Californians are facing more cuts and stiffer penalties for ignoring water use restrictions

By Anne C. Mulkern | 04/15/2015 09:01 AM EDT

The effects of California’s prolonged drought are unfolding quickly, and water managers’ actions to conserve supplies could soon hit the wallets of Southern California’s millions of residents.

The effects of California’s prolonged drought are unfolding quickly, and water managers’ actions to conserve supplies could soon hit the wallets of Southern California’s millions of residents.

Metropolitan Water District (MWD), the biggest wholesaler in the state, voted yesterday to cut by 15 percent the allotment of water it gives to its 26 member agencies. Local water authorities will face steep fines for using more.

Metropolitan’s board of directors approved the cut starting July 1 for a yearlong period. Exact numbers for different agencies will vary, based on local supply conditions and how much they’ve previously conserved.


"Southern California has led the way in water conservation for more than 20 years, and now we’re asking people to do significantly more," said Randy Record, Metropolitan board chairman. "We know it will be difficult, but we’re in an unprecedented drought."

Agencies that exceed their allotments must pay surcharges ranging from $1,480 per acre-foot up to $2,960 per acre-foot. An acre-foot serves two households for a year, MWD said. Those costs are likely to be passed along to ratepayers, MWD spokesman Bob Muir has said. Some local agencies have said they will be reviewing their rate schedules in the coming months.

The MWD policy affects agencies that serve some of the most populous areas of the state, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), Municipal Water District of Orange County and San Diego County Water Authority. Metropolitan is the largest supplier of drinking water in the country, providing water to 19 million people.

Some on the board wanted steeper cuts. Member Judy Abdo, representing Santa Monica, urged a 20 percent reduction in the allocation.

Of the 15 percent cut and drawing water from reserves, she said, "To me, it’s like spending down our savings account and hoping to win the lottery to win it back."

MWD delegates from the San Diego County Water Authority also supported the steeper cut, which ultimately was voted down.

MWD’s move marks the fourth time the district has restricted supplies because of drought. The last cut came as a 10 percent reduction from July 2009 to April 2011.

Cuts come as state shrinks distributions

Metropolitan acted two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) mandated consumption drawbacks. In an April 1 executive order, the governor directed the state’s Water Resources Control Board to impose a 25 percent statewide water reduction among urban users.

The state Water Resources Control Board after Brown’s directive is taking comments on a draft framework for a four-tiered scale of mandatory water-use reductions. The board could potentially adopt a regulation May 5 or 6.

Many urban residents potentially will face a tougher cutback from the state than the 25 percent. Under the proposal from the California board, 135 water districts will have to drop consumption 35 percent to make up for not conserving over the past year.

The upcoming MWD allotment reduction is necessary, the board said, because of Brown’s order and because the drought-stricken state has chopped the supplies it gives through the State Water Project (SWP). That system is a mammoth network of canals and pumps built to transport more than 1 billion gallons of water per day from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California via a 440-mile aqueduct.

The SWP now is providing 20 percent of earlier water amounts, meaning MWD is getting about 400,000 acre-feet from the state. Metropolitan also gets about 900,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River. But that puts the wholesaler well below the 2.1 million acre-feet it has previously delivered annually to agencies, forcing MWD to tap its reserves and cut back allocations to get through the next year.

Los Angeles is ground zero

The policy adopted yesterday is poised to have a major impact on Los Angeles.

LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the country, in fiscal 2013-2014 received three-fourths of its water from MWD. With the drought, there was less water available from the agency’s L.A. aqueduct, said spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa.

"LADWP has been closely monitoring and participating in discussions by the MWD and its Board about water allocations for the coming year," LADWP General Manager Marcie Edwards said in a statement. "As overall statewide water supply conditions have not improved, under the plan adopted by the MWD Board today, Los Angeles’ water supply from MWD will be cut by 15 [percent]."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti separately has called for reducing per-capita water use 20 percent by 2017.

Edwards noted that the penalties approved by MWD were costly.

"We are optimistic that Los Angeles can stay within our water allocation for the year ahead," Edwards said. "However, if we fail to cut back or face an unusually hot summer for the fourth year in a row, any water that we buy above our allocated amount would cost more than double the current price."

San Diego County Water Authority said it would be examining how to implement both the state cutback and the MWD allocation reduction. The agency gets about half its water supplies from MWD.

"While we don’t know exactly what the final conservation targets will be, it’s critical that every resident immediately eliminate unnecessary water use — severely restrict lawn watering, take shorter showers and fix leaks immediately," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the Water Authority. "We could be in for a very long road ahead, and we all need to step up. Taking all of these actions indoors and outdoors really does add up to a significant water savings across the region."