SACRAMENTO (CN) – For the first time in state history, California cities and water agencies must adopt mandatory water restrictions decided regulators late Tuesday in an effort to combat the historic drought.
Spurred into action by a disappearing snowpack and Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order, the State Water Resources Control Board unanimously adopted emergency regulations that call for an immediate 25 percent reduction in potable urban water use statewide.
“This is the drought of the century, with greater impact than anything our parents and grandparents experienced, and we have to act accordingly,” said water board chair Felicia Marcus.
Cities and water agencies will be placed into tiers by the state and will have to meet water conservation standards as mandated by their tier. The state will assign urban water suppliers to one of eight tiers, with reduction standards ranging from four percent to 36 percent.
The water board will monitor the percentage of savings for each water agency, comparing current water use with the same month in 2013.
Last month, urban users saved just 3.6 percent compared to March 2013 totals, well short of the board’s future goal of 25 percent savings.
The water board said every Californian should be able to keep indoor water use to 55 gallons per day, despite many of the Golden State’s largest cities averaging over 300 gallons a day per user.
Daily water usage varies wildly from city to city. Palm Springs residents average 416 gallons per user during the summer months, while customers in San Francisco averaged 45 gallons during the same period.
Each of California’s 411 water departments will have to implement the board’s emergency regulations for 270 days, once an administrative law office signs off on the scheme. Local agencies will be responsible for enforcing the restrictions and fining water wasters up to $500.
Tuesday’s mandatory regulations are the latest in a string of blows for Californians mired in an unmatched drought. An annual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in April – historically a time when the snowpack is deepest – revealed it to be at just five percent of normal.
California receives more than 30 percent of its water from Sierra Nevada snowpack runoff, which typically fills up hundreds of reservoirs for summer use. Many of the largest reservoirs, including Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake, are at extremely low levels and figure to receive minimal runoff from the diminished snowpack.
If California meets the 25 percent savings goal, it will save 1.2 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months – enough to match what’s currently in Lake Oroville. With California facing a fifth consecutive year of drought, a NASA scientist claimed California has just one year’s supply of water stored in its reservoirs and that total storage is 34 million acre-feet below average.
During Tuesday’s water board hearing, representatives from many cities and water suppliers voiced concern about meeting the enhanced restrictions. Some argued their customers use more water during summer months because of the hot climate and that further reducing water use could increase fire risk.
Marcus said overall there has been far less pushback from cities than she expected and that the order prepares California for an uncertain future.
“We recognize this is a challenge and a big step, but the time calls upon us to take this big step,” Marcus said.
According to water board estimates, half of total residential use is outdoors and the regulations largely target outdoor watering. Cities will be forced to let freeway and street medians turn brown and residents are encouraged to forgo turf lawns for drought-tolerant landscapes.
Many cities are already offering rebates for residents that trade in their thirsty lawns for other alternatives.
On Wednesday, the water board will conduct a hearing on desalination projects and look at using ocean water as a crutch to bolster California’s dwindling water supply. The water board could adopt an amendment that would provide direction and guidelines for water agencies looking to implement the expensive desalination technology.
Brown called desalination “an expensive option” and has repeatedly said rationing and conservation are the best ways to combat the drought. Brown signed a $1 billion drought bill in March addressing farming communities already without potable water.
Besides being expensive, critics have dismissed desalination as an energy hog that kills marine life at both the intake and waste-discharge points.
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