Improving mandatory State cutbacks of urban water use for a 5th year of drought


A sign alerts visitors of water conservation efforts at the state Capitol in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

By Jay R. Lund

There is usually great uncertainty about when a drought will end, but certainty that longer droughts bring tougher economic and ecosystem conditions as water in aquifers and reservoirs is further depleted.  Long droughts, like the current one, also bring opportunities to use water more efficiently, based on lessons from the drought so far.

The Governor’s mandatory emergency cutbacks, imposed on April 1, 2015, required the State Water Board to enforce average urban water use reductions of 25 percent.  This was the first such statewide drought emergency mandate, with little opportunity for crafting implementation details, given the drought’s urgency.

Virtues and Vices of 2015 Mandatory Cutbacks


Folsom Reservoir, January 2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Overall, the cutbacks were prudent and successful at quickly reducing urban water use statewide; almost all urban water systems are achieving their conservation targets.  The State Water Board wisely implemented the 25% statewide average cutback in a distributed way. Urban areas which use less water had lower conservation targets; agencies with much greater per-capita use, and presumably a greater ability to conserve, had higher conservation targets.

It shows great strength and capability that so many urban water utilities achieved these goals so rapidly, especially considering California’s wide-ranging conditions of climate, land use, economic structure, and prior implementation of water conservation actions.

Most urban areas were quite well prepared for the first four years of this drought, following decades of investments responding to the last major drought in 1988-1992. If it was assured that the drought would end after four years, the urban cutbacks would often have not been needed.  Still, one suspects that some urban utilities were relieved of difficult local discussions by the Governor’s mandatory conservation order.

The substantial mandatory urban cutbacks of 2015 brought inconvenience to customers and financial costs to urban water utilities nonetheless.  For the long-term, a State policy of mandatory drought cutbacks also might undermine local drought declarations for more localized droughts (“It’s not a drought unless the Governor says so”) and undermine desirable local water infrastructure investments and operations (“Why should we save water underground if the Governor will require us to cut back use anyway?”).

In 2015, some urban areas found themselves, having prudently invested for years in drought capacity and storage, with large financial losses and stranded assets from the mandatory cutbacks.  At the end of 2015, we might pause to reflect on some ideas for improving mandatory urban water use cutbacks for a 5th year of drought and some ideas for longer-term State policy regarding mandatory urban conservation during droughts.


Shasta Reservoir and dam, Winter 2013-2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Some ideas for improving mandatory cutbacks for 2016

  1. Regional sharing of conservation quotas. Most urban areas of California are now fairly well inter-connected as a result of previous droughts and preparation for disasters such as earthquakes.  These regional inter-connections have been used extensively in the current drought.  Allowing utility-level cutbacks to be shared (and traded) regionally would reduce overall pain and give flexibility and incentives for regional cooperation, another state water policy goal.
  2. Urban support for regional environmental objectives. One reason for mandatory urban water conservation is to reduce pressure on ecosystems and the environment.  Allowing some conservation credit for urban drought actions to reduce the susceptibility of ecosystems to drought seems consistent with broader State objectives for drought water management.  Such a policy might allow some additional water releases from storage for environmental purposes to count towards an urban conservation quota (conserving the environment, rather than just urban water).
  3. Credit for conserving water in aquifers. Urban areas which conserve water in aquifers, raising groundwater from overdrafted levels for drought preparation also might be given some conservation credit for drought.  This would increase incentives for urban areas to recharge and conserve groundwater, particularly in regional systems where cutbacks can be shared.   This also would pair state urban water conservation goals with state groundwater sustainability goals.
  4. Credit for coastal reuse of treated wastewater. Similarly, new projects that re-use urban wastewater that would have been discharged to the sea provide new water to the system much as reducing net water use through conservation.  Urban areas investing in such projects could receive some conservation credit for such investments, which also reduce wastewater discharges (another state policy objective).  Credit for coastal wastewater reuse might accrue either directly as partial or full credit towards drought cut-backs, or by incorporating this in the base calculation of net water use used to establish utility cutback levels.
  5. Reduced base for inland reuse of treated wastewater. Not all water use reduces statewide water availability.  Most indoor water use in inland areas is returned to streams and aquifers for use downstream or later in droughts.  Shower water in San Francisco goes out to sea after treatment, but a similar shower in Sacramento mostly returns to the Sacramento River.  Geography matters.  Accounting based on net urban water use should be easy with good estimates of wastewater return flows.
  6. Encourage long-term conservation and drought conservation water rate structures. The statewide emergency drought cutbacks for urban water use reduced utility revenues far more than they reduced urban water system costs.  State encouragements or credit for water utilities to prepare drought conservation rate structures or finance plans would reduce financial problems from drought, and reduce the number of difficult decisions which need to be made by water utilities during drought.   Having drought conservation rates already approved also might reduce the financial reticence of water utilities to encourage or require drought and permanent water conservation.

Additional ideas are likely to be suggested for consideration.  This is a good opportunity to reflect on the long-term objectives of the state’s drought urban water use cutback program.

Longer-term State drought policy for urban areas

Urban, environmental, and agricultural water uses are inter-connected and inter-dependent in California.  State drought policy should strengthen local and regional water management, not only for urban water utilities and agricultural areas, but also for effective management of ecosystems, the environment, and aquifers.  Several long-term State water policy objectives should be better served by pre-establishing major elements of state, local, and regional drought response policy.

The State should encourage, and perhaps mandate, that local governments and water providers have drought plans which prepare for and support economic, public health, and environmental objectives during drought, with financial responsibility, and preferably in a regional context.  Drought plans will be useful for urban water utilities, but also for Counties that must provide additional support for more fragile small water systems faced with drought.

