In May of last year, Gov. Jerry Brown called upon agencies and lawmakers at the state level to create legislation that would make “Water conservation a way of life” in California, but lawmakers are at odds on how to make that a reality.
Following five years of drought, Brown was ready to take steps to ensure that California was ready for the next dry season by passing Executive Order B-37-16, which directed state agencies to establish a long-term framework for water conservation and drought planning.
“Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more than ever before, but now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life,” said Brown.
Calaveras County Water District Public Information Officer Joel Metzger said that state water agencies offered a preliminary framework, which was then responded to by local water utilities.
“They came out with a draft of this framework and from what we saw in the draft, we really didn’t like what we saw,” said Metzger. “It was a big shift from local control over water conservation policy to more of a state control. The state water board would be the main controlling entity on the water conservation agency.”
The Association of California Water Agencies brought local water groups together to submit two comment letters that outlined opinions on the legislation. More than 60 water agencies signed the first comment letter and 114 signed the second letter that was sent in late December.
“That’s a lot of agencies,” said Metzger. “That’s Southern California, Northern California, that’s all these agencies agreeing that there are things we liked, and these are the things we did not like.”
After communicating with Brown’s administration, local water agencies were left reeling when they discovered that most of their concerns were not found in the proposal Brown backed.
“It was as though we had not been listened to during the process,” said Metzger. “That was very frustrating for water agencies to have put in all this time and energy into ‘This is what works, this is what doesn’t.’”
In January, in response to the proposed conservation framework, the ACWA organized a group to start writing legislative orders. Metzger was on the group that wrote the legislation that would eventually become Assembly Bills 968 and 1654, introduced by freshman Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio of Baldwin Park.
Dave Eggerton, CCWD’s general manager, and the ACWA have already offered support of the bills.
“CCWD has been involved in this statewide effort all the way through,” said Metzger.
AB 968 would establish water efficiency targets for water suppliers in the scope of local conditions and establish a collaborative group of stakeholders in the future. The bill also seeks to “preserve the Legislature’s authority and oversight over long-term water-use target setting.”
AB 1654 seeks to enhance drought planning, preparation and reporting by water suppliers and would establish a reporting requirement for urban water suppliers to the Department of Water Resources.
According a letter CCWD wrote and Eggerton signed, AB 1654 would “protect and incentivize local investments in resilient water supplies by ensuring that a supplier would not be required to reduce its use of available water supplies beyond the steps specified in its water shortage contingency analysis.”
Around the same time, Brown offered up budget trailer bill 810, and freshman Assemblywoman Laura Friedman of Glendale penned AB 1667, 1668 and 1669. The language of AB 1667, 1668 and 1669 are virtually the same as Budget Trailer 810 and were quickly opposed by the ACWA. The bills would put water conservation mandates into state control.
“We do not support the use of a budget trailer bill for a policy of this magnitude,” said Metzger. “We feel like this is the wrong approach, and that is why we came forward with policy bills with the Rubio bills.”
A bipartisan group featuring Rubio and Friedman was formed in May to discuss ways to iron out differences between the two water-conservation approaches and to avoid the use of a budget trailer bill to establish policy. The group featured 5th District Assemblyman Frank Bigelow.
“I’m pleased to be a part of this bipartisan effort to improve water planning and management for our state and be a voice for rural Californians,” said Bigelow. “I’m committed to protecting the area-of-origin water rights, preserving the ability of our local elected leaders to manage their water systems and ensure that any new state laws provide the flexibility needed at the local level to achieve more stringent water-use efficiency standards.”
Budget trailer bills do not undergo the same type of scrutiny as typical Assembly bills. A trailer bill is a piece of legislation that implements changes to the law in order to enact a state budget. The bills are negotiated as part of the entire budget package each fiscal year. The Appropriations Committee will review the bill as part of the budget suite.
In a letter sent to Bob Wieckowski and Richard Bloom, members of the Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation, Eggerton stated that the Calaveras County Water District was against a “one-size fits all approach” for outdoor water-use targets.
Bigelow agreed with Eggerton’s assessment, stating that a one-size fits all solution is “not acceptable.”
“We cannot sacrifice the financial stability of our local water district or force dramatic rate increases for residents and businesses in the name of chasing every great water-use efficiency savings,” Bigelow said.
Eggerton also said that CCWD is wary of the state’s proposal to use aerial imagery to help set water-use mandates. Metzger said that the equipment might work in more urban areas without a lot of tree cover, but that the technology is unproven at this time. The equipment is currently in the testing phase in various parts of California.
“We are a little skeptical about how an aerial image would really reflect what is being grown when an canopy of pine trees is complete obscuring the house, the landscaping, the yard, the everything,” said Metzger.
ACWA Director of State Legislative Relations Wendy Ridderbusch led the testimony against the budget trailer bill in in March. She said in a press release that she did not support taking away local knowledge of water sources with state mandates.
“Water agencies are governed by elected boards of directors that have their finger on the pulse of the communities they live in,” said Ridderbusch. “They have a much better idea of what needs to be done to enhance future drought planning based on lessons learned on the ground in their communities. It’s important to note for the record that state government did not swoop in to save water agencies from the drought; water agencies along with California water users are the ones who led the way.”
After looking through both sides of the discussion and the legislation behind them, Jennifer Harder, professor of environmental law at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, said that the bills reflect a “philosophical divide” over the best way to govern water in California.
“Through top-down regulatory oversight on one hand or local autonomy on the other, the wisest water management approach would incorporate both,” said Harder. “Standards should be set on a local basis with water suppliers in the leads as under AB 968, but the state also has a valuable role to play to facilitate integration of statewide concerns.”
She said a bill that brings both sides closer on the issue would be the best solution.
“All Californians would benefit if those involved could find a way to effectively incorporate both of these elements into
the legislative framework,” Harder said.
Metzger said that although the Calaveras district is on board with Brown’s intentions, it does not agree with the governor’s methodology. He said CCWD prefers to increase water conservation through educating the community.