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Executive Summary for July 23rd

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on July 23, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

State High Court Invalidates Tiered Water Rates

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to overturn a lower court ruling that threw out a tiered water rate structure imposed by the city of San Juan Capistrano.

The decision in effect means that tiered water rates – long used as an important tool to encourage water conservation – can no longer be utilized in California unless water agencies can prove that higher-priced water billing tiers actually support higher operating expenses.

The case turns on Proposition 218, the 1996 law enacted by California voters. The law requires government agencies to give ratepayers and property owners the right to vote on new taxes and fees. It also states that those fees must be equivalent to actual operating expenses.

In the San Juan Capistrano case, a citizens’ group successfully argued that the city’s progressively more expensive billing tiers did not reflect documented higher operating costs for delivering that water.

Such higher tiers have long been implemented by water agencies all over California as a vital aid in promoting water conservation. As the customer consumes more water beyond a certain threshold, each additional “unit” of water costs more than the last. Thus, heavy water use is felt where the customer is sure to feel it – in the wallet.

The case makes clear that tiered rates in themselves are not unconstitutional. Instead, tiered rates must simply be supported by documentation showing that delivering the additional water also costs the utility more in operating expenses.

Even so, the ruling is sure to upset the status quo at many water agencies, which may now have to go through an expensive administrative process to justify their rates and, perhaps, seek voter approval for them anew.

Sonoma County Imposes Tough Rules on New Wells ** **

New rules adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors could be a signal of what’s to come from many other local agencies, as they attempt to reign in groundwater overdraft.

The rules, adopted Tuesday, impose protective buffer zones along streams and require new wells to be equipped with monitoring devices to measure groundwater levels in the future. In addition, the rules prohibit drilling new wells into streams and wetlands and require that property owners pay a $150 annual fee to test water, ensuring it is safe for drinking.

“It’s important, and it’s about time,” board chairperson Susan Gorin said. “The whole community is waiting for us to be more proactive about the number of wells we’re permitting.”

The rules are intended to prevent new wells from sucking streams dry and draining nearby connected aquifers. They also aim to shield streams from sediment and pollution that may be unleashed during well construction.

However, the rules apply only to new wells, not the estimated 40,000 wells that already exist in the county.

Winter Flooding Could Solve Groundwater Depletion

A new study has documented that as many as 3.6 million acres of California farmland could be used to recharge groundwater aquifers – simply by letting nature have its way a little more often.

The mechanism is basic: Let rivers and storms flood farmland so the water can slowly trickle down into aquifers. After all, this is how groundwater got there in the first place over millennia, before humans began tapping it with wells and pumps.

Most farmland has been shielded by levees to prevent flooding, and carefully contoured so that stormwater runs off quickly.

A recent test in Siskiyou County proved successful. The study documented rapid groundwater recharge when a 10-acre alfalfa field was inundated with 140 acre-feet of water over six weeks. Additional tests are planned later this year on almond orchards in the Central Valley.

University of California researchers are investigating infrastructure, policy and institutional barriers to making the practice routine. Results should be available later this year.

Photo courtesy by UC Agricultural and Natural Resources

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