California Water Conservation Not Going Far Enough

May 7th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

As storm clouds settled above Southern California skies late last week, some inevitably wondered if they might spell some relief from the devastating drought that has enveloped the state for four years. But even though roughly 37 million gallons of rain water were captured via Los Angeles County's flood control system, according to the LA Times, officials said that a belief that substantial relief would come from the weekend's storms would be "delusional." The battle for meaningful conservation, however, has not gone well. According to figures released by the State Water Resources Control Board last week, the state used just 8.6 percent less water than it did last summer, and 3.6 percent less water in March than during the same month in 2013.

Along with releasing figures that fell far short of the historic urban water cuts proposed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), the water board simultaneously approved Brown's 25 percent cuts with a 5-0 vote. Under the plan, the board will be able to issue cease-and-desist orders to water wasters, as well as fines ranging from $500 for individuals to $10,000 for companies failing to comply. Different areas of the state will also be issued different conservation directives from anywhere between 8-36 percent less than 2013 levels, which are determined based on residential per capita use in last year's summer months. 

"It is better to prepare now than face much more painful cuts should it not rain in the fall," said the board's chairwoman Felicia Marcus said at the time

Still, the cuts won't solve everything. Water board estimations peg the daily per-citizen water use average at 55 gallons, but as CNBC reports, many citizens across the state use much more––between 216 and 614 gallons each day. So even with stiff cutbacks, citizens using the most water in certain parts of the state would be only be restricted to 138 gallons each day, "far more than the accepted standard of 55 gallons per person per day," the agency said. 

Other data show that Californians still have a long way to go to attain the goals outlined in the cuts, especially with summer just weeks away, when outdoor water use tends to account for anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of urban consumption. 

But Californians don't just face shorter showers or fewer celebrities watering their lawns. The Times pointed to recent data highlighting what seems like an indifference on the part of water supply companies issuing fines to greedy consumers. Out of more than 10,000 complaints across hundreds of supply companies, only 682 penalties were assessed in recent months. And out of 1,215 water-waste complaints to the LA Department of Water and Power in March alone, only 13 penalties were issued. 

There are hundreds of suppliers across California to account for, whose varying sizes and budgets can make equal regulation difficult. But problems also pop up surrounding the legal and practical structures they operate on when deciding how much water to allocate to different customers. Michael Wara, a Stanford environmental law professor, told CNBC that the structure lacks tools to sufficiently monitor amounts of water being used by different customers, and relies on an antiquated system for choosing who gets water, and how much of it. "I am very skeptical that the water agencies and the State Water Resources Control Board can enforce any of this," Wara told CNBC. 

What's more, unlike with gasoline, companies generally won't increase the price of water when supply is low, resulting in weakened up-front cost-saving incentives for customers. 

Faced with criticism for relatively low issuance of fines thus far, water suppliers say that less harsh punitive measures have been more effective in the past, but observers have pointed to the fact that the mandatory water board cuts were passed because voluntary cuts that have characterized conservation efforts in past years have largely failed. But even as the drought rages on, observers have expressed doubt that conservation will catch on among Californians. "What worries me most is that I think a lot of Californians are not yet quite ready to do that...to embrace that new water ethic," Dave Bolland, a special projects manager for Association of California Water Agencies, told a local NPR affiliate

But by any measure, recent efforts have been underscored by a renewed insistence on the need to confront the state's problems immediately. "We've done a lot. We have a long way to go," Gov. Brown said last month, after calling for $10,000 fines for residents and businesses wasting the most water. "So maybe you want to think of this as just another installment on a long enterprise to live with a changing climate and with a drought of uncertain duration."