State bill limits use of excessive water during severe drought

Timothy Dawson/Staff

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Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law Monday to ensure that California households restrict excessive water use during one of the most severe droughts recorded in the last century.

SB 814, first introduced by Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, in January 2016, enables water suppliers to prohibit unreasonable water use by either establishing a rate surcharge or ordinance on excessive water use during times of declared statewide drought emergency.

While climate conditions have slightly improved from El Niño, California is experiencing increases in temperature that cause more surface water to evaporate and place pressure on water usage, according to John Chiang, a UC Berkeley professor in the department of geography.

“Last year was a wetter year, which we benefited from … but we are still in a water deficit — the drought is not over,” said Ted Grantham, a campus professor in Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Some water suppliers in California have lifted aggressive restrictions placed on water use, such as East Bay Municipal Utility District, a water-providing organization that serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

According to Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for EBMUD, the company suspended its excessive water use ordinance in May after finding that water supply projections were sufficient to meet demands. She added that this new policy provides another way to reach users in their service areas who are still using a lot of water.

“The target audience for this is single family residentials, not large businesses or institutions such as UC Berkeley, ” Pook said.

The bill is particularly aimed at customers who continue to use excessive amounts of water despite fees, according to Grantham. According to Grantham, the new law focuses on wealthy individuals who can afford to pay penalty fees by using “public identification and shaming” to encourage them to change their behavior.

Another water supplier, El Dorado Irrigation District —  which serves northern California’s El Dorado County — opposed the legislation from the beginning. El Dorado Irrigation District’s public information officer Jesse Saich said that the bill was unnecessary since the company already had a rate structure in place that satisfied the legislation’s requirement.

Regional Water Authority, a joint association representing two dozen water providers in Sacramento that also opposed the bill, became neutral after amendments were added, said John Woodling, executive director of Regional Water Authority. He added that the amendments made mandatory requirements more flexible for local water suppliers to implement.

While California has made many efforts to conserve water, it may be resulting in higher water rates for customers. According to Grantham, as a consequence of effective water-conserving strategies, water suppliers are more likely to charger higher rates.

But it is an important symbolic gesture that during times of drought in particular, we Californians should share in the sacrifice of cutting back water use,” Grantham said.


Contact Roann Pao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @roann_pao.