California’s hard-hit water districts will get a chance to ask regulators for relief

As Californians' water use has declined through conservation, water district revenues have dried up, leading some to raise rates.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Complying with an emergency order to cut water use 36% has cost the Yorba Linda Water District in more ways than one.

Financially, spokesman Damon Micalizzi said, it has cost millions in lost revenue and brought the agency “to its knees.” Then there’s the political cost of raising rates to cover the deficit.

“Everybody was ecstatic,” Micalizzi quipped.

Seven months after state regulators drew up their plan to achieve a statewide reduction in urban water use, Yorba Linda Water District and its counterparts will get their first formal chance to ask for relief.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest executive order provisionally extends California’s drought restrictions into next fall and calls on the State Water Resources Control Board to consider adjusting the rules in the coming weeks.

So far, input from local water agencies and environmental think tanks has been diverse and sometimes conflicting.


“What is the state staff going to do with the information?” said Charles Gibson, a board director at Orange County’s Santa Margarita Water District. “I think anybody you ask is going to say they’re concerned.... There’s this great uncertainty.”

The discussions will feel like deja vu to those involved.

State regulators spent much of a frenzied April conducting meetings, gathering comments and ultimately developing a tiered system that assigns different conservation “standards” to each of the state’s 411 urban water suppliers.

Under the regulations, water districts with a history of high residential use were told to cut back as much as 36%, while other less thirsty cities and towns were required to cut as little as 4%.

The board and its staff took heat at the time for not considering factors such as climate, population growth and water conservation efforts prior to 2013. But local water districts largely accepted regulators’ demands, acknowledging that they were pressed for time and facing an emergency.

To address districts’ unresolved concerns, the board convened a group of several dozen water officials and experts. Beginning in August, the group set out to consider the next steps for the emergency regulations, which expire Feb. 13.

Two weeks ago, Brown ordered the water board to extend the rules until Oct. 31 if drought conditions continue through January, which the water board’s Max Gomberg said is a “near certainty.”

Those conditions could change rapidly this winter depending on the effect of an El Niño that is expected to dump rain on much of the state.

Brown’s order “really gives us the flexibility we need … to look at the winter conditions and make a determination” about whether to raise or lower the 25% water-savings target, said Gomberg, the board’s climate and conservation manager.

Exactly what the regulators will do is unclear. In letters to the water board and interviews, officials at local water districts asked for many of the same allowances they called for in the spring.

Many districts asked to receive adjustments or credits based on their local conditions and for their investments in developing new water supplies.

For example, the nation’s largest seawater desalination plant, in Carlsbad, is on the verge of starting commercial operations, supplying the San Diego County Water Authority.

Under the current state regulation, the use of water from new supplies counts the same as any other drinkable water produced by an agency. Sandra Kerl, deputy general manager of the water authority, said that’s not fair to ratepayers.

“The only answer being that you use less is untenable,” she said. “It needs to be a combination of conservation and sustainable supply development.”

Other agencies are more concerned about weather than water supply. Warmer, drier areas with higher evaporation rates require more water than cooler, wetter areas to maintain similar landscapes, officials said.

In Sacramento, Regional Water Authority Executive Director John Woodling said he is seeing landscapes and trees die.

“The same burden looks different in inland versus coastal areas,” Woodling said.

Still others say the drought regulations have created a financial strain on their districts because conservation results in lower water sales. Some officials fear that continuing the state regulation will impinge further on local control and have opposed making any of the drought rules permanent.

Micalizzi’s Yorba Linda district has managed to reduce its consumption cumulatively by more than 41% from June to September. But to do that, officials at the northeast Orange County supplier have had to nearly triple the basic service charge assigned to most single-family residential customers.

The increase will help cover a revenue shortfall expected to exceed $9 million, Micalizzi said, but some customers aren’t happy.

“People feel they’re being penalized for doing what the state asked them to do,” he said. “We’re the messenger … and people are shooting the messenger.”

The board will hold its first public workshop Dec. 7 to discuss changes to the regulation, but staff is unlikely to make any formal proposal until mid- to late January, Gomberg said. The board must approve the proposal with a vote that could come in February or March.

The state water board will consider the issues raised over the last several months, Gomberg said, but cautioned that local districts should not expect wholesale changes to the regulation.

“Everything we’ve been looking at is modifications within the existing framework,” Gomberg said. “I would expect there to be more nuance.”

Experts say they are unconvinced that so many adjustments for use are needed at this juncture, warning that many of the changes proposed by water districts could result in lower levels of conservation.

“The focus needs to be on protecting basic [water] needs,” said Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water think tank.

Fiona Sanchez, director of water resources for the Irvine Ranch Water District, has been in the water board’s informal work group meetings with Cooley. Both acknowledge that regulators have a tough job ahead.

“I’m glad I’m not in their shoes,” Sanchez said.

Twitter: @ByMattStevens


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