Harshest water conservation targets unveiled

As a closely-watched court ruling threw California’s tiered water pricing system into disarray, the Water Resources Control board made public its latest and harshest conservation targets for municipalities across the Golden State.

Detailing the plan, MarketWatch reported that “Angelenos must save another 16 percent for the year ahead, the water board said,” despite saving over 9 billion gallons, or 7 percent, over the previous year:

“By comparison, San Francisco lowered its water usage (22,351 gallons per resident) between June 2014 and February 2015 by more than 1.6 billion gallons, a saving of 8 percent from the same period a year earlier. As such it has just an 8 percent target water reduction for the 2015-2016 period, the state said.

“San Diego, which depends on water imported from outside of the city for 90 percent of its usage, must cut back on demand in the next year by 16 percent, the state water board said.”

Meanwhile, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Orange County sided with a challenge to the constitutionality of San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water pricing system. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, the court held that tiered rates “violated voter-approved Proposition 218, which prohibits government agencies from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.”

A blow to Brown

For Gov. Jerry Brown, the ruling was an instant headache. He had recently issued an executive order, The Los Angeles Times noted, “directing water agencies to develop rate structures that use price signals to force conservation.”

In a prepared statement issued by the governor’s office in the wake of the ruling, Brown did not shy away from making his frustration plain. “The practical effect of the court’s decision is to put a straitjacket on local government at a time when maximum flexibility is needed,” he said, invoking a bottom-up view of political efficacy most often associated with Republicans. “My policy is and will continue to be: Employ every method possible to ensure water is conserved across California.”

Making waves

As CalWatchdog.com previously observed, the sweeping ramifications of the case put regulators and cities on edge. Providers could fall back on technicalities to make increased consumption more costly — charging more for water drawn from certain areas, for instance — the bureaucratic challenge involved in finding and implementing workarounds could be substantial. According to the Times, experts surmised that between two-thirds and four-fifths of water agencies in California charged tiered rates for usage.

Especially in Southern California, the ruling has thrown a monkeywrench into major plans for an overhaul of the tier system. “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power currently uses a two-tier rate structure, but agency officials have said they are preparing to roll out a revised system that would employ four tiers and that would make high water use even more costly than it is now,” the Times reported.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, told the Sacramento Bee that the ruling was currently under legal review by attorneys. But plaintiffs’ attorney Benjamin Benumof told the Bee that, on their view, government could effectively promote conservation by, for instance, increasing rebates for low-flow appliances and devices.

A turn to penalties

An approach utilized in Santa Cruz offered perhaps the quickest option for municipalities straining to meet new standards without tiered rate pricing. There, the Mercury News reported, the city’s recently reinstated mandatory rationing program hits high users with a flat $50 fee per “unit” of consumption in excess of 11 units:

“That fee, which sent some water guzzlers’ bills skyrocketing, will not be affected by Monday’s court ruling, however, said Rosemary Menard, Santa Cruz’s water director, because it is clearly labeled a “penalty” in the city ordinance, and is not used to pay for daily operations of the water system.” 

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com