Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

California’s historic drought led to immense pressure to conserve water, and during the last year, most Californians stepped up to the task.

State “water cops” issued warnings and fines; people stopped washing their cars; towns let their parks fade from green to brown. But during El Niño this winter, some regions received enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs and aquifers, so in May, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the statewide ban on excessive urban water use, giving more than 400 water districts the power to develop individual conservation standards.

It was a controversial decision, because sweeping rules had finally moved people to take the drought seriously. Water-policy experts fear the decision may lead to a let-up in conservation, even though nearly 70 percent of the state remains in extreme drought. That concern isn’t unwarranted: Although some districts want to keep enforcing strict mandates, others have been fighting for months to put a cap on them.

“A number of water suppliers don’t necessarily deserve (this) trust,” says Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an organization that unites water programs across the state. “It’s really dicey to return to local control, especially as we enter the hot, dry summer months.”

California’s water infrastructure is complicated: Supply comes from the snowpack, rivers, reservoirs, aqueducts and groundwater. These sources were so depleted in 2014 that Brown declared a state of emergency and asked districts to cut water use by 20 percent. When most failed to do so by 2015, Brown imposed the sharpest restrictions on water use in history: a ban on excessive water use for landscaping and urban areas that brought about a 24-percent reduction.

Under Brown’s May mandate, local agencies don’t need to meet specific conservation targets. Districts can analyze their water needs and certify conservation plans before submitting them to the state. They must ensure a three-year supply of water in case of future drought, and the agencies that will face at least three more years of drought must set high conservation standards.

Some broader restrictions from the governor’s mandate, like a ban on hosing off sidewalks or washing cars without hose nozzles, will remain in place. But theoretically, if the water supply and demand equal out, a district’s conservation target could be zero. That means people won’t face such strict requirements, which could lead to them returning to old water habits, such as watering lawns too frequently, turning on their fountains again, or filling up their pools. This new process also adds a reporting burden on the state board, which has to sift through hundreds of analyses to make sure each district is complying. It’s unclear how that will be done logistically; the board did not respond to a request for comment.

However it pans out, the new plan allows agencies to roll back conservation efforts without much consequence. Several water district managers say that even though following state standards and reporting numbers every month was a hassle, they saw huge gains that they hate to lose.

“Once you start changing behaviors, you don’t want to unwind that,” says Harry Starkey, manager of West Kern Water District. His district will continue to take detailed measurements of water usage and enforce landscaping restrictions, he says.

Other agencies are relaxing water-saving efforts because they have reserves for now. San Diego County recently lowered its reduction goal because a new desalination plant provides 10 percent of local water supply. Riverside Public Utilities says it has already exceeded conservation goals, so the district doesn’t need to enforce strict mandates. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which got so much rain the local reservoir was spilling over this winter, is cancelling emergency-conservation programs and public-education programs for conservation. Several managers from around the state added that because water efficiency is now such an accepted part of everyday life, they don’t believe residents will stop saving water.

“Even before the regulations, we had moved the needle quite a bit,” says Todd Jorgenson, assistant general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. “Conservation, drought—these are common things to us, so we expect to continue those efforts.”

Most water agencies don’t have specific plans in place yet, but water managers say every water district in California will eventually need to raise rates to make up for revenue loss in times of drought, and it’s likely that in the future, there will be policy changes for how both commercial and residential water supplies work.

Tracy Quinn, water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that it’s important for districts to keep in mind that even though local drought conditions may have improved, it doesn’t mean California is in the clear. This year, snowpack melted quickly and is now only 29 percent of its normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, says there’s a high chance for La Niña conditions this winter, which could mean another dry year ahead.

Since more extreme droughts are inevitable, Quinn says, water agencies should keep up strong conservation efforts and focus on in-depth reports for the state: “Water agencies should be cautious and plan for the likelihood that the worst may be yet to come.”

This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group—the D.C.-based nonprofit that helps the green-conscious decide which sunscreen to wear and what to wash their dishes with—was rallying California followers to contact state legislators in support of a bill to regulate fracking.

The sun was about to set on California’s legislative session without a single new law on the issue, despite an industry poised for potential boom on the Monterey Shale—1,750 square miles that extend from Central to Southern California containing two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale reserves. Two proposed bills had already died; one that would have imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing got just 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly.

