Big drops in urban water use, state finds

By Kurtis Alexander on July 6, 2016

Californians are saving an extraordinary amount of water, new records show, even after winter rains prompted state regulators to begin easing drought-driven restrictions on cities and towns.

The State Water Resources Control Board reported Wednesday that urban water use dropped 28.2 percent in May compared with the same period in 2013 — the second-biggest monthly reduction since the state’s water rationing program began last year. May’s savings followed an impressive 26.1 percent reduction in April.

With state regulators relaxing water rules, however, some are doubting whether such high levels of savings will continue — and whether they even need to. Already, many water agencies have passed the state’s new “stress test” and are no longer required to save water under a policy being praised by suppliers and criticized by conservationists.

“We’re not out of a drought yet,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of the conservation advocacy San Francisco Baykeeper. “Once the mandatory rules are lifted, there’s not as much incentive to conserve. I don’t see this much of a conservation rate staying in place.”

The state water board loosened its conservation policy this spring in response to complaints from local water providers who said near-normal rain and snow last winter gave a sufficient boost to supplies. The agencies said top-down regulation was no longer needed.

Agencies set targets

State regulators in June began allowing the local agencies to set their own conservation targets as long as they have enough water on hand to weather three more years of drought.

Nine of the state’s 10 largest water suppliers, including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and East Bay Municipal Utility District, said they met the state’s supply requirement and consequently do not have to commit to any savings.

The policy is a far cry from the one initiated a year ago that set specific cuts of up to 36 percent for suppliers.

The change has prompted many local water agencies to ease conservation rules for homes and businesses, from allowing outdoor watering more days of the week to eliminating caps on total water use.

2 Danville fountains

This month, East Bay water officials allowed Danville officials to turn on two park fountains popular with children. The play features at Hap Magee Ranch and Sycamore Valley Parks had been closed because they didn’t recirculate the water, which officials previously had deemed wasteful.

“Our water supply is in good shape,” said Andrea Pook, spokeswoman for EBMUD, noting that El Niño-fueled storms filled the agency’s reservoirs to average levels for the first time in years.

The district also recently stopped requiring households to use less than 1,000 gallons of water a day, a limit that yielded thousands of violations and many hefty fines.

Even without such rules in place, Pook expects customers to continue saving water at close to the 24 percent level of conservation averaged over the past year.

Turf lawns and toilets

The East Bay water agency, like many other suppliers, has encouraged customers to make physical changes to their homes, such as installing turf lawns and water-efficient toilets, that will result in a lifetime of conservation.

Some suppliers have put money into new sources of water, like desalination plants.

“When we looked overall at how the state was doing in getting through the drought, the urban and suburban sector was by far doing the best and was really the most drought-resilient,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. “A lot of local agencies have made a lot of investment in storage and supply diversification.”

Substantial reductions

Through May, urban water providers had cut back 24.5 percent during the past 12 months, according to the new state numbers. May’s conservation rate was second to only July 2015, when suppliers saved 31.4 percent.

As good as the numbers have been, many say the state should not ease up on the local agencies, noting that their savings can be a boon for wildlife that enjoy healthier rivers and farmers who want fuller reservoirs.

“It’s a finite resource,” said Choksi-Chugh, “and to decide that your region should use more use is just not appropriate.”

Article originally posted on http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Big-dropsin-urbanwater-use-state-finds-8344524.php