The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of California’s State-Mandated Urban Water Conservation during Drought

Drought face 1by Amy Talbot

Amy Talbot is the Regional Water Efficiency Manger for the Regional Water Authority, which represents 21 water suppliers in the Sacramento region.  She manages an award-winning public outreach and education program.  Additionally, she is a board member of the California Water Efficiency Partnership (CalWEP), which is supporting water suppliers with the implementation of Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668. This blog post is based on her MA thesis, both of which solely represent her personal opinions and may not be attributed to the Regional Water Authority or its member water suppliers or the California Water Efficiency Partnership or its members.

Historic 2014 weather and water supply conditions prompted Governor Brown to order the state’s first mandated conservation targets for over 400 urban retail water suppliers starting in 2015.[1]  Governor Brown tasked the State Water Resources Control Board (SWB) and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to manage and enforce these mandates.  With a 25% statewide water use reduction goal, state agencies, water suppliers, media, businesses, and residents worked together to implement supply and demand side actions to limit water use.  The state met this goal, reducing urban use by 24.5% from June 2015 through May 2016 equating to 524 billion gallons (1.6 million acre-feet) compared to 2013 water use.[2]  The state’s drought response was seen by some as an overwhelming success and by others as an unprecedented, and possibly illegal, invasion of local water suppliers’ management of their water supplies, water systems and relationships with their customers.  Regardless of perspective, it was uncharted territory, with new policies introduced in a short time with varying benefits and some unexpected consequences.  Through analyzing the practical outcomes of the state’s drought response, the overall experience can be distilled into what worked and what didn’t.

What Worked:

  • Prioritizing outdoor water use conservation over indoor conservation: Public outreach messaging focused on outdoor water use, which can be reduced quickly, with significant savings in most areas, while protecting indoor uses that support public health and safety.
  • Consistent water supplier reporting: Monthly reporting by water suppliers to the state allowed for real time monitoring to assess current water demand conditions and provided public transparency on water use.
  • Greater drought awareness: The state, the media, businesses, and residents maintained widespread attention on the drought, which prolonged water savings.
  • Water supplier coordination: Water suppliers found commonality through shared conservation targets and kindred feedback to the state on proposed regulations. Furthermore suppliers shared, exchanged, and coordinated public outreach campaigns and programs to more effectively respond to drought.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Conservation targets neglected water supply adequacy: Mandated water use based conservation targets did not directly respond to local water supply shortages.
  • Lack of optimization of alternative supplies and markets: The state’s drought response approach did not substantially consider local water suppliers’ prior investments in drought-resistant supplies and planned drought responses and therefore, at times, reduced local suppliers’ ability to respond with non-conservation water supply actions during drought, such as short-term or long-term water purchases, use of groundwater in storage, etc.
  • Ineffective communication: Communication breakdowns during the drought between state agencies, water suppliers, and customers complicated public outreach messaging aimed at reducing water use. One example is the use of the U.S. Drought Monitor to convey state and local water supply and drought conditions.
  • No regional compliance option: The initial rejection of a regional compliance option to meet state conservation mandates reduced incentives for local agencies to collaborate regionally.

Near the end of the mandated conservation target period, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order (EO) titled “Making Water Conservation A California Way of Life.”  Several concepts in the EO were incorporated into Senate Bill (SB) 606 and Assembly Bill (AB) 1668, which were passed in May 2018.  These bills will establish new local water supplier water efficiency targets based on indoor and outdoor residential water use, commercial, industrial, and institutional landscape water use, and water lost through leaks.  The bills will also increase supplier drought planning efforts through an expanded 5-year drought planning timeframe and statewide standard stages and percent reductions for urban water suppliers’ water shortage contingency plans.

Over the next decade, the state, urban water suppliers, businesses, and residents will implement this legislation, effectively redefining water efficiency and drought management planning in California.  The stakes are high with pending financial, staffing, policy, and infrastructure impacts for retail urban water suppliers and tight timelines for the state to finalize regulations before suppliers begin reporting in 2023.  Below are some recommendations for the successful implementation of SB 606 and AB 1668 and improved drought response in California.

