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
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.
Some ideas for improving mandatory cutbacks for 2016
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, September 23, 2015
Lund, J., Water rationing and California’s drought, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, May 3, 2015
Lund, J., Why utilities shy from mandatory water saving during a drought, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, July 30, 2014
Lund, J., Urban water conservation for the birds, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, October 6, 2015