With the drought in California continuing to make headlines, bloggers continue to cover it heavily, focusing on the drought’s impact on future planning and on management of water resources in a drought (which includes curtailments, achieving conservation and a rebuttal). Also of interest is the recent court decision in Capistrano Taxpayers Association v. City of San Juan Capistrano and management in the Colorado River Basin.
Jeff Simonetti of the Hydrowonk Blog discusses the relationship between land use and water, the urban water management planning process and the continuing growth trend in Southern California. Because of the inextricable link between land use and water and the ongoing drought conditions, Simonetti projects that Urban Water Management Plans will be more heavily scrutinized in the next update, and he questions whether the current planning documents provide an accurate assessment of how much growth can be accommodated sustainably.
Curtailments, Achieving Conservation and a Rebuttal
The Hydrowonk Blog’s Jeff Simonetti writes about recent curtailment orders issued to junior water rights holders in California and discusses the possibility that certain senior water right holders may be up next. He also highlights a current debate over whether California’s priority water system should remain in place, with critics of the system arguing that there is too little accountability or management of senior water right holders.
Writing for the California WaterBlog, Jay Lund, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, presents some of the most common tools available to municipal water suppliers as they seek to meet the new emergency conservation standards imposed by the state. Among the tools discussed are percentage reduction (which is easy to administer, but disadvantageous to those already conserving); fixed allotment (which is cumbersome to administer); price (which is constrained by Prop. 218 requirements); service outages or restrictions (which puts the system at risk for contamination and pipeline damage); and conservation credits (which could be tradable commodities).
In light of the mandate for California cities to conserve water and the recent ruling declaring tiered rate structures unconstitutional unless the rates are clearly tied to the cost-of-service—and because of the complexity of tiered rate structures—David Zetland of Aguanomics proposes a new methodology for raising prices to drive conservation. He suggests using a single volumetric rate with a tweak: add a “scarcity surcharge” when the utility needs to call upon an additional more expensive water source. He argues that the higher price will reduce demand, like it does for any commodity, and that the details of his price structure meet the challenges presented by Prop. 218.
In a post on the Hydrowonk Blog, Wayne Lusvardi presents a rebuttal to Ben Chou’s dire prediction stemming from this year’s extremely low snowpack. On the eve of the April 1 snow survey Chou wrote that snowpack would be at a record low and that climate change impacts will only make things worse in the future. Lusvardi counters by pointing out the cyclical nature of California’s hydrology and notes that over the last 10 years snowpack was 92% of normal. He maintains that to have a real picture of the situation, one must look at the moving average, not an isolated year. Under that type of data analysis, droughts are normal—and therefore need to be planned for. Lusvardi also rebuts Chou’s claim that sufficient water supplies can be made available by investing in local sustainable solutions (which includes efforts like conservation, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup). Lusvardi looks at water use and conservation and finds that imposed water schedules actually lead to greater water use.
Capistrano Taxpayers Association v. City of San Juan Capistrano
Jeff Simonetti of the Hydrowonk Blog writes about California’s recent conservation regulations. He discusses that many that can afford to pay for the water will continue to do so, despite a government-imposed mandate, and looks at how the recent decision in Capistrano Taxpayers Association v. City of San Juan Capistrano could make it more difficult for municipal water suppliers to set rates in a way that makes more people more sensitive to water pricing. (For an in-depth analysis of the San Juan Capistrano decision, see “CA Appellate Court Holds That Tiered Pricing Must Reflect Cost-of-Service” in this issue).
Johanna Dyer presents her analysis of the recent San Juan Capistrano court ruling in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog. Dyer briefly covers the little-mentioned challenge to the city’s recycled water system fee, which the court upheld, and she discusses at length the ruling on the tiered rate structure. She bemoans the ruling because there is no guidance given on how precise a cost-of-service calculation must be, especially since utility costs fluctuate. Dyer concludes by calling for legislative reform that would give utilities greater flexibility.
Management in the Colorado River Basin
Writing in National Geographic’s Water Currents, Sandra Postel presents an answer to those that complain about water rates increasing after conservation measures are implemented. Using Westminster, Colorado as a case example, she outlines the avoided costs of additional water rights acquisitions, system expansion and related debt financing that would have been required if conservation measures were not undertaken. Ultimately, she sees the solution for water managers to avoid public backlash is to clearly communicate how much conservation is saving them.
On May 12, 2015, the Bureau of Reclamation released “Moving Forward, Phase 1,” which is follow-on to the 2012 Basin Study. Commensurate with the release of Reclamation’s report was the release of a white paper by the Colorado River Research Group (“CRRG”). JFleck at Inkstain provides a brief review of the Executive Summary of the Reclamation report, which he finds “as interesting for what it doesn’t recommend as for what it does.” (emphasis in the original) He then turns his attention to the CRRG white paper. He finds the white paper to be somewhat critical of the Reclamation report, but ultimately sees it as a call to change the dialog on the Colorado River from “resource management” to “use management.”
JFleck at Inkstain offers a rebuttal to an article by Tom Philpott of Mother Jones claiming that Imperial Valley’s 3.1 million AF from the Colorado River is too much for growing food in a desert. JFleck points out a couple of facts—namely that Imperial does not actually use the full 3.1 million AF and that as conservation has increased in the Imperial Valley, so has agricultural productivity. He then explains that reallocation is not an administrative process, but a negotiated one, and highlights the landmark 1988 conserved water transfer between Imperial Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and subsequent deals that have led to significant reduction of water use in the Imperial Valley.
Written by Marta L. Weismann