Recommendations for Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668 Implementation:

  • The state should clarify its statewide water saving goal and objectives: SB 1668 states that the water savings from the new regulation “would exceed the statewide conservation targets required”, meaning it would exceed the target of a statewide 20% reduction in urban use by 2020 established by 2009’s Senate Bill X7-7.  However, not all water suppliers under the current statewide conservation targets are required to save exactly 20% – targets vary up to 20% depending on several factors. Is the new savings goal to exceed targets at the statewide level or by each individual supplier?  What is the baseline used to calculate this new savings?
  • Outdoor water use reductions should be moderate: The state heavily focused on reducing outdoor watering during the recent drought. While widely accepted in a drought emergency, continuously reducing landscape water use beyond levels of efficiency can harm other landscape functions like providing habitat, healthy soil, quality of life benefits, tree health, and stormwater management.
  • State driven water efficiency efforts should match expected savings: Is the “juice worth the squeeze” for these regulations?  The resource commitment (staff and funding) needed to implement complex local supplier water budget targets should not exceed potential benefits from the anticipated water savings.
  • Energy efficiency funding should supplement water efficiency program budgets: As shown during the drought, water savings also produced energy savings, sometimes more cost-effectively than standard energy efficiency programs (Spang et al., 2018). Local water and energy suppliers should continue to work together towards mutual resource savings goals.
  • The state should allow a compliance target range for urban water suppliers: With many data-based details and potential for error in the designing and implementing of these new regulations, the state should allow flexibility in enforcement of the urban water supplier targets.

Recommendations to Improve Drought Response:

  • Drought water use reductions should be linked to local water supply conditions: Drought is ultimately a local condition and water suppliers respond to the risk of it by investing in water supplies and other measures that are available locally. Perhaps the biggest misstep from the 2014-2016 drought was the initial state-mandated conservation targets based on water use, not water supply.
  • Residential lawns should be water conservation reserves in future droughts: Collectively, lawns throughout a water supplier’s service area could be tapped to reduce residential water demand rapidly by up to 50% in some areas of the state. No other single action can deliver this reduction short of cutting off service or risking public health.
  • Urban water suppliers should have approved drought revenue recovery mechanisms compliant with Proposition 218 as part of their standing policies and rate structure: Water suppliers should not be required by the state or any other entity to trigger this mechanism, but a revenue recovery option should be readily available to suppliers in the event of supply interruptions due to drought or other reasons. 
  • Drought management should be controlled locally, coordinated regionally, and overseen at a state level: State and regional actions should not disrupt suppliers from investing in reliability planning; instead, the state should recognize the local, regional, and statewide benefits of reliability investments. Local water suppliers should maintain their own policies and drought response plans.
  • Local, regional, and state entities should work more closely with media outlets to accurately report water related information: Staff at all three levels should have media training, updated communication plans, and media talking points/messaging available to facilitate ongoing relationships with local media.  Water savings during drought largely depends on customer actions (or inactions) supported and communicated by statewide, regional, and local media reporting, local water suppliers, and other public outreach efforts.
  • Rebate programs should be less prominent during drought: Generally, rebate programs create limited direct water savings during droughts, but expend significant staff time and funding. During drought, water suppliers should prioritize broader public and media outreach focused on reducing outdoor water use.

The SB 606 and AB 1668 recommendations would increase the prominence of water efficiency in the state and nudge it closer to where it belongs, towards deeper, and in some cases equal integration with other resource management actions like supply augmentation.  The days of conservation and efficiency programs being thought of as “stickers and bubblegum” are behind us.  In the absence of implementing these recommendations, SB 606 and AB 1668 could be implemented in ways that deter improving overall efficiency through superfluous and ineffective requirements that become more of a burden than a valuable investment.  The drought response recommendations seek to smooth over some of the harsher edges experienced in the last drought and improve response to the next drought.

