Mayor Susan Rohan: Make water efficiency California's new norm

Last Updated: 5/15/2017

At a recent workshop to discuss whether the state’s emergency drought regulations should be extended beyond February, two government agencies scheduled to report on drought conditions were noticeably absent because they were busy responding to flooding issues. 

Apart from this ironic twist, one cannot brush aside this winter’s record rainfall, snowpack and reservoir conditions. A week after this workshop, the Governor declared a state of emergency for 50 counties from flooding, erosion, and mud flows. So one wonders why the State Water Resources Control Board voted 5-0 on Feb. 8 to keep its emergency drought regulations in place through April.

Cities in our region, along with hundreds of water agencies throughout California, urged state regulators to let these rules expire. Our reasoning was straightforward: these emergency rules are no longer warranted in light of the fact that water-supply conditions have improved for urban water agencies in northern and southern California to the point where we can adequately meet the needs of our customers – even if no additional rain falls this season. 

Perpetuating the drought is more than about simply retaining emergency powers. What the state Water Board wants to do is grab more regulatory power by setting mandatory water use targets, even in the absence of drought conditions. In fact, it is already considering adopting such regulations. 

The Bee’s editorial asserts that Californians should not revert to "water-wasting ways." We agree with this admonition. But we think it is a strategic mistake to allow state regulators to retain their extraordinary authority over local water agencies in the absence of hydrological evidence justifying these powers. Pretending a drought is occurring does not serve the public interests. Nor does it align with prudent water management. 

We are already required to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020. Policymakers in our region and state regulators should take some comfort in knowing that water suppliers in the Sacramento region cut water use by 25 percent in 2016 voluntarily compared with our water consumption in 2013 – the benchmark set in the governor’s 2015 executive drought order. Moreover, our region has become much more efficient, using 9 percent less water between 2000 and 2013, despite population growth of 17 percent. 

Water agencies will always want their residents to use water efficiently and will call upon water users to do more in a future drought. In this policy debate, words matter. Droughts require extra ordinary actions from the public in ways that require sacrifice, such as letting landscaping die, which is no longer necessary in the vast majority of the state today. 

What is not well understood is the difference between water conservation and water efficiency. Conservation is like telling a motorist there is a shortage of fuel so he or she has to take fewer trips, whereas efficiency is like encouraging motorists to buy more fuel-efficient cars. In our view, water efficiency is the ethic we must embrace. Water conservation, on the other hand, is something we must do when there is a limited water supply. Extending the emergency regulations only perpetuates this fiction. 

Rather than cling to emergency powers in order to reinforce the fiction of a drought, the state should work with local water agencies to improve resiliency to future droughts, such as developing more water supplies, constructing water recycling systems and groundwater banking. Oh, and provide relief to a weary public and businesses who have responded heroically to the past drought emergency. 

-- Roseville Mayor Susan Rohan