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A Changing State of Water Conservation

Lori Pottinger June 1, 2016

The California State Water Board is charged with balancing all water needs across the state—an especially difficult task when there’s less water to go around. We talked to Fran Spivy-Weber, the board’s vice chair (and chair of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s advisory council), about water conservation and lessons from the drought.

PPIC: What expectations do you have for statewide water use in light of recent changes to the state’s approach to urban water conservation, which replaced the 25% mandate with locally set standards?

Fran Spivy-Weber: I think there will be a bit of an uptick in water use in the short term, but I’m not expecting water use to go up to where it was. My experience after previous droughts shows that after all the work to educate people and change plumbing fixtures and appliances, water use stays pretty flat. Meanwhile, the board is working with the Department of Water Resources to develop long-term water use targets—for indoor and outdoor urban uses—as well as targets for reductions in leakage from pipes. We plan to work on these targets into early fall, and will be getting public input during that time. By the end of the year these targets should be pretty final, and the governor can put them into legislation and agency practice next year. These targets will give everyone something to aim for.

PPIC: What is the most important lesson for California from the latest drought?

FSW: I think it’s to share data about water use with the press and public. We’ve seen strong leadership on water conservation by individuals around the state—most changes were done not because people were told to do so but because they could see there was a limited amount of water available and they wanted to do their part. We also learned that water rates do matter. Water agencies that have drought surcharges did OK, those that did not are suffering. It can be politically difficult to change rates, but when people buy less water during droughts, water agencies with flat rates suffer. People mostly care about having enough water when they turn on the tap; they care very little about how much water their appliances use. The energy sector in California has completely separated the costs of delivery from the service of providing their commodity. The water sector needs to do this too.

PPIC: What is the state doing to encourage innovations in water supply?

FSW: The board’s biggest action was to approve loans for recycled water, and it clearly helped. We’re now identifying how much recycled water is actually being served—we’ll know by the end of summer. The state’s goal is 1 million acre-feet by 2020, 2 million by 2030. On technological innovations in water, the governor’s office is taking the lead. A number of the state’s universities are also pursuing these kind of innovations. Over the next 10 years the way in which water is delivered will likely change dramatically. Water will be reused a lot more, and storm water will be captured in more places. Water agencies tend to be the most conservative agencies—their engineers have to know that when they undertake something new it will provide safe, clean water and meet customers’ needs—so they’re often not eager to take on new technologies. But with the drought and climate change, and an increasing cost of water, they’re starting to think about it more.

PPIC: How much more room do we have to improve urban water efficiency?

FSW: There is much more room for improvement. While a number of communities are achieving 55 gallons of indoor water use per capita per day or even less—particularly in new houses—most people in the state live in older housing, with old, water-wasting fixtures. This will change in the next few years. Outdoor landscaping is changing, and we haven’t seen the end of it—many people pulled out lawns to save water, but now many more are beginning to realize they don’t want lawns that take a lot of maintenance and water.

Learn more

Read “Water Management’s High-Tech Future” (PPIC Blog, September 3, 2015)
Visit the State Water Board’s drought information page
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center’s water supply resource page

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