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Drought Bills: Small Changes, High Impact

As Californians continue to cope with the impacts of the ongoing drought, actions to improve the way we manage water are being taken at all levels of government. Last week Governor Brown signed into law Drought Trailer bill (SB 88) and Resources Budget Trailer bill (SB 83). These bills will improve the way we respond to the current drought and better prepare us for future droughts. Here are three ways they will do this:

  • Consolidation of some small water systems with bigger ones to increase drinking water accessibility for at-risk communities. Many small, disadvantaged rural communities in California lack reliable and safe drinking water. These communities often lack economies of scale because the cost of improving and maintaining these systems is high and their customer base is small. Even when these small water systems are eligible for state funding for capital improvements like water treatment systems, they often lack the technical and operational capacity necessary to sustain them over time. In some cases, consolidation—the physical or administrative merging of drinking water systems—can be a cost-effective solution. The bill allows the State Water Resources Control Board to pursue consolidation when other solutions are not appropriate, and it provides protection against liability issues that may make larger agencies unwilling to consolidate. In our report Paying for Water in California we recommended consolidation as one of a suite of actions that could help address chronic safe-drinking water challenges.
  • Better monitoring and reporting requirements for water diverters and some water rights holders. Earlier this year we recommended improving the state’s water information system to effectively manage water resources during droughts. This bill takes California one step closer to this goal. For example, individuals who divert water under the most senior water rights were previously required to report their diversions to the Water Board every three years; now they’ll be required to report annually. Surface-water diverters who use more than 10 acre-feet a year will also be required to install measuring devices. Well-drilling logs will also become public. The new reporting requirements reflect progress in modernizing California’s water accounting capabilities. The next step is to integrate improved water information and resource planning tools to better manage water scarcity.
  • Temporary environmental oversight exemptions for groundwater recharge projects, recycled water system standards, and local decisions to prohibit drilling of new groundwater wells. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can play an important role in evaluating the environmental impacts of projects or regulations, but the length and cost of the review process can discourage responsive policymaking. This bill streamlines review for projects and policy decisions that are low-risk and well-tested, but could immediately increase drought resiliency. California’s regulatory framework is such that these projects will likely be reviewed in other forums, so this bill doesn’t eliminate all oversight. As we heard from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at our April “Water in Silicon Valley” event, this kind of streamlining would have real-world impacts. San Jose is seeking an expedited process from CEQA to begin building a groundwater recharge system that would expand use of San Jose’s existing recycled water system.

As the legislative year continues we can expect more statewide policy changes that address our stressed water system. We’ll provide regular updates on key water legislation in this blog.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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