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Connect the Drops

Can California Make Saving Water a Way of Life?

California may be in danger of losing the gains it has worked hard to achieve in the last year in water conservation. A wet winter doesn’t mean California is in the clear.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A decal on the dusty tailgate of a Orange County Water District truck asks people to conserve water.Chris Carlson, Associated Press

After a winter of barely average rainfall and snowfall, there’s a growing awareness in some quarters that California is not out of the drought. Indeed, we may never be out of the drought.

But state leaders are sending mixed messages that may slow our progress on building a sustainable water infrastructure and encouraging a culture of water conservation across the state.

In response to the fact that more than 95 percent of the state is in some form of drought, Gov. Jerry Brown this week took steps to make some of the emergency water-conservation measures permanent. His executive order [PDF] requires the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Board to develop new water use targets that will be part of a permanent framework, and to prohibit water-wasting practices including hosing clean sidewalks and driveways, using non-recirculated water in fountains and more.

But at the same time the State Water Resources Control Board issued a proposal to eliminate the mandatory water-conservation targets that have been imposed on every region since last year, allowing local water agencies to set their own conservation targets until the permanent targets are in place.

While it’s great that we have a governor who is taking action on the state’s critical water crisis, and that some of these new rules are permanent, in the interim his State Water Board’s proposed order could reinforce the sense that it’s okay to let our hard-earned conservation successes backslide.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said as much to reporters this week, “This is not a time to start using water like it’s 1999; we need to keep conserving all we can, whenever we can.”

A gardener mows a lawn in Pasadena, California. The State Water Resources Control Board may soon lift last year's water conservation mandate. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)

A gardener mows a lawn in Pasadena, California. The State Water Resources Control Board may soon lift last year’s water conservation mandate. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)

To be sure, these changes are in some ways logical: Water is a local issue, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always make sense. Different water agencies have different mixes of water supply, some more resilient than others. Moreover, some areas of the state such as Northern California received more rain this winter than Southern California and other parts of the state, and thus should have the flexibility to manage local water supplies differently. Of note, the State Water Board addressed some of these site-specific conditions in the last update of the emergency regulations this past February.

But when water agencies like the East Bay Municipal Utility District so quickly begin “declaring the drought emergency over” and ending fines for excessive water users, it raises a red flag for future water conservation. It’s a big contradiction for the state to say that we are still in a drought, but Californians can still have lush, green lawns.

Although many Californians bristled at the mandatory water restrictions, the past year has shown that they worked: The state saved previously unimaginable amounts of water starting in June 2015, and those savings continued even through an occasionally wet winter. And suggesting that the problem is solved will mean we quickly lose those gains.

Already, public surveys find concern about the drought slipping dramatically between last fall and this spring.

Climate change is the new normal. Gov. Brown acknowledges this truth in his executive order. We need strong policies and regulations to help us maximize our local water supplies – we need to prepare for the droughts still to come.

At the California Water Policy Conference, held in April in Davis, Marcus acknowledged as much: “We have a lot to do collectively in front of us, and I don’t mean just in water, I mean in everything, given climate change and what it’s going to wreak while we’re all still here,” Marcus said. “It’s not just an issue for future generations – everyone sitting in this room is seeing and will see the accelerating impacts of that and the disruption of it across every sector of the environment, public health and the economy.”

I am as pleased as anyone that California finally received a wet winter, but it’s not time to relax our efforts to save the water we have. Rather than require mandatory watering, as the East Bay community of Blackhawk has just done, now is the time to acknowledge that brown lawns – or no lawns – are a way of life, and start uncovering the many areas in which we can save water every day.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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