Analysis: State Water Board’s proposal leaves California at risk of shortages

Water experts and environmental justice advocates raise alarm over in delay meaningful conservation by a decade or more, leaving the state vulnerable to climate extremes — they say total water savings through conservation will not drop below current levels until 2035.

Earlier yesterday, Thursday, March 14, water experts and environmental justice advocates provided a briefing to analyze the impacts of the State Water Board’s just-released updates to its proposed urban water conservation regulation.

In short, the updated draft regulation leaves California vulnerable to precipitation extremes under climate change, allowing for increases in water use in the near-term and delaying meaningful urban water conservation until 2040.

With the California Department of Water Resources predicting a reduction in water supplies of 10 percent by 2040, the delay will likely force urban water suppliers to over-invest in more expensive new sources of water instead of advancing conservation measures, which are more affordable and more equitable.

“Plain and simple, the Water Board’s updated draft regulation will make water more expensive for Californians,” said Heather Cooley, director of research with the Pacific Institute.

In a high-level analysis of the updated regulation, Cooley noted that the total amount of water saved through urban conservation would be reduced by nearly 400,000 acre-feet per year in 2030 and by more than 200,000 acre-feet by 2040. For context, the City of Los Angeles uses about 500,000 acre-feet annually.

“The changes in the updated regulation will have real impacts on how much water is available to Californians and at what cost for decades to come,” added Cooley.

The California Legislature passed two laws in 2018 to Make Conservation a California Way of Life, and this regulation is the implementation of those laws. Governor Newsom’s Water Supply Strategy also calls for conserving at least 500,000 acre-feet of water every year by 2030. Policy makers in Sacramento recognize the instability of California’s water supplies and the need to stretch dollars and drops as far as possible in this era of regular and prolonged droughts.

The State Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a critique of draft the regulation released by the Water Board last August, claiming the regulation would be too expensive and too complicated to implement. The LAO report, which was based on partial information and incorrect assumptions, also did not take into account the cost of new water supplies, such as wastewater recycling and desalination. While all these strategies are likely to be part of California’s water future, delayed conservation efforts are likely to spur investment in costly new infrastructure that may not be needed once the benefits of conservation are fully realized.

On average, reducing demand for water through conservation and efficiency costs between $600-$1,800 per acre-foot. Even the high-end cost per acre-foot saved through conservation is lower than the average costs of generating new water. For example, the estimated cost per acre-foot of water through wastewater recycling ranges from $2,000-$2,500 per acre-foot through indirect potable reuse and $2,400-3,600 per acre-foot through direct potable reuse. And seawater desalination costs somewhere between $3,100-3,400 per acre-foot.

“Our ability to provide reliable and affordable water to California communities is being threatened by climate change, it should be a no-brainer to prioritize water conservation — the only new supply that also saves energy and reduces utility bills,” said Tracy Quinn, president and CEO of Heal the Bay. “We shouldn’t be taking our foot off the pedal, we should be slamming it through the floorboard. It is the State Water Board’s duty to prevent the waste and unreasonable use of water, but these new regulations actually encourage more waste. The proposed delays of stronger standards are unconscionable. The new regulation may as well be called, ‘Making Waiting for Conservation A California Way of Life.’”

Unlike large-scale water infrastructure projects that can take a decade or more to implement, water conservation can be realized quickly, with fewer environmental impacts. Conservation also brings a wide range of benefits, such as reducing energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing habitat for native species, and lowering water bills for everyone — including low-income Californians. It is possible, and essential, to make conservation work for low-income communities, which are already hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.

“One of the most troubling things about the updated regulation is the decision to further slow down the requirement for agencies that supply water to low-income communities to invest in conservation,” noted Jennifer Clary, California state director with Clean Water Action. “Saving water helps low-income households save money by lowering their utility bills. If the state really cares about equity and environmental justice, it would be accelerating the pace of conservation in underrepresented communities, not delaying it.”

The updated regulation is projected to reduce water use by only 12 percent by 2040. Research by the Pacific Institute shows the potential for reduced water use through conservation and efficiency is 30 to 48 percent. Federal funds are available through 2026 to support conservation investments. Stronger conservation regulations could incentivize local water suppliers to pursue these funds and take action quickly, but the updated regulation currently under review eliminates such incentives by significantly extending the timeline for complying with the stricter standards.

The updated proposed regulation affects different parts of the state in different ways. For example:

  • The South Coast region of the state will be allowed to continue wasting 200K acre-feet of water through 2030 that could be saved through investments in transforming outdoor areas to California-appropriate landscaping.
  • Wealthy Southern California cities with high water use, like Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes and Westlake Village, may now use an alternative compliance path that only requires them to reduce water use by 2 percent per year.
  • The San Francisco Bay area will now only realize conservation savings of less than 600 acre-feet of water annually by 2030, compared to 19,000 acre-feet called for in the previous version of the regulation.

“Tens of thousands of Californians nearly lost access to water just two short years ago,” said Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst with NRDC. “We can’t afford to forget that climate change is here, and weather extremes are the new normal. The Water Board should scrap this attempt to slow-walk conservation and revert to its previous timeline and outdoor efficiency standards.”

The State Water Board will hold a public workshop on the updated proposed regulation on March 20 and will accept written public comment on the proposal until March 27.

More than 100 groups have signed on to a statement of principles urging the state to prioritize conservation to protect access to safe and affordable water for every California resident. Learn more at conserve4ca.org/.