Two weeks ago, California did an abrupt about-face on its drought water restriction policy, eliminating the mandatory 25% reduction in urban water use and instead deciding to leave future water conservation targets up to the local water suppliers.
The state has 411 separate water suppliers, and the State Water Board said that beginning in June, it will let them set their own targets based on local conditions but will be reviewing them and intervening where necessary, imposing new restrictions on those who aren’t setting strict enough goals. The move was prompted in part because the mandatory restrictions have been so successful. Some savings are expected to continue simply because people have already replaced their landscaping with more drought-tolerant plants and have changed their habits—taking shorter showers, for instance. A poll conducted in April shows that 86% of Californians intend to permanently reduce their water usage, drought or no drought. The board is also leaving some restrictions in place permanently, such as the ban on washing down sidewalks and driveways, and on car washing with hoses that do not have an automatic shutoff valve.
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Many local communities had argued that the across-the-board requirement to reduce usage by 25% was unfair to those who had already voluntarily cut back on water usage. But some environmental groups, notably the Natural Resources Defense Council, criticized the move, saying it “sends a confusing and inaccurate message about the status of the drought.”
Last winter’s El Niño—which usually brings more moisture to the state—fell short of expectations, but it did add some water to reservoirs and increase snowpacks, especially in northern California. In a blog posted soon after the State Water Board announced its decision, NRDC policy analyst Tracy Quinn wrote, “Although we saw near average precipitation this winter, and are in a moderately better position than we were last year, nearly 72% of the state remains in severe to exceptional drought conditions, and snowpack is only a third of average for this time of year. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports there is a 71% chance of La Niña conditions this winter, which can mean a drier-than-normal winter. What’s more, all seven components of the latest North American Multi-Model Ensemble show a dry start for California’s next rainy season. All of this makes a compelling case for not relaxing conservation standards as we head into the hottest, driest, and highest water-using season of the year.”
In addition, Quinn argues, the State Water Board may not have the resources to thoroughly review the targets and self-certifications of more than 400 individual suppliers.
What do you think? If you’re in a state that has been—or is currently—experiencing drought, have you seen people permanently and voluntarily changing their water consumption habits?