Chris Carlson / AP

California water agencies scrambling to cut water use by 25 percent

Consumers can expect to pay more for water by summer, even if some use less

LOS ANGELES – The flurry of mandates from Gov. Jerry Brown and California water officials to dramatically slash water use during the fourth year of a historic drought has sent water agencies scrambling for ways to meet the challenge.

For the first time in the state’s history, Californians have been ordered to cut water consumption by 25 percent over the next year.

State regulators this week proposed setting goals for 400 local water districts ranging from 10 percent for those that have already made substantial headways in conservation to 35 percent for districts with high per capita water use – including upmarket neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills.

And last month districts that had not reduced outdoor watering were ordered to start enforcing a two-days-a-week regimen for their customers.

In Los Angeles, which has been on a water diet since 2007 and has already reached a 25 percent reduction goal, the new mandate is forcing more cuts.

“We have voiced concern that we’re not getting credit for our track record,” said Marty Adams, director of water operations at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Whatever the state water board decides in early May will not change the fact that the Metropolitan Water District, southern California’s water supplier, plans to vote next week to ration water it sells to 26 cities, including Los Angeles.

The agency, which imports water from the Colorado River and northern California, has cut supplies only twice before and was planning to do it even before the governor’s mandate, issued on a day when mountain snowpack measurements showed a record low. The result will inevitably be higher prices.

Local agencies that use more than allocated will pay stiff surcharges, which will in some way have to be passed on to customers.

All of this means that California consumers could end up paying more for less.

Water agencies have a fixed price for infrastructure and when people use less water, revenues to pay for these ongoing projects dwindle, forcing price hikes.

“When you conserve water, less water is less revenue,” said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. “How do you pay capital projects? It’s a paradox.”

The Los Angeles water agency is considering restricting outdoor watering from three days a week to two days. It’s also proposing going from a two-tier pricing system (higher prices when usage reaches the second tier) to a four-tier allocation.

Tiered pricing is something that some districts are wary of because of a court challenge by taxpayers in San Juan Capistrano. The lawsuit against the local water agency argues that tiered rates violate state law that bans agencies from charging more than water actually costs.

A decision from a California appeals court is expected this month. At least half of all utilities in California use tiered pricing, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But only 3 percent are based on allocation formula depending on the size of a property and the number of people in the household.

“If you have a big household with a lot of irrigated lawn, you get more at one price than neighbors with smaller lawns,” said Kenneth Baerenklau, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California Riverside.

And that’s what San Juan Capistrano residents are challenging.

Kelly Salt, a San Diego lawyer who specializes in water rates and conservation ordinances, said water districts should be safe to institute tiered rates based on allocations if they can justify that it costs them more to supply water to these bigger users.

The Moulton Niguel Water District in Orange County is basing rates on reasonable water use, Salt said, because calls for voluntary cuts have not worked well enough.

During drought emergencies, water allocations are lower and penalties for over use higher.

Several agencies that had already set outdoor watering restrictions plan to beef up enforcement — something that now has to be reported to the state.

A team of four full-time water cops and several part-timers in Los Angeles will now focus on areas that have a higher per-capita use, Adams said.

“It varies considerably in different parts of Los Angeles, based on lot size and we’ll start stepping up enforcement in areas with higher per person use, “ he said, including affluent areas such as Palisades and Hancock Park.

The governor also called for the replacement of 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping and the creation of a statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with water- and energy-efficient models.

This week, the state approved the nation’s most stringent rules for new low-flow toilets, faucets and urinals. Starting in January, the California Energy Commission can prohibit stores from selling older models.

The state says the new standards will save 10 billion gallons of water next year and eventually 100 billions of gallons a year as  renovations and new constructions increase.

“The governor’s announcement is helping people to understand this is a serious crisis situation and serious measures are needed,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “It’s taken some time … It’s disappointing to realize that the problem has to become so severe to reach that point.”

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