Worsening conditions force Calif. to tighten water restrictions

By Anne C. Mulkern | 03/18/2015 01:14 PM EDT

With California’s drought appearing to worsen, the state yesterday ordered local water agencies to impose and enforce conservation through limits on outdoor water use.

With California’s drought appearing to deepen, the state yesterday ordered local water agencies to impose and enforce conservation through limits on outdoor water use.

More than 400 water suppliers that serve 95 percent of Californians must activate existing conservation policies or enact new rules restricting outdoor irrigation. The California Water Resources Control Board said agencies without regulations already in place should start with restricting watering to twice per week.

Fines of up to $500 per day can be assessed for hosing off a driveway or sidewalk, causing excess runoff while watering landscapes, or washing a car with a hose that lacks a shut-off nozzle. Agencies can be penalized $10,000 for not policing repeat offenders.


"We are experiencing the lowest snowpack and the driest January in recorded history, and communities around the state are already suffering severely from the prior three years of drought," board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said yesterday. "If the drought continues through next winter and we do not conserve more — the consequences could be even more catastrophic than they already are. Today’s action is just a tune-up and a reminder to act, and we will consider more significant actions in the weeks to come."

The rules take effect on 45 days. The board had proposed a month but extended it after some at the meeting urged a 60-day window.

The state hasn’t officially declared a fourth year of drought. That won’t happen until the traditional end of the rainy season next month. But the outlook is grim, officials said.

Last year’s snowpack and water supply were dismal, and it’s increasingly likely this year’s levels will be even lower, John Lehigh, director of the Department of Water Resources, told the board. He added that "it could very well mean more actions that are not positive."

Lake Shasta Reservoir, the state’s biggest, is at 58 percent of capacity. Lake Oroville is at 50 percent. Both of those are in Northern California. Near the Central Valley, Pine Flat is at 17 percent and Exchequer at 9 percent. (Those historically run below half-full.)

The board, by passing an emergency ordinance, essentially renewed a regulation it had in effect last year, with a few changes. New additions include no watering outdoors for 48 hours after a rainfall, restricting restaurants from serving water unless it’s requested, and requiring all hotels and motels to give guests the options of not receiving linen changes.

The board’s move won’t bring changes at some of the biggest water agencies, which already have conservation policies in place. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) starting in 2009 restricted outdoor watering to three days per week, depending on the address, said spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, meanwhile, has asked that outdoor watering be reduced to two days.

But decisions are on the horizon that could lead to more cutbacks.

Major water supplier runs low

Directors at Metropolitan Water of Southern California (MWD), which supplies about half the water used by 19 million Southern Californians, next month will decide how much water the wholesaler can afford to withdraw from reserves. That will influence whether agencies must enact more draconian cutbacks.

"Southern California is poised to have some degree of mandatory conservation this summer," said MWD spokesman Bob Muir. "It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when, and how much."

MWD right now is receiving just 20 percent of its allocation from the State Water Project, which moves water south from Northern California. That portion equals about 400,000 acre-feet. MWD also will get 900,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River.

There are potential water transfers and exchanges, but MWD still would be well below the 2.1 million acre-feet it has previously delivered annually to agencies that include LADWP, Municipal Water District of Orange County and San Diego County Water Authority.

The most the wholesaler could withdraw from its reservoirs is 550,000 acre-feet, Muir said, but it’s unlikely to go that far.

"I think that is something our board might be concerned about doing," Muir said. "That leaves us with a very small cushion going into 2016-17."

Similar situations are likely in Northern California, said Rich Atwater, executive director at the Southern California Water Committee, a nonprofit that provides education and water advocacy.

There were mandatory conservation measures during a state drought in 2008-09, he said, and "this drought is more serious."

Golf courses fret about rules

The state water board’s move on conservation earned praise from some environmental groups, while others expressed concerns.

Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs at the Southern California Golf Association, told the board that watering restrictions limiting the days of the week are "not consistent with the result you want." He said more flexibility is needed.

"Los Angeles primarily in 2010 pioneered a different way of handling large landscapes that achieves results," Kessler said. Those cutbacks right now are about 20 percent, he said.

"The reality is, the way golf courses are set up, if you become focused on compliance with two- or three-day restrictions … this is the way golf courses can comply with that: Golf courses will overwater on those three days, produce bad golf courses and not conserve water," Kessler said.

Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance, said that she supports the regulations. But the state needs more long-term thinking, she said.

"I urge you to think about how we can move out of this emergency mode, and looking at some of these temporary and incremental reforms, and really start to think about the sweeping government reforms that many water experts in the state are calling for," Aminzadeh said.

"There’s a real urgency and crisis around this drought," she said. "The drought calls for shared sacrifice, and that needs to be reflected in these regulations."

Aminzadeh added that "it is concerning to me that the [water board] staff presentation has a bullet that says some communities may soon run out of water, and we’re discussing what sort of landscapes are preferable for golf course users."

In addition to the conservation measure, the board readopted an emergency regulation that allows a stop to water diversions in three Sacramento River tributaries if there are insufficient flows for threatened fish. Minimum flows are in place for Mill, Deer and Antelope creeks to protect salmon and steelhead populations.

The board also reapproved an emergency regulation that allows it to collect information on how much water is being legally diverted by water rights holders. The Golden State’s water rights hierarchy prioritizes those who were first in line with privileges preceding 1914, when the current allocation structure was created.

The board said in a statement that "knowing how much water is legally diverted by all water right holders is the most important piece of information needed in accurately determining which water rights must be curtailed and by when." It added that "this regulation requires water right holders to document their water right claims, and report their most recent water use if information or complaints about their water rights or water use are received."