Drought Troubles: Regulatory Plans Meet Judicial Pushback


Update (5/6/15):
On Tuesday, May 5th, California’s state water board approved emergency drought regulations that aim to slash water use in urban areas by 25%.

The measures call for cities and water agencies to reduce water usage by amounts ranging from 8% to 36%. The State Water Resources Control Board drew up the rules to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s order for a 25% cut in urban water use statewide.

Original Post:

Recently, conservation issues concerning the drought have stirred up a bit of controversy. On April 28th, California Governor Jerry Brown called for $10,000 fines for residents and businesses resistant to mandatory conservation targets. This recommendation—part of a larger legislative proposal to expand enforcement of water restrictions—came hours before regulators were scheduled to release an updated plan assigning each community a water use reduction target.

The governor also said he is directing state agencies to speed up environmental review of projects that increase local water supplies. California mayors have complained that such projects have been delayed by red tape. On Monday, April 27th, a legislative panel rejected a bill to speed construction of new water storage projects, in part due to undetermined environmental impacts of such projects.

Last summer, state regulators authorized $500 fines for outdoor water waste, but few cities have actually imposed such high amounts. Many agencies have said they would rather educate customers than penalize them. Brown said steep fines should still be a last resort and “only the worst offenders” that continue to violate water rules would be subject to $10,000 penalties, although he did not clarify how violations would be determined. Perhaps more significantly, Brown’s proposal would also provide water departments with the enforcement power necessary to fine customers, something agencies currently cannot do.

Previously, Brown ordered a mandatory 25% reduction in statewide water use in cities and towns after voluntary conservation wasn’t enough to meet his goals.

The state’s most recent proposal, released last week, calls for water use to plunge by as much as 36% in some communities. Some cities are concerned that the targets are unrealistic and possibly illegal. Further, some Northern California communities say their longstanding legal rights to water protect them from having to make cuts to help other parched towns.

The current conservation plan is based on per-capita residential water use last summer. Some agencies have offered alternatives that reflect greater need for water in more arid parts of the state and give credit for conservation efforts before the drought began.

Earlier in April, an appeals court struck down tiered water rates designed to encourage conservation in the Orange County city of San Juan Capistrano, saying rates must be linked to the cost of service. Prior to the ruling, San Juan Capistrano used a rate structure that charged customers who used small amounts of water a lower rate than customers who used larger amounts. The 4th District Court of Appeal struck down the city’s fee plan, saying it violated voter-approved Proposition 218, which prohibits government agencies from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.

This ruling does have major implications for the state, as at least two-thirds of California water providers, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, use some form of the tiered rate system. However, the court clarified that tiered prices are legal as long as the government agency can show that each rate is tied to the cost of providing the water. Brown, optimistic that tiered water rates can still be used with adequate proof, added that his policy is to “employ every method possible to ensure water is conserved across California”.

Experts say 66% to 80% of California water providers use some type of tiered rates. A 2014 UC Riverside study estimated that tiered rate structures similar to the one used in San Juan Capistrano reduce water use over time by up to 15%.

California is in its fourth year of drought, and state officials fear it may last as long as a decade.


This article is composed of excerpts from Los Angeles Times and USA Today articles. 

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