Only Senate Bill 4 still had a chance; it had cleared the Senate and was headed for the Assembly. And though some moratorium-or-bust environmentalists thought the bill didn’t go far enough, EWG—whose staff had worked for four years on the legislation—remained ardently behind it.

So did several other large and influential environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters, and all for the same reason: “It will go farther than any other law or regulation in the country,” EWG president Ken Cook wrote in an email blast to subscribers. “The public will be able to see a list of the chemicals used, even if a drilling company claims it’s a trade secret.”

Plus, the bill had been authored by none other than State Sen. Fran Pavley, the legislator who, while in the Assembly, wrote two of California’s landmark climate laws: one, in 2001, set stringent emissions standards for cars and trucks; the another, the iconic AB 32, reduced greenhouse gases coming out of everything else. The Democrat from the north coast of Los Angeles County has a knack for realpolitik advances in environmental lawmaking; a bill with her name on it typically gets rubber-stamped with the environmental community’s blessing.

Less than a week later, however, everything had changed. SB 4 had gone into the Assembly and, under pressure from both the oil/gas industry and Gov. Jerry Brown, it came out an altered beast, apparently with a two-year grace period for any kind of well stimulation the oil and gas industry deemed necessary to force hard-to-access heavy oil from the Monterey Shale. By the time the amended bill went back to the Senate on Sept. 11, the EWG had withdrawn its support, as had every other environmental group that had backed it before. Pavley was now the proud sponsor of a fracking bill that every last environmentalist, save the ones in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, hated.

But it was one that the governor said he’d sign.

In a way, the trouble began when Pavley expanded SB 4 to regulate not just hydraulic fracturing, but another process more useful on the Monterey Shale called acid matrix stimulation. “Acidizing,” as the process is sometimes called, employs hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the rock instead of breaking it up. And if you thought fracking chemicals were bad, consider that a drop of hydrofluoric acid can penetrate your skin and kill you. As Briana Mordick writes on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “At low concentrations, such as those used in the oil and gas industry, the symptoms of exposure may be delayed by up to a day, meaning that extensive damage may be done before the person seeks medical attention.”

EWG’s man in Sacramento, Bill Allayaud, says that while the Western States Petroleum Association—the state’s busiest lobbyist in 2012—was always gunning for the bill (“they wanted to bust it open,” he says), lobbying activity picked up last summer when Pavley got wise to industry techniques and expanded it to include acid jobs.“ That struck a nerve,” says Allayaud, whose organization pointed out, in 2011, that neither fracking nor acidizing is a new thing in California. “It turns out that some companies have been acidizing wells like crazy,” Allayud says.

They’ve been fracking, too, with little oversight and even fewer rules. In 2011, EWG went to the state’s regulatory authority, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), and said, “Tell us where a well was fracked. Tell us when a well failed.” DOGGR—which everyone pronounces “dogger”—“could not do that,” Allayaud says. He points to Jeremy Miller’s 2010 reporting in High Country News as a demonstration of the data gaps. “Jeremy asked where does the water go, and where does it come from (in fracking operations)? He got pretty far, but it’s hard to go further, because the data doesn’t exist.”

Pavley’s bill was crafted to make sure that in the future, regulators could answer those questions, and many more—including exactly what chemical brews were being used in the process.

Some of that good stuff remains in the bill.

“The bill still has powerful components that make it the strongest fracking bill in the nation,” Allayaud says. “It requires public disclosure of trade secrets. It requires groundwater monitoring before and after both acid and frack jobs. It really does prevent DOGGR from being too tied to the industry; it forces them to represent the public and not just Chevron and Occidental.” It still calls for a comprehensive environmental review of well stimulation treatments by 2015, and the issuance of final regulations when that study’s done.

But now there’s also a fuzzy line stating that DOGGR “shall allow” fracking and acidizing until it issues final regulations in 2015, which, depending on your interpretation, may or may not mean that, for the next two years, oil and gas producers can proceed as usual.

“We thought it was potentially damaging enough that we wanted to send a message that we’re not happy,” Allayaud says.

The governor, on the other hand, is plenty happy. And Pavley is making the rounds with reporters defending a bill that, while far from perfect, at least brings into the open what’s been happening under the radar.

“Without SB 4, there will be no public disclosure of chemicals, no groundwater monitoring and no regulation of acidizing, and the oil companies will continue to be able to frack without a permit or any public accountability whatsoever,” she told E&E Energy Wire. “The world won’t be perfect” because of SB 4, “but it will be a whole lot better.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment