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6 Ways Water Restrictions Will Change Life in California

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For instance: fix this. | Photo: John K/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California Governor Jerry Brown's Executive Order this week requiring a 25 percent cut in urban water use statewide has gotten a lot of air play, and justifiably so: it's the first time the state has ever made cuts in water use mandatory. It also comes in a week when new figures reveal the state's snowpack -- the source of much of our water -- is frighteningly low.

But so far, there isn't a whole lot of detail as to how that mandatory 25 percent water cut compared to what we used in 2013 is going to affect ordinary Californians. That's because the mandatory cut is primarily aimed at the state's 400 urban water companies, which are being given some latitude in just how they cut down their water use. Call them wholesale rather than retail cuts. Your personal experience of the California's Brave New Water World will depend a great deal on your water company's approach to making those mandatory reductions in overall water use.

In fact, if you're one of those Californians who have already done your due diligence in conserving water, this week's Executive Order might not affect your personal life much, if at all. You may even find yourself getting help to make the really big water conservation upgrades you've been saving up for. Conversely, if you've been a water waster, you're likely to be compelled to get your act together. And life will be changing in a larger scale as well, in the political and legal realms. Here are six ways those changes are likely to happen for a lot of Californians.

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Adding to the complexity of the cuts, by the way, is the fact that the governor's April 1 Executive Order doesn't mean every single water agency cuts their use by 25 percent. Instead, the State Water Resources Control Board and California Public Utilities Commission have been ordered to craft a sliding scale of restrictions for each water agency based on per capita use. That use varies widely depending on where you are in California: San Franciscans averaged about 96 gallons per person per day in 2014, while Palm Springs residents used an average of 736 gallons per person per day.

Some of the difference in water use among different communities is due to the state's varying climates, but not all of it. As the San Jose Mercury News' Paul Rogers and Nicholas St. Fleur pointed out in February 2014, residents of the affluent community of Hillsborough in San Mateo County used 334 gallons of water per day, while folks in East Palo Alto, 14 miles away in a slightly warmer spot along the San Francisco Bay shore, used less than a quarter as much.

The reason: landscaping generally accounts for about half a homeowner's water bill, and affluent communities tend to have more green in both the economic and horticultural senses.

So while state agencies have some figuring to do to make sure less-affluent people in warmer climates don't suffer undue hardship from the Board's mandated cuts, you can pretty much assume that:

There will be a lot less lawn in California.

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This lawn was actually killed by a hard freeze, but it's a good visual | Photo: Gardening in a minute/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

In fact, the Executive Order specifically singles out lawns for reduction statewide, charging the State Department of Water Resources with finding ways to get rid of 50 million square feet of lawn statewide. That will probably mean expanded lawn buyback programs, in which water companies provide rebates to customers for each square foot of lawn they replace with drought-tolerant landscaping. The Executive Order specifically requires the Department of Water Resources to craft assistance programs for underserved communities, which will almost certainly have one beneficial effect in particular: more work for the state's household landscapers.

Even in areas that don't offer expanded lawn buyback programs, you're likely to see lawns being removed, or at least being allowed to die. Why? Because yesterday's Executive Order requires water companies to adjust their rate structures, fees, and penalties to encourage conservation, which means having a thirsty lawn is going to get a lot more cash-intensive. And that leads us to Life Change Number two:

If you aren't saving water, your water bill will probably be going up.

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Though hopefully not this high | Photo: Joseph B/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Here's the exact language of the Executive Order:

That's going to be a controversial measure, depending on how those urban water suppliers implement those rate structures. It would make sense for more California water companies to institute tiered pricing, for instance, so that you pay more for each gallon of above-average water use than you do for the bare-minimum water use gallons, but such rate structures have often been really unpopular where they've already been implemented, with San Juan Capistrano offering a recent example. Court challenges such as the one in SJC are less likely to prevail when those structures are backed up by a gubernatorial Executive Order.

The state's approach to getting us all to use less water isn't all stick, though. Some of it is a pretty appealing carrot.

This might just be the year you finally get that front-loading washer you've always wanted.

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It really is about time you upgraded. | Photo: Andreas S/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Or that fancy timed drip irrigation system for your roses. Or a new dishwasher. Or a high-tech toilet. This week's Executive Order requires the California Energy Commission to work with state water agencies to offer "a time-limited statewide appliance rebate program to provide monetary incentives for the replacement of inefficient household devices." Translated into English, that means the state will pay you to upgrade your water-saving swag. If you don't at least parlay this part of the Executive Order into a nice new low-flow shower-head, you're doing it wrong.

Drought refugees will get more government help.

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Abandoned house in Bombay Beach | Photo: Will Keightley/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Household water conservation assumes you still have water to conserve. In some parts of California, households that rely on private wells that have gone dry as groundwater supplies vanish, and that has caused serious problems for families and local governments. Brown's Executive Order commands the state's Office of Emergency Services and Department of Housing and Community Development to work with counties to help people who've been forced to move because their household well has dried up.

Tension between urban Californians and agricultural interests is gonna climb.

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A pro farm-water sign along Interstate 5 in the Central Valley | Photo: Steven Miller/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Wednesday's Executive Order places almost all the new burden of conservation on urban water users, while specifically exempting agricultural users from any new reductions for now -- though irrigation districts and other farm water suppliers do have a number of new paperwork and reporting requirements they'll have to abide by. The governor's office explained Wednesday that farm users have already been hard hit by this year's continuing drought, which is certainly true.

But though the state's Executive Branch did make the case that it's urban water users' turn to take a bullet to help save water, rancor is already swirling around the seemingly intractable divide between California's cities and the state's agricultural sector.

Your state environmental laws will be weaker.

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Salinity barrier in the Sacramento Delta | Photo: California Department of Water Resources
 

This isn't as direct an impact for a lot of Californians, though presumably regular readers of Redefine at KCET will find it hits close to home: the governor's Executive Order specifically exempts much of the work it mandates from the dictates of a law the Order describes as "Division 13 (commencing with section 21000) of the Public Resources Code and regulations adopted pursuant to that Division."

That's the part of the California Public Resources Code more commonly known as the California Environmental Quality Act, a.k.a. CEQA.

Suspending CEQA in the face of an emergency is not particularly newsworthy in most cases: most declarations of states of emergency and similar documents include one form or another of suspension of relevant environmental laws. And the provisions of the Executive Order for which CEQA has been suspended include a few things, like the California Energy Commission's researching new water saving gadgets, that are unlikely to pose a huge threat to the environment.

But a couple of provisions of the Executive Order do carry the possibility of the kind of environmental impact that CEQA was written to regulate. One is a measure making it easier for the California Energy Commission to approve new sources of water to keep electrical power plants operating. Presumably, that new water would have to come from somewhere, and ordinarily CEQA would force the Energy Commission to examine in detail the environmental costs of taking that water from where it was being used -- by farms or fish or whatever -- and putting it through a power plant instead.The other measure is more likely to have a direct environmental impact: that's directive 20:

Sounds good, right? Conserving water and meeting Endangered Species Act requirements and human health and safety?

If you're picturing those salinity barriers as something like high tech semipermeable membranes that let water pass but keep salt out, you will likely be disappointed to learn that they're actually big piles of rock, like the one shown in the photo above, that keep saltwater from the San Francisco Bay from flowing into the Sacramento Delta's freshwater.

The Department of Water Resources has already stated its intention to build several such barriers in the Delta, and the agency maintains that the environmental impact of the projects will be negligible enough that they don't need to go through the full CEQA Environmental Impact Report process.

That's a standard decision called a "negative declaration," and it allows citizens who disagree the option of filing suit to force a full environmental review. Now that CEQA has been suspended in the matter of building those salinity barriers, though, citizen suits just got a lot harder.

And the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chuck Bonham, went on record Thursday with KCBS saying that the barriers could have an environmental downside. "We'll be working closely with the Department to weigh all the analysis, consider pros and cons," said Bonham. "And make no mistake, there are pros and cons."

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So there you have it: a few ways in which this week's Executive Order might affect your life. Some are direct and some less so, some potentially helpful and some possibly painful. We'll all know more about the specifics when the State Water Resources Control Board comes up with a plan to share the pain among California's water companies. We'll be watching closely.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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