California advances first-in-nation plan to set water budgets for cities statewide

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California officials have approved a first-of-its-kind regulation that will set long-term limits on the amounts of water the state’s urban utilities can use on an annual basis.

The State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday granted unanimous support to sweeping conservation measures that are expected to generate about 500,000 acre-feet in water savings each year by 2040.

The quantity conserved is enough to quench the thirst of more than 1.4 million households on an annual basis, according to the Water Board.

The regulation requires the state’s largest suppliers to calculate individual water budgets based on residential indoor and outdoor water use, as well as on commercial, industrial and institutional landscape consumption — monitored via dedicated irrigation meters.

The new rules, which must still receive the final approval of the Office of Administrative Law, are the result of multiple bills passed by the California state legislature in 2018. 

“We have now formalized water conservation as a way of life,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the Water Board, said in a statement. “The result balances saving water with making sure that suppliers have the flexibility they need to tailor their conservation strategies to local needs and climate.”

The resultant budgets, known as “urban water use objectives,” will require compliance beginning in 2027 — and will feature incremental increases in stringency through 2040, per the Board.

Water suppliers will be able to adjust their conservation efforts to match their local needs, using tools like outreach, education, leak detection, rebates and the installation of efficient appliances.

The regulation is expected to apply to 405 urban suppliers, which collectively provide water to about 95 percent of California’s population, according to an analysis produced by the Water Board.

Through the resultant conservation measures, utilities are expected to save $6.2 billion from 2025 through 2050, while incurring $4.7 billion in costs, per the analysis. During that same period, the Water Board forecasted total cumulative water savings of about 3.9 million acre-feet.

To meet individual budgetary goals, some of the lower water consumers among the 405 suppliers, such as San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, will not have to make any changes to current consumption practices.

On the other hand, the city of Atwater — located in the San Joaquin Valley agricultural hub — may face reductions of up to 58 percent, according to provisional data issued by the Water Board.

Violations of the regulations will cost cities up to $10,000 for each day in which a breach occurs, per the text of the 2018 legislation.

Water savings from the newly approved regulations are significantly lower than those that appeared in earlier renditions of the rules, which prompted widespread backlash among suppliers.

Nonetheless, California officials touted the measures as much-needed, strategic tools capable of cementing the state’s water security.

“Reaching this milestone goes beyond adopting the first-ever conservation regulation that uses a water budget,” Yana Garcia, California secretary for environmental protection, said in a statement.

“It’s a definitive step toward ensuring California’s long-term resilience to the hotter, drier climate we all are experiencing,” Garcia added.

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