PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · May 6, 2024

Commentary: State Water Regulators Are Listening to and Learning How to Promote Conservation

photo - Automatic Sprinkler Watering Lawn

This commentary was published in the Sacramento Bee on May 2, 2024.

The state legislature has mandated that water conservation become “a California way of life.” This may sound simple, but converting these words into reality—with tailored local reduction targets for over 400 water agencies that deliver water to most Californians each and every year—is proving to be hard work for regulators.

Getting this right, even if it takes some extra time, is what matters.

Centralizing water conservation in California falls to our guardian of water rights: the State Water Resources Control Board. Late last year, the board released their draft “Making Conservation a California Way of Life” regulations, intended to further limit urban water use. As designed, however, our analysis showed that the water savings would be modest while the costs would be high. And, most troubling, we found that the proposed regulations would hit low-income, inland communities the hardest.

That’s why we suggested that the State Water Board revisit these rules.

And we weren’t the only ones to raise a red flag. The Legislative Analyst’s Office findings were remarkably similar to ours, and several op-eds echoed the LAO’s concerns. Even urban tree advocates explained that the regulations could have unintended impacts: by slashing outdoor water usage, the new regulations would starve urban tree canopies — an important line of defense against extreme heat.

Stewarding our natural resources requires careful stewardship of limited financial resources to get the most bang for the proverbial buck. While water conservation will remain key to life in California, much of the low-hanging fruit (cost-effective, easy-to-implement projects) has been plucked. Meanwhile, the state’s water utilities are confronting a multitude of other challenges, including floods, water quality challenges, obsolete infrastructure and affordability concerns—not to mention climate change.

With the water challenges ahead of us, we must be careful about how we spend ratepayer and public dollars. To its credit, State Water Board staff responded to what the data showed. In March, it released revised regulations that gave utilities a bit more breathing room to figure out how and when to implement the new standards.

Since these changes came out, critics have expressed concern that the board is backsliding on its commitment to water conservation. But this is demonstrably not the case. By stepping back, looking at the facts and adjusting its course, the board was in fact demonstrating the kind of reasoned, thoughtful approach that is key to good governance. It should be commended for this.

The board made a small but meaningful course-correction. The updated regulations aren’t perfect, but they are better. And they don’t stand in the way of communities that want to speed up conservation efforts. Utilities and their customers have shown time and again—including in the latest drought—that they can pivot on a dime when a drought emergency demands it.

Every dollar spent on a poorly conceived project is a dollar not spent on keeping safe water flowing to residents’ taps. Water utilities have made huge strides in reducing water use, but they are facing a cascade of issues which will require careful decision-making that evaluates trade-offs and makes the best use of ratepayer dollars, protecting low-income customers from extreme rate hikes.

Good public policy is a balancing act: You’ve got to achieve results without breaking the bank. Spending dollars on expensive conservation that won’t yield much is not a smart play. The State Water Board has made some practical adjustments that will give more flexibility to water agencies responsible for making tough decisions. We commend the board for this, and we hope that it stays the course.


climate change Water Supply Water, Land & Air