing, and who’s a leader and who’s a laggard.

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