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New Laws on Drought, Forests, and Safe Drinking Water

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The legislative session that just wrapped up addressed a number of water and forest management issues. Progress was made in three major areas—urban drought management, forest health, and safe drinking water.

Urban water use efficiency and drought management: Assembly Bill (AB) 1668 requires the State Water Board and the Department of Water Resources to adopt long-term efficiency standards for residential water use and efficiency metrics for commercial, industrial, and institutional water use by June 2022. The law complements Senate Bill (SB) 606, which requires urban water suppliers to develop local water use budgets by November 2023. Progress toward those objectives will be overseen by state agencies. SB 606 also strengthens local drought planning requirements and increases transparency of information about drought risks and responses. The law requires suppliers to regularly analyze the risk of a five-year severe drought and report short-term water shortage risks and responses to the state each spring. Suppliers must also revamp their drought response plans to include new elements such as descriptions of supply forecasting procedures, new ways of reporting water shortage levels, and protocols for communicating with customers during droughts. AB 1668 also includes provisions to increase drought preparedness for small rural water systems and large agricultural water suppliers.

Wildfires and forest management: SB 901 takes substantive steps toward reducing wildfire risks by increasing the pace and scale of forest health improvements. Cal Fire will have access to new, stable funding from cap-and-trade revenues—$200 million per year for five years—to pay for forest management. The law also helps lower management cost barriers for family forest owners, which occupy about one-quarter of the state’s headwater forests. It relaxes some timber harvest regulations to make it easier for these owners to reduce wildfire risk. A provision that increases the size of trees owners can harvest should expand their ability to raise funds from selling timber. The law also allows multiple landowners to work under the same timber harvest permit. Finally, SB 901 includes provisions that apply to forests managed by the US Forest Service, which make up more than half of our headwater forests. In particular, it streamlines California’s environmental permitting process for collaborative fire risk reduction projects on federal lands that are approved under the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

Safe drinking water for vulnerable communities: Drinking water received significant attention this year, as lawmakers attempted to fill the funding gap for small disadvantaged communities facing water quality and quantity problems. Proposals to tap urban water customers and agricultural fertilizer users for safe drinking water funds ultimately failed in the legislature. However, new laws signed by the governor will strengthen tools for addressing drinking water quality issues. AB 2501 increases the State Water Board’s ability to require the consolidation of vulnerable water systems with larger, more reliable systems. The new law expands the board’s authority to require the consolidation of communities served by domestic wells. AB 2501 also extends the board’s authority over support services to help communities provide safe drinking water where consolidation is not an option. Another new law, AB 2541, gives severely disadvantaged communities expanded access to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for water infrastructure projects. The law makes it easier for the board to provide full grant funding in addition to low-interest loans.

The governor also signed more than a dozen other bills related to water, in areas such as sewer system consolidation, on-site treatment regulations and rules for the reuse of non-potable water, and the establishment of an office within the State Water Board to help address water-rights matters.

We will keep track of updates and new proposals in 2019.

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