Drought-Weary California Equips Water Supplies for Efficiency

By Emily C. Dooley

Drought-weary California officials want water suppliers to use the resource more efficiently, but how new water regulations will play out in districts remains unclear.

A pair of bills, signed at the end of May by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), amend the state’s water code and emphasize water efficiency with a focus on indoor and outdoor household use as well as water loss in urban districts.

Both Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668 require urban districts to set use targets, or budgets for water use, and the assembly version also broadens the number of agricultural suppliers that must set management plans.

About 410 urban water suppliers—those with more than 3,000 connections—that serve approximately 90 percent of the population would be affected by the budget requirement, Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the California State Water Resources Control Board, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The purpose is to make sure water is being used efficiently,” he said. “For the vast majority of suppliers, this is not going to be too onerous. Part of that is because we just already went through this huge drought.”

State officials will come up with outdoor use and loss calculations as part of developing standards that must be adopted by June 2022. But elected officials did include one number in the legislation: Indoor household water use should be limited to 55 gallons per person per day by 2025, incrementally lowering to 50 gallons by 2030.

Calculations for Entire District

The 55 gallons will be calculated for an entire district based on population and will be part of the overall water budget, which also includes allocations for outdoor use and water loss. But that number, which was carried over from a 2009 provision, isn’t without issue.

“The first challenge we have to contend with is we don’t have a direct way to measure indoor water use,” Gomberg said.

There’s no simple way to separate indoor and outdoor use because households don’t have two meters. So, the board may look at water use in wet months, when watering lawns would happen less, or flows from households to wastewater treatment plants because that wouldn’t come from outside water use, Gomberg said.

Surveying homeowners about whether they have low-flow toilets, shower heads, and other amenities could be another way to help measure indoor use.

‘Best Practices’ Provision

The assembly law, sponsored by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D), says the involved state agencies must study indoor use and report back if a different figure should be used that “more appropriately reflects best practices for indoor residential water.”

The largest regulated water utility in the state, California Water Service, supported the bills, Ken Jenkins, director of drought management and conservation, told Bloomberg Environment.

The utility hasn’t calculated indoor water use per household, but he added, “I do believe 55 is a starting point.”

Some service areas may already be at 55 gallons, and water suppliers can offer rebates for installing low-flow fixtures, sprinklers, with rain sensors, low-water washing machines, and other items to reduce numbers further.

“This puts us entirely on the path to continued water efficiency,” he said.

The bills could create some challenges in terms of collecting data and communicating with customers about the need to stretch water supplies, said David Bolland, director of state regulatory relations for the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents water districts throughout the state.

“It affects every agency slightly differently,” Bolland told Bloomberg Environment.

Some districts may focus on reducing irrigation use and others may look toward household use, depending on demographics, climate, age of housing stock, and other factors.

Bolland said he thinks compliance with regulations “is entirely possible” and necessary. “We need to be prepared to do substantially better in future droughts,” he said.

Factoring in Drought

Water suppliers must have water management plans that factor in at least a five-year severe drought, as opposed to the three years required now under the laws.

“It requires a more robust plan to respond to drought,” Gomberg said.

Also in the legislation are requirements that agricultural water suppliers serving more than 10,000 acres must establish water efficiency plans, but they won’t be subject to water use budgets. Starting in 2012, suppliers serving 25,000 acres had to have the plans so these regulations expand that requirement.

The bills are likely to affect 70 to 80 agricultural irrigation districts who rely on water allocations that fluctuate based on rain and snowfall levels, Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition executive director, told Bloomberg Environment.

“I think the state will benefit and the districts will as well because of the transparency,” said Wade, whose group is a nonprofit educational organization. “I think what we’ll find is there is a better understanding of the challenges districts have when there is an uncertain [water] supply from year to year.”

He did caution that the regulations wouldn’t be free to implement.

“It does add to the cost of operating their districts regardless of size and it does add to its overhead,” Wade said.

The State Water Resources Control Board will begin developing standards this year and they must be adopted by the end of June 2022. Starting in 2023, water suppliers will have to calculate their water use budgets and they must be in compliance by 2027 or risk daily fines. In nondrought conditions, the levy could be up to $1,000 per day but rise to $10,000 in drought conditions.

Water suppliers said they will be following the regulatory process and state officials said there will be public outreach to get comments.

“California would be foolish after what happened over the past five years not to do something like this,” Kevin Tilden, spokesman for private company California American Water, told Bloomberg Environment. “People can reduce their use of water without dramatically changing their quality of life.”