Sprinklers water a lawn in Los Angeles on June 5, 2022. Under new proposed rules, water agencies in California’s urban areas will have to meet mandatory water conservation cuts. Photo by Pablo Unzueta, CalMatters

Facing criticism over their ambitious plan to curb urban water use, California’s regulators yesterday weakened the proposed rules — giving water providers more years and flexibility to comply.

Cities and urban water districts welcome the changes to the state’s draft conservation rules, which they said would have been too costly for ratepayers, estimated at $13.5 billion, and too difficult to achieve.

But environmentalists are dismayed by the revisions, which they said won’t save enough water to weather shortages as climate change continues to squeeze supplies.

“It’s really looking like this is a ‘do nothing’ regulation,” said Tracy Quinn, CEO and president of Heal the Bay, a Los Angeles County environmental group. “The updated standards are weak, and the regulation includes semi-truck sized loopholes that make it too easy for water suppliers to shirk their obligation to use water more efficiently.”

Mandated by a package of laws enacted in 2018, the rules from the State Water Resources Control Board aim to make “water conservation a California way of life” by mandating cuts in water use among more than 400 cities and water agencies that supply the vast majority of Californians.

The regulation won’t set mandatory conservation targets for individuals. Instead, it creates water budgets for cities and districts, which would meet them through rebates, new rate structures and other efforts to cut their customers’ use.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, in a January report, heavily criticized the original rules, saying they would set “such stringent standards for outdoor use that suppliers will not have much ‘wiggle room’ in complying.”

Warning that the costs may outweigh the benefits, the analysts recommended relaxing several of the requirements, such as the residential outdoor standard, and extending deadlines.

The board’s new revisions delay the start date for enforcing compliance with the water budgets by two years, until 2027 largely because the water board is behind schedule in adopting the regulation, its executive director, Eric Oppenheimer, said. Water suppliers also are granted an extra five years, until 2035, to meet targets ramping down outdoor water use, and are given until 2040 for reductions originally planned for 2035.

The latest version would conserve about 520,000 acre-feet of water a year starting in 2040, according to the water board’s estimates. That’s 170,000 acre-feet less than the previous version, enough to serve more than half a million households for a year.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for at least 500,000 acre-feet in annual conservation by 2030.

When the rules are finalized, each water supplier must meet individualized conservation goals, calculated from a complex formula based on standards for indoor and outdoor residential water use and certain commercial landscapes, as well as losses like leaks. Other variables such as the presence of livestock in a region or availability of recycled water can factor into the calculation.

“You still have to meet your objective, whatever that may be. But you get more time to get there — in some cases, substantially more time.”
— Eric Pppenheimer, State Water Resources Control Board

The water board said it would vote on the updated plan in July, following public comment, and it would take effect at the beginning of next year.

Statewide, 63 water suppliers, serving about 9% of the population where household incomes are below the state median, will be required to cut water use by more than 20%. Under the revisions, they could cut use by only 1% per year and still be deemed in compliance provided they meet other requirements. Another 19 suppliers in wealthier regions facing cuts of 30% or more could cut use by only 2% per year and still comply.

“You still have to meet your objective, whatever that may be. But you get more time to get there — in some cases, substantially more time,” Oppenheimer said.

“That would mean that if your ultimate compliance target was 30%, you’d have 30 years to get there,” compared to approximately 15 years under the old version, Oppenheimer said.

Water suppliers welcomed the extended deadlines because they would have more time to coax customers with rebates and other programs into making lasting changes to irrigated landscapes without harming shade trees and disadvantaged communities.

The changes will allow “urban retail water suppliers to thoughtfully and cost effectively implement programs,” said Chelsea Haines of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 450 public agencies. “I hope that we see this additional time not as a delay, but as an opportunity.”

The water board does not have an updated cost estimate for the revised rules to compare to the $13.5 billion estimate for the old version. The costs come largely because cities and agencies would offer rebates and rate cuts to those who conserve.The benefits were estimated to reach about $15.6 billion, in large part because suppliers and customers will buy less water.

The changes will allow “urban retail water suppliers to thoughtfully and cost effectively implement programs. I hope that we see this additional time not as a delay, but as an opportunity.”
— Chelsea Haines, Association of California Water Agencies

Environmentalists say the delays belie the urgency of preparing for the next, inevitable drought and will force more drastic changes to landscapes when emergency conservation measures are needed once again.

“The fact that we aren’t taking steps as quickly as possible to invest in more climate resilient landscapes that will be able to survive those future droughts is unthinkable. Quite frankly, it’s reckless,” Quinn said.

Heather Cooley, director of research for the Pacific Institute, said conservation is cheaper than developing new supplies by, for instance, desalination or recycling — a burden that customers would eventually bear.

“By weakening the standard, we’re making water more expensive,” Cooley said.

Under a previous version of the rules, about 18% percent of suppliers — serving about a quarter of the state’s population — wouldn’t have to reduce their customers’ use to meet the 2035 standards, according to the board’s estimates last September. Now, under the new version, 37% of suppliers — serving 42% of the state’s population — wouldn’t have to change their water use by 2035. And by 2040, 31% could still maintain their status quo, according to water board data.

Asked if they were concerned about the reduced savings under the latest version, Oppenheimer said flexibility and feasibility are important.

“We think 500,000 acre feet of saved project savings is a substantial amount,” he said. “More is always better, but that needs to be balanced against providing enough flexibility to the water suppliers, and the feasibility of meeting those standards.”


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