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Making Water Conservation a Way of Life in San Diego

As California considers legislation to make conservation a permanent strategy, it needs support from Southern California water agencies like the San Diego County Water Authority, writes Matt O’Malley of San Diego Coastkeeper.

WRITTEN BYMatt O’Malley PUBLISHED ON  READ TIMEApprox. 3 minutes
Us california drought reveals uneven water usage
Aerial view overlooking landscaping on April 4, 2015, in San Diego, California. Water conservation continues to be a big legislative topic in California even after the drought has officially ended in most of the state. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images/AFP

EARLIER THIS MONTH, I attended a meeting of the San Diego Conservation Action Committee on California’s plan to make water conservation a way of life, and was disappointed to hear a familiar refrain from our regional water wholesaler, the San Diego County Water Authority: Why is the state asking us to conserve water when we can build our way out of our water supply woes?

It was a position that the Water Authority took at the height of one of the worst droughts California has ever seen. Now, as the state considers legislation to make conservation a way of life in California, the Water Authority has mounted a full-fledged lobbying campaign to overhaul the painstakingly developed water conservation and efficiency framework.

For months, San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners have worked alongside water suppliers, businesses, state agencies and other stakeholders to fulfill Gov. Brown’s vision for a sustainable water future in Executive Order B-37-16, to maximize efficiency and conservation and minimize water waste. Legislation is required to implement certain elements of that framework, and lawmakers are currently considering alternative approaches to manage California’s limited water supplies for long-term reliability.

The new framework puts a long-overdue emphasis on water conservation and drought response planning while allowing flexibility for water agencies to determine how to best serve the needs of local customers. Each supplier would have an achievable target based on efficiency standards for indoor and outdoor water use and leak repair, taking into account variables like population and climate to address local needs.

It is imperative that we make our region more resilient to drought and future water shortages that are expected to result from a changing climate. Yet the Water Authority has continuously attempted to water down the well-vetted approach to make conservation a way of life. Its efforts have sought to delay adoption of sensible efficiency targets, undermine the development of a uniform methodology for setting targets, exempt recycled water from efficiency standards and limit accountability and enforcement. This approach may benefit the Water Authority, but it doesn’t benefit San Diegans.

While San Diegans have made considerable progress in conserving water over the past 25 years, our region – and the state – must continue to build upon that success in order to adapt to the expected impacts of climate change and population growth. In the Water Authority’s own words, “water conservation is the cheapest new source of water.” As such, meaningful conservation targets and measures incorporated within the framework should be prioritized above any and all other water supplies, each of which carries tremendous environmental and economic costs.

Here’s how we can make water conservation a way of life in San Diego.

  1. Don’t delay or start over. The Water Authority wants to start a new stakeholder process to establish urban water use targets, but the state’s framework already reflects substantial public input, including a broadly representative Urban Advisory Group. A new stakeholder process would unnecessarily delay implementation of meaningful standards and targets.
  2. Base water conservation targets on efficient use. The approach that the Water Authority has championed specifies that the new stakeholder process should build upon the existing requirements that the state achieve a 20 percent reduction in urban water use by 2020. Experience has shown that differing conditions across the state make it hard to come up with a workable baseline from which to calculate a percentage reduction. In order to be consistent with the state’s proposal, adopted legislation should direct the State Water Board to develop a single method to calculate targets based on standards of efficient water use, with input from a stakeholder group, by a certain date. Basing new targets on efficiency means that agencies that have invested in conservation will receive credit for previous conservation.
  3. Ensure recycled water is used efficiently. The Water Authority’s approach would create a massive loophole in future water efficiency by providing a 30 percent credit toward meeting the target for use of recycled water. California already provides numerous incentives for investments in recycled water, including $625 million in funding from Proposition 1. Water efficiency and water recycling are complementary – not competing – strategies to achieve a safe, affordable and locally reliable water system.

California has been reeling between extremes of drought and flood. Climate change models forecast that we will continue to see these extreme conditions. It is imperative that the state finalize and implement a strong and consistent conservation and efficiency framework to help assure a resilient and secure water future.

A version of this op-ed first appeared on the San Diego Coastkeeper blog. You can read it here.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.