Californians could see mandatory water cuts amid drought

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday threatened to impose mandatory water restrictions if residents didn’t consume less on their own as the drought drags on and months hottest summers are approaching.

Newsom raised the possibility during a meeting with representatives from major water agencies, including those that supply Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Democratic governor avoided making sweeping, mandatory cuts in water use and instead gave local water agencies the power to set rules for water use in cities and towns which they supply.

January through March is usually when most of California’s annual rain and snow fall, but this year those months were the driest for at least a century. Despite calls for conservation, the state’s water use rose dramatically in March – 19% compared to the same month in 2020 — and now Newsom is considering changing his approach.

“Each state water agency must take more aggressive steps to communicate the drought urgency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said in a statement.

California is in its third drought year and virtually all areas of the state are classified as being in severe or extreme drought. Due to low water levels in state reservoirs, the state only releases a limited amount of water from its supplies.

Last summer, Newsom called on Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% by taking five-minute showers and avoiding baths, running the washing machine and dishwasher only at full load and limiting water consumption to clean outdoor areas. Water used for agriculture is not accounted for.

Several local water officials present at the meeting said the tone was positive and focused on how all agencies can work together to promote conservation.

“From our perspective, it works best when local water managers deal with local water supply conditions, but we try to support the state, we try to support the governor as best we can,” said Ed Stevenson, general manager of the Alameda County Water District, who was at the meeting.

The district gets about 40% of its water from the state supply. Its water consumption has dropped by about 7% since Newsom called for voluntary conservation.

The San Diego County Water Authority, meanwhile, hasn’t needed state water since July, in part because it relies on a mix of other sources, including a desalination plant. , said Chairman of the Board, Gary Croucher. But he said the district still has a role to play in the drought response. The authority is made up of 24 water agencies, including the city of San Diego, where water use has fallen 1.3% since Newsom called for savings.

“If someone wants to say that we are independent and that we are fine on our own, they are wrong. We really need to work together as a group of collaborators,” he said.

How long Newsom could impose mandatory restrictions if conservation does not improve was unclear. Spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the administration would reassess conservation progress in just “a few weeks.” She did not offer a metric the administration would use to measure success.

Newsom has already moved to force more conservation local water districts. The water board will vote on Tuesday whether to ban the watering of decorative grass and force local agencies to step up conservation efforts.

After the last drought, the state began requiring cities and other water districts to submit drought response plans that detail six levels of conservation based on the amount of water available. Newsom asked the council to require these districts to move to “Tier 2” in their plans, which assumes a 20% water shortage.

Each district can set its own rules for “Tier 2,” and they often include things like further limiting water use for outdoor purposes and paying people to install more efficient fixtures or landscaping that requires less water. They must include a communication plan to encourage conservation.

If approved, these restrictions will come into effect on June 10. Water agencies that don’t comply could be fined $500 a day, as could businesses or other institutions that continue to water ornamental grass, said agency spokesman Edward Ortiz. waters.

Last week, during a tour of a water recycling plant in Los Angeles County, Newsom spoke about better communicating the need for water conservation with the 39 million residents of the State. It included $100 million in its budget for drought messaging.

During the last drought in 2015, former Governor Jerry Brown imposed a mandatory 25% reduction in overall state water use, and the state water board set requirements for the amount that each water district had to reduce based on its existing water usage. districts with higher water consumption were asked to reduce further. Water agencies could be fined up to $10,000 a day if they fail to comply.

The National Water Board has imposed some statewide restrictions like banning people from watering their lawns for 48 hours after thunderstorms and sprinklers from running on sidewalks. People can be fined $500 a day for violations.

Generally speaking, the state needs to think about how to set up California to better cope with drought, said Dr. Newsha Ajami, a water expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studied conservation messages during the last drought.

“We need to have a long-term strategy on how we are going to deal with these more frequent, hotter and drier droughts that we are experiencing and actually do things when we are not in drought,” he said. she stated.

Meeting attendees included representatives from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Southern California Metropolitan Water District, County Water District Alameda, San Francisco Utilities Commission, Valley Water, San Diego County Authority, Association of California Water Agencies, California Urban Water Agencies, and California Municipal Utilities Association. The meeting was not open to the press or the public.

Kathleen Ronayne, Associated Press