California drought: State OKs sweeping restrictions on water use

From the San Francisco Chronicle
By Kurtis Alexander Updated 9:00 pm, Tuesday, March 17, 2015

California officials approved a package of far-reaching water restrictions Tuesday, limiting homes and businesses in much of the Bay Area and elsewhere to just two days of outdoor watering per week while cracking down on the way restaurants and hotels use water.

The rules mark unprecedented territory for the state, which has historically let local water agencies, with their unique supplies and demands, manage how customers use water. But with California poised for a fourth year of drought and conservation lagging, officials opted for statewide action.

The regulations, carrying fines up to $500, add to restrictions put in place last year that rein in outdoor water use — for example, barring people from hosing down driveways. The new terms tread deeper into homes, businesses and the lives of most Californians, and are indicative of the state’s worsening water woes.

“We are not seeing the stepping up and the ringing of alarm bells that the situation warrants,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which voted unanimously for Tuesday’s conservation mandates.

The regulations require local water agencies that don’t already limit outdoor watering to certain days of the week to adopt a two-day-a-week policy. Among the Bay Area agencies that would have to impose the two-day limit are the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, serving the city’s more than 800,000 residents, as well as the Marin Municipal Water District and Contra Costa Water District. Agencies outside San Francisco that buy water from the SFPUC — including on the Peninsula and in parts of the East Bay — are affected only if they do not already impose watering limits.

“We are looking at how to best modify our current outdoor restrictions to comply with the new state order,” said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco water agency.

The city now requires residents to reduce watering by 10 percent from their 2013 consumption, though the statute is largely unenforced.

Laundry services

The hospitality industry, meanwhile, faces new requirements for service policies. Restaurants and bars are permitted to serve water only upon request, while hotels must ask multi-night guests whether they want their linen and towels laundered.

Many hotels and restaurants are already in compliance. Galleria Park hotel in downtown San Francisco, for example, not only asks guests if they want daily laundry service, but gives them the option of declining housekeeping altogether.

“When you’re at home, realistically, are you washing your sheets and towels on a daily basis?” said Jordan Whitney, guest services supervisor. “It’s also nice to know that you’re doing something to help the environment, even if it’s as simple as not washing sheets.”

The new statewide regulation takes effect after a procedural review by a legal team, expected by late April or early May, and will run for a 270-day emergency period. Water board officials, though, said they plan to consider making at least some of the rules permanent.

With most rules being relatively easy — common-sense measures that many Californians already embrace — some water experts were quick to criticize the state for not going further.

‘Small potatoes’

“The message they’re giving is, ‘Oh yeah, it hasn’t been raining but let’s just save a little water here and there,’” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, interim executive director of water advocacy group San Francisco Baykeeper. “This is small potatoes in terms of water conservation.”

Critics like Choksi-Chugh have pushed for quotas on outdoor water use, which makes up as much as half of residential consumption, as well as requirements that local water agencies use recycled supplies and curb deliveries to parks and golf courses.

Target unmet

Conservation efforts statewide have fallen short of Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for 20 percent reductions. Year-over-year water use in California dropped only about 10 percent during the last seven months of 2014, the period tracked by state officials.

While the water board has empowered local water agencies to fine customers for violating state rules, most water departments, including the Bay Area’s five largest agencies, have not imposed penalties.

Agency managers have said the threat of fines has been enough to win compliance.

The SFPUC, for example, has contacted 325 customers about water waste, all of whom made changes. The Contra Costa Water District has reached out to 500 customers, the Alameda County Water District to 1,200 customers and the East Bay Municipal Utility District to an even greater number.

Each agency gets its water from different sources, and each is affected differently by the drought.

The state water board said Wednesday it didn’t take more severe action because it expects communities with more severe problems to individually step up.

Indeed, many have, with communities like Santa Cruz and the Tri-Valley responding to local shortages with some of the state’s biggest water restrictions — and hefty fines for violators.

“We see this new regulation as a floor, not a ceiling,” said Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist for the state water board.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @kurtisalexander


About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Data Center Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit and Transplan
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