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State Water Board’s New Approach to Emergency Water Conservation Regulations

May 27, 2016
The State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) recently adopted a new emergency conservation regulation requiring locally developed conservation standards.
 
The new regulation will take effect in June 2016 and remain in effect until January 2017, replacing the Feb. 2 emergency water conservation regulation that set specific water conservation benchmarks at the state level for each urban water supplier.
 
The Water Board changed tactics in response both to improved drought conditions in Northern California and calls from water agencies, the League of California Cities® and others to better account for disparate local conditions and challenges.
 
Rather than its prior percentage-based water conservation targets for each agency, the Water Board pivoted to what it calls a “stress-test” approach. It requires that agencies ensure a three-year supply of water.
 
If the state faces drought conditions like those from 2012 to 2015, agencies that fall short of a three-year supply will be required to meet a conservation standard equal to the shortage. For example, if an agency is 12 percent short of a three-year supply, it would need to save 12 percent.
 
The Water Board will set the new standards using information provided by wholesale suppliers about how regional supplies would hold up under three more dry years. In doing so, the board plans to account for groundwater and stormwater as well as imported, recycled and desalinated water.
 
The Water Board will release the calculations and projections to the public and requires urban water suppliers to continue monthly reporting.
 
On May 9, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order making permanent some emergency prohibitions intended to reduce the wasting of potable water. These include irrigating ornament turf in medians; hosing off sidewalks, driveways and hardscapes; washing cars with hoses that lack a shut-off nozzle; using non-recirculated water in a fountain or water feature; watering lawns within 48 hours of a measurable rainfall; and overwatering lawns to the point of causing runoff.
 
The Governo's order includes other long-term steps to reduce water system leaks, strengthen drought resilience and improve both agricultural water use and drought planning.
 
The Water Board also voted to keep other emergency steps in place, like not serving drinking water other than upon request at restaurants, bars, hotels and other public places and giving hotel guests the option of not having towels and linens laundered daily. Commercial, industrial and institutional properties will be required to limit outdoor watering with potable water to no more than two days per week.
 
The Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus warned in a press release that drought conditions are “far from over.” Parts of Northern California and all of Southern California remain at below-average precipitation, groundwater levels remain near historic lows in parts of the San Joaquin Valley and the statewide snowpack stands at 89 percent.
 
“We’ve moved to a ‘show us the water’ approach, that allows local agencies to demonstrate that they are prepared for three more lousy water years,” Marcus said. “This reporting will show us what agencies plan to do, and how they do, throughout the year. Trust, but verify.
 
“In the meantime, we’ll be watching and prepared to come back with the 25 percent state mandate early next year if necessary, which we hope it won't be.”
 
Winter rains have also helped boost reservoir conditions in Northern California, particularly at Shasta Reservoir (92 percent of capacity as of May 18), Lake Oroville (94 percent) and Folsom Lake (86 percent). Most other reservoirs remain under 61 percent capacity.
 
On May 19, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 42.9 percent of California remains in extreme drought, down from 61 percent in February. A full 94.5 percent of the state remains abnormally dry, however.
 
In March, Californians doubled their February savings, conserving 24.3 percent compared to March 2013. From June 2015 to March 2016, Californians saved 422.2 billion gallons of water.
 
For more information, see the Water Board’s conservation portal here.


 
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