In the meantime, debates over how to manage water in California will continue at all levels.  The state and water suppliers will keep trying, working toward their own solutions in coordination with others.  It is a give and take, a push and pull, even a power struggle at times that shapes and advances water efficiency within overall water management.  It’s both frustrating and fascinating.  It could not be any other way.

Final Thought:

“Unfortunately, we tend to focus on drought when it is upon us. We’re then forced to react — to respond to immediate needs, to provide what are often more costly remedies, and to attempt to balance competing interests in a charged atmosphere. That’s not good policy. It’s not good resource management. And it certainly adds to the public’s perception that government is not doing its job when it simply reacts when crises strike. To the contrary, we must take a proactive approach to dealing with drought. We must anticipate the inevitable — that drought will come and go — and take an approach that seeks to minimize the effects of drought when it inevitably occurs.” — James R. Lyons, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, speaking at Drought Management in a Changing West: New Directions for Water Policy, in Portland, Oregon, in May 1994.

Drought face 2
Further Reading and Resources

Talbot, Amy.  (March 2019).  “Urban Water Conservation in the Sacramento, California Region during the 2014-2016 Drought.”  Master thesis in Geography, University of California, Davis.

State of California.  (April 2017). “Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life: Implementing Executive Order B-37-16.”  Final Report.

Brown, Edmund G. (May 2016).  “Executive Order B-37-16: Making Water Conservation A California Way Of Life.”

State of California. (2018). “Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life: Primer of 2018 Legislation on Water Conservation and Drought Planning Senate Bill 606 (Hertzberg) and Assembly Bill 1668 (Friedman).”

California Department of Water Resources (DWR). (2019). “Making Conservation A Way of Life.”  Webpage.

Mitchell, David, Hanak, Ellen, Baerenklau, Ken, Escriva-Bou, Alvar, Mccann, Henry, Perez-Urdiales, Maria, & Schwabe, Kurt. (2017).  “Building Drought Resilience in California’s cities and suburbs.” Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

California Department of Water Resources (DWR). (May 1978).  The 1976-1977 California Drought: A Review.

California Water Efficiency Partnership (CalWEP). (2019). “Framework Compliance.” Webpage.

Spang, Edward S., Holguin, Andrew J., and Loge, Frank J.  (January 12, 2018). “The estimated impact of California’s urban water conservation mandate on electricity consumption and greenhouse has emissions.” Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 1.

Feinstein, Laura, Phurisamban, Rapichan, Ford, Amanda, Ford, Christine, and Crawford, Ayana. (January 9, 2017). “Drought and Equity in California.” Pacific Institute.

Seapy, Briana. (March 2015).  “Turf Removal & Replacement: Lessons Learned.” California Urban Water Conservation Council.

End Notes

[1] “Urban retail water suppliers” are either public or private owned, providing water for municipal purposes directly or indirectly to more than 3,000 customers or supplying more than 3,000 acre-feet of water annually.  (California Water Code Section 10617).

[2] June 2015-May 2016 represents the timeframe for the state’s mandatory conservation targets for urban retail water suppliers.  Source: State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). (July 6, 2016). “Emergency Water Conservation Regulation Update-Office of Research, Planning, and Performance.”  Staff Presentation.


About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of California’s State-Mandated Urban Water Conservation during Drought

  1. Arturo Thiele-Sardina says:

    The one issue that us folks in San Jose California had was with our local water district who once they realized with the reduction of water consumption their revenue stream from their customer base was drying up (no pun intended), they could no longer maintain the infrastructure they supposedly are paid to manage. Now because they can’t seem to forecast their costs and revenue we the consumers are once again on the hook with usage increases, It’s not like the drought happened overnight and was a one year occurrence. Incompetency in bureaucrats seems to be a California phenomenon, it must be the drinking water! See link:

Leave a Reply