Further Readings

Hanak, E., J. Mount, C. Chappelle, J. Lund, J. Medellín-Azuara, P. Moyle, and N. Seavy,  What If California’s Drought Continues?, PPIC Water Policy Center, San Francisco, CA, August 2015.

Lund, J., The banality of California’s ‘1,200-year’ drought,, September 23, 2015

Lund, J., Water rationing and California’s drought,, May 3, 2015

Lund, J., Why utilities shy from mandatory water saving during a drought,, July 30, 2014

Lund, J., Urban water conservation for the birds,, October 6, 2015


This entry was posted in California Water, Drought, Uncategorized, Water Conservation, Water Supply and Wastewater and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Improving mandatory State cutbacks of urban water use for a 5th year of drought

  1. gymnosperm says:

    ” Shower water in San Francisco goes out to sea after treatment, but a similar shower in Sacramento mostly returns to the Sacramento River. Geography matters.”

    Indeed. Perception also matters. You don’t want no downstream beer. “Waste” water is key whether it be ‘pristine’ snow melt percolated through Giardia tainted meadows in the Sierra or municipal treatment plant water downstream.

    The perception that there is a fundamental difference needs to change. The same microbial processes take place in the meadow and the treatment plant. An equivalent (or higher) level of filtration can be arranged.

    • jaylund says:

      Many people and farmers are willing to filter beer, and even pay for it.

      • gymnosperm says:

        Mmmm, so beer (or coffee) becomes the diuretic metaphor for “downstream”. I would pay for it. Currently being forced to install a space station scale system with all the inefficiencies of micro scale when a municipal scale system would be far more appropriate.

        Trouble is, the only municipal system in the world that gets it is EBMUD in Oakland. They produce 20% more energy from the BOD they import than they consume in their processing uses.

        The Carbon moonie objection is that the transportation is unacceptable. I dispute that. I can show that the transportation to Oakland uses 50x less C than an ordinary treatment plant.

        Yet EBMUD even has the answer to that. They are going to skew their excess BOD capacity to the methanogenic Archaea and enrich it to propane. This they will pump into the fleet of trucks providing them.

        You gotta check these guys out.

  2. Thank you for this set of recommendations, Jay. They match the suggestions that my water agency colleagues and I presented at the December 7 State Water Resources Control Board workshop. However, you left out another drought-resilient water supply (in addition to groundwater and recycled water) – desalinated water. All of these sources should be removed from the Board’s reduction mandates, for exactly the reasons you postulate – ratepayers have invested in them (and state and federal agencies have advocated them) as methods to diversify water supply portfolios. You also note appropriately that drought conditions vary throughout the state, and some locations such as the urban areas in Humboldt, Marin and Sonoma Counties do not have water supply shortages. Conservation mandates need not apply there.

    Paul Helliker
    General Manager
    Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District

  3. mheberger says:

    Interesting post. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it is true that “almost all urban water systems are achieving their conservation targets.” My colleagues and I have analyzed water use data and came to a somewhat different conclusion.

    As of October 2015, out of 409 water suppliers reporting to the State Board, 147 that did NOT meet their conservation mandate. That is 36% of all water suppliers in the state. These are not just small water suppliers either, but include a dozen agencies that serve over 100,000 people, and two agencies that serve over half a million people.

    See the data table here:

    Interactive visualization:

    • Jeffrey W. Baker says:

      This is very interesting data. Thank you for posting it. I would note for current and future readers that the maps referenced in this year-old post are still being updated today.

  4. Emma Freeman says:

    Nice article and good points, Jay. I love the idea of conservation credits for dedicated environmental water.

    Two questions:
    1) “Accounting based on net urban water use should be easy with good estimates of wastewater return flows.” Are any agencies currently doing this well? If so, how?

    2) “State encouragements or credit for water utilities to prepare drought conservation rate structures or finance plans would reduce financial problems from drought, and reduce the number of difficult decisions which need to be made by water utilities during drought. ” Wouldn’t this run into Prop 218 issues, like in San Juan Capistrano? Or is there more to the “state encouragements” concept that could avoid such issues?


    • jaylund says:

      Good questions.

      Las Vegas, in Nevada, certainly keeps close track of their net water use, as this is what counts for their water supply. I’m not aware of such close accounting in California, but California is a big place. Perhaps some water masters for groundwater basins in So. Cal. keep such accounts.

      The Prop. 218 question is a good one. One reason to include this idea is that it might be easier to get 218 clearance in pre-drought conditions and have it ready for drought. Such pre-established drought pricing would probably serve the transparency goals and expectations from Prop. 218. But Prop. 218 poses far bigger challenges that might interfere with many things, including this. The requirements of Prop. 218 does not seem to be fully settled.

  5. Gail Sredanovic says:

    Sensible recommendations. Did I miss that part about having water use be metered in all areas as it is in the Bay Area?
    Also, is there a similar document for agricultural use? That would be of considerable interest.

  6. Pingback: Blog round-up: Urban water conservation regs, environmental water budgets, damn dams, retiring farm acreage, water storage, and more …MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

  7. Susan Lien Longville, Director, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District says:

    Jay, Wholehearedly agree with your recommendations, but also wanted to share with you and others the thoughtful proposal put forward by Inland Empire Utilities Agency that deserves additional support. They asked the SWRCB to consider establishing an “optional alternative water efficiency performance reporting methodology” based on actual achievements in meeting the State’s existing water efficiency standards already adopted through SBX7-7 (55 GPCD indoor water use) and AB 1881, the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (80 % of ET for existing landscapes). It is clearly time to go beyond R-GPCD that we all recognize provides little context as to whether the reporting agency’s water use, in itself, is efficient or reasonable.

  8. Pingback: Out With the Old Drought and In With the New? | California WaterBlog

  9. Pingback: Tails of California’s Drought | California WaterBlog

Leave a Reply