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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Watchdog Delays Making Water-Wasting Rules Permanent

California’s water regulator punted a raft of regulations to fine water hogs up to $500, even as the Golden State plunges back into drought.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California’s water regulator punted a raft of regulations to fine water hogs up to $500, even as the Golden State plunges back into drought.

While the California State Water Resources Control Board delayed making a decision until next month in order to add to the regulations, opponents of the new restrictions – or how they’re being implemented – hinted at future litigation and the possibility of a prolonged battle.

“We support the regulations but we remain concerned about the means and the process,” said Rob Donlan, a Sacramento-based water rights attorney.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the water board was set to consider the permanent adoption of several conservation measures initially implemented as part of an emergency package taken up in 2014 and continued into 2017.

The package includes prohibitions on water run-off from properties, watering driveways and sidewalks, washing cars without shut-off nozzles, irrigating in the rain and requiring restaurants to serve water only upon request with similar request provisions applying to washing linen at hotels and motels.

Violations of these provisions carry fines and other consequences.

The regulations earned broad support from both the state’s many public and private water districts and environmental groups.

“We support these stronger efforts to promote conservation and water use efficiency as these are the most cost-effective approaches for weather what could be a drought this year and the future droughts that climate change may bring,” said Kyle Jones of the Sierra Club.

But water district representatives were less enthusiastic, and in many cases adamantly opposed the water board’s staff recommendation that the regulations be included in code governing waste and unreasonable use.

That part of the code pertains to emergency situations and is not meant for permanent regulations, according to the water districts. They say adding the regulations will lead to unintended consequences including the taking of water rights, depriving end users of due process and creating a slippery slope that will lead to the further erosion of acceptable water uses in California.

“Our preference is for the state to move forward with water conservation without threatening the rights of water suppliers,” Donlan said.

Other speakers said the permanent passage of emergency regulations is a task for the Legislature, not a regulatory and enforcement agency like the water control board.

“The board appears intent on expanding and exceeding its jurisdictional authority on this matter and several others,” said Jeff Stephenson of the San Diego Water Authority.

While the water board ultimately delayed making a decision, its members seemed resigned to a prolonged fight likely headed for the courtroom.

When board chair Felicia Marcus refereed a discussion between Donlan and water control board staff counsel David Rose, she called it an oral argument. In her discussion she referred to potential litigation as when rather than if.

Meanwhile, the water situation in California grows bleaker as spring approaches.

The snowpack was at 14 percent of its historic average on Feb. 1, and little has fallen since.

While water board staff acknowledged that record precipitation in 2017 means California's network of reservoirs are near or slightly above their historical averages, they said last year’s deluge may have been an aberration in a new era of predominantly dry winters for the state.

“The conditions of the most recent drought are not exceptional,” said Charlotte Ely, who works in the water board’s department dedicated to planning for climate change. “Climate change has changed the hydrology of California.”

Longer droughts, less snowpack, earlier snowpack melt, more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow and decreasing water availability will likely be the default for California as it grapples with rising global temperatures.

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Categories / Government, Regional

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