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State Board, Governor Brown Step Away From Top-Down Approach and Move Toward More Locally-Focused Conservation Regulations

On May 18, 2016, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Board”) approved a new conservation standard that replaces the previous top-down, percentage-based mandate. The new standard, which will be in effect from June 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017, employs a “stress test” that requires urban water suppliers to certify that they have sufficient water supplies to meet demands for three additional years of drought with conditions similar to the period from 2013 to 2015.

Water suppliers will self-certify to the State Board that they meet the water supply reliability requirement, and they must disclose the data used to make their projections. If a shortfall is projected, then the water supplier must conserve an equivalent percent. A projected shortfall of 10% means that water supplier would have a conservation target of 10%. Water suppliers that fail to submit the self-certification will be subject to the emergency water conservation regulation, as revised in March 2016.

Commercial, industrial and institutional water users that receive any part of their water supply from a source other than a water supplier are subject to the same standard as the nearest urban water supplier.

In addition to replacing the statewide, centralized approach to conservation with a locally-developed standard, the State Board also dropped a few of the previously imposed water use restrictions:

  • * Dining establishments are no longer prohibited from providing patrons with water only upon request
  • * Lodging establishments are no longer required to offer guests the option of foregoing daily laundering of linens and towels
  • * The two-day-per-week limit for watering ornamental landscapes and turf with potable water has been eliminated

The revisions to the conservation standard were made in response to comments received at a public workshop held on April 20, 2016 and in accordance with Executive Order signed by Governor Jerry Brown on May 9, 2016.

In the Executive Order (Executive Order B-37-16: Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life), Governor Brown acknowledges the unprecedented 23.9% statewide reduction in water use from June 2015 through March 2016, as well as the reality that many areas of the state continue to face drought conditions. He calls for a number of actions to meet four primary objectives: use water more wisely, eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience, and improve agricultural water use efficiency.

Use Water More Wisely. Governor Brown directed the State Board to adjust the emergency conservation regulations in a way that builds from the existing mandatory conservation and lessons learned. In addition, by January 10, 2017, DWR and the State Board will develop permanent framework with new water use targets that build on the existing 20×2020 requirements. The new targets, which will be customized to each agency’s unique circumstances, should conserve more water than existing standards by strengthening standards for indoor residential per capita water use, outdoor irrigation, commercial, industrial and institutional water use, and water lost through leaks. Also, monthly reporting on water usage, conservation and enforcement actions will become a permanent requirement.

Eliminate Water Waste. The governor outlined four specific actions to meet the objective of eliminating water waste.

  1. The State Board will permanently prohibit wasteful practices, such as hosing down driveways and sidewalks, watering lawns in a way that causes runoff, watering lawns within 48 hours after measurable precipitation, using non-recirculated water in fountains, or irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians.
  2. DWR and the State Board will direct actions to minimize water system leaks—including making local projects that reduce leaks and other system loss the second priority for Drinking Water State Revolving Fund funding. The first priority is projects that address health and safety.
  3. DWR and the State Board will direct public urban and agricultural water suppliers to take actions, such as accelerating data collection, improving water system management, and prioritize loss reducing capital projects, to reduce water waste. Investor-owned utilities will be ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission to accelerate work to minimize loss.
  4. The California Energy Commission will certify innovative energy efficient technologies that conserve water or detect or control loss.

Strengthen Local Drought Resilience. DWR will strengthen the requirements for urban water suppliers’ Water Shortage Contingency Plans to include actions to respond to droughts lasting at least five years and more frequent and severe droughts. For small suppliers and rural communities not covered by a Water Shortage Contingency Plan, DWR will work with counties to improve drought planning.

Improve Agricultural Water Use Efficiency. DWR and the California Department of Food and Agriculture will update the requirements for Agricultural Water Management Plans so that they include measures to increase water efficiency and plan for periods of water shortage. In addition, the plans will be permanently required from agricultural water suppliers with more than 10,000 irrigated acres. Currently, they are required for those with more than 25,000 irrigated acres—while those with 10,000 to 25,000 irrigated acres must complete the plans only if state funding is available to support the planning effort.

Overall, the new State Board regulations and the Governor’s Executive Order move toward providing a greater level of local control and allowing for adaptation to local circumstances, which hopefully avoids the disincentives for innovation and planning that were rampant in the emergency conservation mandate. (For background on the emergency conservation mandate, see “State Water Resources Control Board Issues Proposed Regulatory Framework for Emergency Urban Water Conservation,” JOW January 2016 and “California Steps toward Statewide Centralized Water System,” JOW ‘April 2015).


Written by Marta L. Weismann