Californians could see mandatory water shutoffs amid drought

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Governor Gavin Newsom threatened Monday to impose mandatory water restrictions if residents don’t use less on their own as the drought drags on and the hottest summer months approach.

Newsom raised that possibility in a meeting with representatives of major water agencies, including those that serve Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Democratic governor has avoided issuing sweeping, mandatory cuts in water use and instead favored giving local water agencies the power to set rules for water use in the cities and towns they serve.

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

“All water agencies across the state must take more aggressive steps to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said in a statement.

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

Last summer, Newsom asked Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% by doing things like taking five-minute showers and avoiding baths, using only the washing machine and dishwasher with full loads, and limiting water use for cleaning. outdoor areas. Water used for agriculture is not counted.

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’re trying to support the state, we’re trying to support the governor as best we can,” said Ed Stevenson, general manager. from the Alameda County Water District, who was at the meeting.

The district gets about 40% of its water from state supplies. Its water use has dropped about 7% since Newsom called for voluntary conservation.

Meanwhile, the San Diego County Water Authority hasn’t needed water from state supplies since July, in part because it relies on a combination of other sources, including a desalination plant, board chairman Gary Croucher said. But he said the district still has a role to play in responding to the drought. The authority is made up of 24 water agencies, including the city of San Diego, where water use is down 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 kidding themselves. We really need to work together as a collaborative group,” she said.

It was unclear how soon Newsom could impose mandatory restrictions if conservation doesn’t improve. Spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the administration would reassess conservation progress in just “a few weeks.” She did not offer a metric that management would use to measure success.

Newsom has already moved to force more conservation on local water districts. The water board will vote Tuesday on whether to ban the irrigation of decorative grass and force local agencies to boost 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 has asked the board to require those districts to move to “Tier 2” of 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 appliances or landscaping that uses less water. They must include a communication plan to encourage conservation.

If approved, those restrictions would take effect 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 Edward Ortiz, a spokesman for the water board.

Last week, while touring a water recycling plant in Los Angeles County, Newsom spoke about better communicating the need to conserve water to the state’s 39 million people. He included $100 million in his budget for drought messages.

During the last drought in 2015, former Governor Jerry Brown issued a mandatory 25% cut in the state’s overall water use, and the state water board set requirements for how much each water district had to cut based on its existing water use; districts with the highest water consumption were asked to reduce further. Water agencies could be fined up to $10,000 a day if they don’t comply.

The state water board has imposed some statewide restrictions, such as banning people from watering lawns for 48 hours after storms and banning sprinklers from watering sidewalks. People can be fined $500 a day for violations.

Broadly speaking, the state needs to think about how to better prepare California to deal 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 for how we’re going to deal with these more frequent, hotter, drier droughts that we’re experiencing and how to do things when we’re not in the drought,” he said.

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

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