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California Water Agencies Say Proposed Drought Rules Don't Provide Enough Relief

Richard Vogel / File / AP

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2014, file photo, morning traffic makes its way toward downtown Los Angeles along the Hollywood Freewaympast an electronic sign warning of severe drought.

Richard Vogel / File / AP

The State Water Resources Control Board will soon vote on changes that it says somewhat relax the 25 percent statewide conservation mandate. But many urban water suppliers say the regulations don’t provide enough relief.

Dan Whalen is President of the Phelan Pinon Hills water district. It’s a small water supplier in a rural desert community in San Bernardino County. Right now, state water regulators say the district should be conserving 32 percent. But Whalen says the district is not even close.

“We’re pushing right about 13 to 15 percent,” says Whalen.

Whalen says it’s tried to meet the requirement… but suggestions from the state haven’t made sense.

“They came out there and said we should start implementing a cash-for-grass program," says Whalen. "We’re in the desert, we have no grass. Other districts had the ability to eliminate grass in their medians in order to meet their mandates, but we can’t do that.”

So far, state regulators have fined four water districts – all in southern California – $61,000 for missing conservation targets. Whalen fears his district is next.

“I have no problem with trying to conserve water, or trying to promote the conservation of water," says Whalen. "But just to throw a 32 percent number at you and then tell you that you’re on your own to fix it up?”

The State Water Resources Control Board’s new proposed regulations would let individual water agencies lower conservation targets slightly if their regions have experienced population growth or have a particularly hot dry climate. It also gives credit for some desalination and recycled water projects. Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, says the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re very concerned about some of the decision making going on with the State Board staff right now," says Quinn. "We look at their emergency conservation regulations as creating very significant disincentives to the local investment that’s gotten us this far.”

For example, the regulations don’t consider efforts by districts to sustainably manage and store groundwater. Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, says there are good reasons for that.

“Most of our groundwater basins aren’t managed," says Marcus. "So people can say it’s managed, but how do you justify it? And very few people have their own basin. We as a state have to think about everybody around the basin we can’t say, 'oh that’s good for you, but we’re going to let some other community go dry.'”

The Phelan Pinon Hills Water District says the regulations are creating an undue burden. President Dan Whalen confronted Marcus at a water conference in Sacramento to explain the difficulty in conserving as much as the state is demanding.

Whalen: "We don’t have lawns out there, it’s a desert."

Marcus: "You might have leaks right?"

Whalen: "No."

Marcus: "You have swamp coolers?"

Whalen: "We have a lot of swamp coolers."

Marcus: "We realize that could be issue...

Whalen: "We have rural animals, we have, there’s all these things that perhaps you guys haven’t had the ability to take into consideration."

Whalen says the state’s conservation mandate is forcing the district to raise rates on its customers, most of whom are low-income. The State Water Resources Control Board says the current proposals are subject to change and it will take more public comment on a final version before it votes in February.