Those at the helm of California’s drought response and water policy have decided to make a tactical shift. “What we are doing today is making a pivot to a long-term strategy,” said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board.
Yesterday Gov. Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order “making water conservation a California way of life.” The order is a transition from the state’s emergency conservation mandates for urban areas enacted last spring, to more permanent and longer-term changes to address water consumption.
Certain conservation measures in the emergency order will become permanent, such as outlawing washing hardscapes like driveways and sidewalks, washing vehicles without shutoff nozzles, and inefficient watering of landscapes that result in runoff.
It also tasked the Water Board with putting together a proposal for long-term water conservation goals for the state by January 2017. Agencies will work together to “craft an implementable, enduring plan that will ensure that we use water efficiently whether wet or dry and are prepared for the longer, more severe drought cycles that we know are in California’s future,” said Mark Cowin, director of California’s Department of Water Resources.
Urban water suppliers will still be required to submit monthly reports on water consumption, but the order opens the door for the Water Board to make big changes to the state’s 25 percent compulsory conservation mandates for urban water suppliers that went into effect last June. Water suppliers have been pushing for changes to the mandate to reflect more local conditions.
Felicia Marcus, chair of the Water Board, described last year’s emergency regulations as “effective, but a somewhat blunt instrument.” They were a necessary response to critical drought conditions that saw snowpack at its lowest level in 500 years, but the Water Board is now ready to respond to changes in the state’s hydrology this year, she said.
A new draft plan from Water Board staff calls for allowing water suppliers to develop their own plans based on each area’s unique conditions. This would require water suppliers to self-certify that they have adequate supplies for three additional dry years with conditions similar to 2013, 2014 and 2015. If suppliers face a shortage in any of the upcoming years in the plan, then conservation levels are to be set commensurate with the level of shortage, explained Gomberg.
All suppliers’ plans and documenting information will be published online. “They get more local control and we all get more transparency,” said Marcus.
The staff’s plan will be reviewed at the May 18 meeting of the Water Board and if passed, will go into effect June 1. Gomberg said that the Water Board would be prepared to return to mandatory measures next year if conditions warrant it.
“While the drought is most certainly not over, the severity of the emergency for California has diminished and we are optimistic that California residents will continue to conserve water going forward,” he said.
Marcus stressed that California’s long-term water future is still serious. “While we didn’t get the Godzilla of all El Nino’s worth of rain many pundits predicted, we did get the Godzilla of all wake up calls during the past four years of drought,” she said. “What happened these last four years is what will happen more often as climate change accelerates. We simply have to become more efficient in how we use water and must do it sooner rather than later.”