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Relaxed conservation measures don’t mean the drought is over

Angela Johnston
A sprinker waters the plants around Stow Lake at Golden Gate Park. In a few years these sprinklers will be using recycled water.


The California drought is now in it’s fifth year, and a recent study says it won’t be over for years to come. The study analyzed California’s mountain snowpack and foundthat we’d need almost four and a half more years of winter storms to escape drought conditions.  

But just few months ago, after a not-so-impressive El Niño winter season, California’s State Water Resources Control Board ended a year of mandatory water restrictions, that had required urban residents to cut their consumption by 25 percent statewide.  Although some think it’s too soon to ease up on the general public’s use of water, the state is taking a different route.

We’re still in a drought

“A lot of the impacts of the drought aren't necessarily seen in our coastal cities in L.A., in San Francisco, San Diego but they are there,” says Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board. Gomberg says that despite the drought’s persistence, things have improved: this past winter’s rains, and successful conservation efforts by urban Californians meant it was time to ditch the top-down mandatory restrictions.

“We backed off a little bit and we changed course a little bit...we said what we need to know now is: how reliable are our urban supplies if we have additional years of drought?” Gomberg says.

The state is now requiring water agencies to prove they have enough water to last three more dry years. It’s something called a stress test. Agencies have to submit paperwork showing where their water will come from, and how they know they have enough.


“We’re currently going through voluminous submissions of those stress tests and looking at how resilient and how vulnerable are some of our urban water suppliers,” Gomberg says.

Stress tests

If an agency can’t prove they have enough water, they will need to impose conservation requirements to make up that shortfall.

“So, for example, if their stress test shows that they are 11 percent away from meeting the demand, then they're required conservation level is 11 percent,” Gomberg says.

Opportunity for innovation

Some water agencies like in Santa Cruz County and further down the central coast are opting out of the stress test, and continuing to work with a mandatory conservation requirement.But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is glad to have their resources freed up so they can pursue other conservation projects they’ve had planned for a while -- including a new recycled water treatment plant.

“Recycled water is taking water from our wastewater treatment plants," explains Paula Kehoe, SFPUC's Director of Water Resources.


"The treatment plant takes our sewage, treats it to what we call secondary standards, disinfects it, and treats it further using additional treatment.”

Kehoe says the recycled water will be used to irrigate the city’s golf courses and parks. Standing at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, she explains that in two years, the plants and lawns around this man-made lake will be watered with recycled water, instead of ground water. Even the lake itself will be topped off with recycled water. The groundwater that usedto supply water for this purpose will then be mixed with San Francisco drinking water.

“Drinking groundwater is a common practice in California, our neighbors to the south in Daly City and San Bruno – their drinking water supply is coming from groundwater,” Kehoe says.

Mixed messages

Like other agencies, the SFPUC has removed their mandatory conservation requirements, but they’re still telling people to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 10 percent. But getting people to voluntarily change their habits may be hard, according to National Resources Defense Council lawyer Doug Ogebi.

“When you look back a couple years, the governor ordered voluntary conservation and it was pretty much an abject failure. We really didn’t see the kinds of water savings that we needed. When the state put in place that mandatory conservation, people really rose to the occasion, and we found that we can sustain our economy and quality of life with some relatively small changes,” he says.

Ogebi thinks the state may be sending mixed signals to consumers with the new stress test approach. The Water Resources Control Board just reported that Californians conserved less water this June than they did in previous years – 21 percent less than in 2013.

“There are concerns that people will go back to those more wasteful habits without that mandate,” Ogebi says.

Changing behavior

The Water Board says an initial dip is to be expected, and it’s too soon to tell if it will be a continuing trend. Jeff Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute’s Water Policy Center is confident water users have learned a lesson from last year’s restrictions. Droughts, he says, lead to long lasting changes, and conservation becomes embedded into our culture.

“It probably won’t be at the level of conservation that we’ve had these last two years, but for the long term it’s going to be important. People forget that since 1990, we’ve added something around the order of 12 million people in California, and we’re using less water than we did in 1990. The only way we do that is by being much more efficient," Mount says.


There are also concerns that conservation requirements stifle long term innovation. Some water agencies argued that the restrictions didn't give them any credit for investing millions of dollars in water recycling and desalination plants. Mount says San Diego is a prime example.

“They put a billion dollars into a desalination plant, and because of the conservation mandate, they weren’t even able to use their plant because they had abundant supplies and they just can’t start wasting water,” Mount says.

Mount thinks now that the state has pulled back it’s mandatory conservation requirements, water agencies will actually get to use the technology they developed when the drought first began. And ones that didn’t prepare? Without restrictions, Mount thinks they’ll now have the resources they need to invest in water conservation programs and technology, like San Francisco’s recycled water project.

“The folks who spent the money did the best during this drought, why should they be the ones who have to bear this mandatory burden?” Mount asks.

And although the restrictions have been removed for now, they could return If California has an extremely dry winter. The Water Resources Control Board will re-evaluate in January.

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.