Water rationing and California’s drought

Collecting and using household wastewater to water plants. Photo by Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

Collecting and using household wastewater to water plants. Photo by Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund

California cities and water utilities will be stressed to meet the state’s aggressive urban conservation mandates in this fourth year of drought.

Following Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order, the State Water Resources Control Board developed specific reduction targets for each major urban water supplier, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent of per-capita water use in 2013. The proposed “emergency” cutbacks would take effect as early as June 1 and last nine months, to Feb. 28.

For most cities, 2015 will be the first year in the four-year drought that deeply affects them; it has been mostly an environmental and agricultural drought until now. Statistically, a fifth dry year seems likely.

If the urban water-use reductions were imposed gradually over a longer period, they could be achieved through changes in plumbing and building codes, landscaping ordinances and water pricing. But for urgent drought conservation this year, such measures are unlikely to yield enough water savings. Well-motivated voluntary conservation efforts will help, but not by much — usually 5 percent to 10 percent reductions use, as seen last year.

For this year, many California cities will look to water rationing, particularly those facing reductions of 15 percent or more. Some common forms of water rationing are outlined in the table below. 

California began serious urban water conservation during the 1976-77 drought and expanded these efforts during and after the 1988-92 drought.  The rapid imposition of  substantial statewide reductions this year will shape urban water conservation for years to come. 

The reductions will make water available for cities in the future, as well as for the environment and agriculture. But they will also pose challenges for wastewater systems designed for higher flows. 

The substantial reductions this year, and likely next year, will have major financial and rate-making implications for local water utilities, which are the financial and innovation backbone (or perhaps exoskeleton) of California’s decentralized water system

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Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis

Further readings

Lund, J.R. and Reed, R.U. “Drought Water Rationing and Transferable Rations.” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 429-437, November 1995

Rogers, P. “San Jose’s new drought rules: How they will affect you.” San Jose Mercury News. April 27, 2015

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14 Responses to Water rationing and California’s drought

  1. mittimithai says:

    From the Mercury article:

    Q But don’t farmers use most of the water in California? Why do cities need to save?

    A Farmers do use 80 percent of the water that people consume in California. But much of their water cannot be transferred easily to cities, either because they have legal rights to it, or because of infrastructure issues. Water that an almond grower in Modesto doesn’t pump from a well on his farm, for example, can’t be shipped to the Bay Area or Southern California. …

    Can you clarify the relative effects of legal rights vs. ease of transfer in limiting city water supplies? Does one factor dwarf the other for most cities?

    • Frances Griffin says:

      Water rights were often granted long before the state had its present population and agriculture patterns. In many cases water rights were gained in corrupt backroom deals. “Water Heist,” a report prepared by Public Citizen, is available on the internet and is very instructive. Holders of such rights can and do sell their rights, sometimes for 10 times as much as they pay for them.Such transfers or rights are known as “paper water”. Over the years the state has granted the “right” to 5 times as much water as the state actually has, even in non-drought years. Clearly we need a lot more transparency and a lot more public control of water resources, esp. in Kern County. And yes, ground-water pumping needs to be regulated as well.

  2. Why impose such reductions on urban users only. Corporate farmers are free to consume water without constraint if they can find it. They can irrigate without constraint. Growing nuts in the desert for export, while profitable, is nuts. Though giant agribusiness produces large profits for a few owners, its importance to the state’s economy is are dwarfed by the high-tech sector which will be hard hit by urban cuts. Instead we need to adopt the recommendations of the California Water Impact NetworkC-WIN).

  3. It’s terrible that “California” has to go to this stage, especially in pursuing a command and control, top down response. For those utilities that want to reduce use by the most, at the least pain to customers (and even while protecting those who use less water), I suggest this: http://www.aguanomics.com/2015/04/how-to-price-water-for-conservation-in.html

  4. Preston Fedor says:

    My issue with this is whether citizen water rationing makes a significant difference at all. It seems that the amount citizens in an entire city can save in a day, is less than the amount one big industry burns up in an hour.

  5. tsac0008 says:

    It is indeed unfortunate that those growing backyard fruits and vegetables, usually much safer than those produced commercially whose only concern is a profit margin, will be forced to pay so much more for their irrigation water which produces crops at a local level thereby reducing air pollution and energy use in doing so. The positive benefits of local gardening extend well beyond just the better and safe foods that can be produced. The satisfaction and mental health gained from producing one’s own food cannot be overestimated. The logic of an emergency regulation that enables the commercial production of crops grown in the desert or on contaminated lands escapes me. Why on earth would anyone want to enable such operations? There should be restrictions on any water use gained by these dictatorial edicts that our water not be wasted by those using it to grow crops in the desert or cadmium contaminated lands of the Central Coast. If such restrictions existed the people might be more supportive.

  6. What’s your reaction to this “Dailey Beast” article, Dr. Lund?

    Thanks, Doug

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  8. tsac0008 says:

    I would love to be able to get raw water at these rates for my fruit and vegetable growing. The Daily Beast article is spot on, Doug! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Under the new, 2015 pricing scheme for the Westlands Water the price per acre foot has dropped $19.27 according to the water rates on their very own website. Between the twin tunnel water grab and the train to be built on subsiding ground cause by agriculture this governor seems to be out of control crazy for corporate agriculture. His legacy is going to be the destruction of California!

    Turlock Irrigation District Water Rates:Dry Year Water Rates
    Fixed charge: $68 per acre
    Water charges:
    Tier 1: $2 per acre-foot, up to 1 acre-feet
    Tier 2: $3 per acre-foot, up to 1.5 acre-feet
    Tier 3: $15 per acre-foot, up to 1 acre-foot
    Tier 4: $20 per acre-foot, additional available

    Modesto Irrigation District 2015
    $/Acre (AC) or $/Acre Foot (AF)
    Fixed Charge$40.00/ACVolumetric –
    Tier 1 (up to 24″)$1.00/AFVolumetric –
    Tier 2 (24″ up to 36″)$2.00/AFVolumetric –
    Tier 3 (36″ up to 42″)$3.00/AFVolumetric –
    Tier 4 (42″ or up)$10.00/AF

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  10. Frank Remkiewicz says:

    I find the readership comments most interesting. Water in California (and a bunch of other Western States) has been an ongoing battle since way before most of the immigration came to live in California. Agriculture is not only California’s lifeblood but the nation and we feed the better part of the world. When agriculture drops of the economic radar we in California will have slipped into not only a water drought but also an economic drought. Perhaps Southern Californians need to turn their taps off every other day or perhaps 4 times a week. Does anyone remember the deaths of several people back when the Owens River project was being completed. Please do not blame agriculture unless you are ready to stop eating almonds, drinking almond milk, regular milk (in all flavors), corn, rice, peaches, lettuce, broccoli, watermelon, nectarines, oranges, and beef, to name but a few. If the demand for agricultural products drops so will the the growing. Growing crops depends on supply and demand.
    Finally, many cities here in the Valley have already run out of water, most of us have been on water rationing for three years. Please do not pick on the farmers, food, or for that matter Northern Californians.

  11. Pingback: Improving mandatory State cutbacks of urban water use for a 5th year of drought | California WaterBlog

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