Time to ratchet down on water

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: Governor Jerry Brown's approval of more than $1 billion in bond funding for drought response has led to statewide discussions on the adequacy of the response. We're in the middle of a four year extreme drought and the Sierra snowpack is less than 10 percent of the average for April 1st. Water users from farmers to city-dwellers are justifiably concerned that the state isn't doing enough to face the water shortage crisis. A billion dollar investment in storage, flood control, and water recycling will help, but not for years to come.

Hitchster aqueduct.jpgHere are a number of other ideas that could move California closer to sustainable water management now and in the future. In the short term, voluntary water conservation has got to go. The 20 percent voluntary conservation goal needs to become a mandatory goal. Many cities and water districts have moved to water budget allocations. This needs to be a statewide requirement. Also, in urban areas, no one should be watering more than twice a week. And allocations need to be developed by the pertinent water districts in agricultural areas and applied to agriculture too. LA Times columnist George Skelton suggested moving to crop restrictions last week, but tough water budget allocations with strong penalties for exceedances would be just as effective and would give agriculture the flexibility to determine how they want to conserve to meet limits.

A bold approach to supplement water budget allocations is net zero water. Ordinances must be developed to ensure that there will be no net increase in water use from pre-existing development for all new and redevelopment. If a proposed project needs more water than the pre-existing use, then the developer should be required to conserve twice the amount of the increase on another project off-site. Also, the net zero water use requirement should kick in upon the sale of any property. The city of Santa Monica may soon consider such an approach. The net zero water approach could be applied in both urban and agricultural areas.

Urban water rate structures must be very strong conservation based block rate structures. Right now, water districts and municipalities are afraid to take on proposition 218 restrictions based on the San Juan Capistrano case. The judge's ruling took the rate increase-service nexus requirements to an untenable level. The case is on appeal and will be heard this year. It is time for cities and water districts to take a risk and move forward with rate structures that truly incentivize major conservation efforts. Look to the Irvine Ranch Water District approach as an example that works. We need rates that make water hogs pay for their waste of California's most precious natural resource.

At a local level, the Metropolitan Water District and other water districts need to aggressively provide financial incentives (up to $250 an acre foot) for large stormwater capture projects. MWD needs to set project eligibility criteria (such as a minimum project size of 1,000 acre feet of new water annually) and a strict definition of new water supply from stormwater as part of this effort. The current case-by-case approach to offering incentives for stormwater capture is too uncertain and has proven to be largely ineffective. Greater certainty is needed.

In the longer term, we need Proposition 218 reform that will enable water rates to be raised without undue constraints. Managing water through crisis response is not smart practice. Also, enabling water agencies to charge customers larger fixed service charges would create greater system stability in the face of revenue losses from effective conservation efforts. Under the current system, improved conservation leads to reduced revenues, which jeopardizes drinking water infrastructure construction, operation and maintenance efforts.

The state got a decent start with our first groundwater management legislation last year, but the pace just isn't fast enough. We have to set up groundwater management plans with monitoring requirements and data-driven sustainable yield requirements as soon as possible. The overdraft problems in the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast could prove to be permanently devastating if strong groundwater management efforts aren't put in place immediately. Also, the state should increase mandatory water recycling requirements in their water recycling policy, and draft an amendment to the policy that targets agriculture. Agriculture was not included in the 2009 state water recycling policy.

Perhaps the most important, yet difficult problem that needs to be solved is the issue of water rights. The current system is not working. It is far too complicated and arcane. However, transformation of the water rights system so large regions and the state can better manage both surface and groundwater supplies is critical. Herculean efforts on these issues may not lead to significant beneficial changes in the system, but we are starting to see greater enforcement of surface water rights by the State Water Resources Control Board, and some modification of water rights agreements at the local level (for example, recent adjudications on West and Central Basins).

And finally, the state needs to take charge and lead the bond dollar allocation efforts. As we've seen from the previous water bonds (13, 40, 50 and 84), setting aside dollars by category and having subjective eligibility criteria is not enough to ensure that California is maximizing the water supply and water quality benefits that are so sorely needed. We've seen many good projects constructed by bond funds, but we also have seen numerous mediocre projects that provided minimal water quality and supply benefits. We can no longer afford to waste water, waste time and waste any of the $7.5 billion from Proposition 1. The state needs to be much more strategic on how the dollars will be spent. The state needs to develop tough, objective eligibility criteria for projects that will ensure that projects get funded based on merit rather than on politics. And the state needs to develop a blue ribbon panel of experts to assist them in finalizing the state's Prop 1 allocation strategy and approving final project proposals.

This list of water use reduction measures is far from comprehensive, but implementation of the measures would go a long way towards moving California closer to a more sustainable approach to statewide water management.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hitchster.

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