State Water Board Extends Emergency Water Conservation Regulation

Citing a need to be prudent and prepare for another possible dry year, the State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to extend the state’s emergency conservation regulation amid criticism that this year’s rains have ended California’s state of emergency.

“We’ve had an impressive first half… (of the water year),” State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said during the meeting. “But we can’t predict where we will stand at the end of the season.”

The regulation had been set to expire Feb. 28. The board voted to keep it in place but agreed to consider repeal of the regulation in May if it has not been rescinded or modified by May 1, following a more thorough review of the state’s water supply conditions.

The board's action effectively continues the stress test approach, existing water use reporting requirements and prohibitions on wasteful water use practices that have been in place since 2015. The current regulation does not require mandatory conservation unless water suppliers determine that they have a shortfall.

The board's vote was preceded by a lengthy public comment period in which many speakers asked that the order be allowed to expire since California is experiencing a record wet year. Those who asked to drop the emergency regulation said it is difficult to maintain credibility with customers and ask them to respect an emergency drought order when there is no emergency and many reservoirs are full.

“Extending the drought emergency is going to create a real credibility issue for us,” said Fiona Sanchez, Director of Water Resources for the Irvine Ranch Water District.

Other speakers argued to take a cautious approach and see where the state stands in terms of rainfall this spring.

“Let’s wait for three months and come back and have a discussion,” said Joone Lopez, general manager of Moulton Niguel Water District. Lopez said she was also speaking on behalf of Long Beach Water District, and the cities of Newport Beach and Santa Ana.

ACWA Director of State Regulatory Affairs Dave Bolland spoke at the hearing and stressed that the need for an emergency regulation has "receded."

“The emergency response phase of the drought has passed, and although full recovery of groundwater to pre-drought levels and some localized water supply challenges will take time, the need for the emergency regulation has receded,” said Bolland.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issued a written statement following the board's vote.
 
“Southern Californians have done a tremendous job conserving water throughout our state’s historic drought and we urge them to continue making conservation a way of life. But we are no longer in a drought emergency, which is why we asked the State Water Board to let the emergency drought regulations expire,' Kightlinger said in the statement.
 
"Conditions have changed significantly since the drought emergency was declared. With supply conditions improving last year, we began rebuilding our regional reservoirs, thanks in part to a 60 percent allocation from the State Water Project – as much as the three previous years combined," he added.

Following Wednesday's action, existing conservation rules will remain in place for urban water suppliers that require them to pass a so-called “stress test” to demonstrate they have enough water reserves to withstand an additional three dry years.  State officials said the majority of suppliers passed this “stress test” and have therefore not been subject to state conservation mandates.

Under the extended regulation, urban water suppliers that didn’t take or didn’t pass the “stress test” and have been subject to state-set standards are given an opportunity to update their analysis.  

The extension also keeps in place monthly reporting of water use by urban water agencies, and reasonable prohibitions against wasteful practices such as watering lawns within 48 hours of a rainstorm, hosing off sidewalks and driveways, or overwatering landscaping to the point where water runs into the streets. Prohibitions also remain against homeowners associations taking action against homeowners trying to conserve during a declared drought, and those prohibitions are extended to cities and municipalities.

The board also heard a report on the statewide water savings for December 2016, which clocked in at 20.6% compared with water use in December 2013, an increase from both November 2016’s 18.9% savings and December 2015’s 18.2% statewide savings.

Cumulative statewide savings for June 2015 through December 2016 remains at 22.5%. Since June 2015, 2.43 million acre-feet of water have been saved — enough to supply more than 12 million people, close to a third of the state’s population, for a year. For more information, see the fact sheet here.