It might be the regulatory version of “Are we there yet?”

Even as local water officials are telling customers to use less water during California’s worst drought in more than 1,000 years, they are also asking state regulators when they can stop telling people to save so much water.

The concerns are spelled out in a Sept. 18 letter to members of the State Water Resources Control Board that was signed by 10 local water agencies, including the city of San Diego and the San Diego County Water Authority.

The current emergency restrictions were imposed at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown. He called for urban water users to reduce their demand by an average of 25 percent. The fight now is over what happens after those regulations expire in February.

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Local water agencies are keen to know if Californians can quit saving so much water if “more normal” rainfall and snowfall return. The problem is that rain and snow may become more erratic because of climate change. In other words, the drastic conditions might be more normal than anomaly.

“While the evidence strongly suggests changing climate conditions, that shouldn’t mean current statewide emergency conditions are the new normal by which policy is set,” said Mike Lee, a spokesman for the County Water Authority.

State regulators take a different view. Max Gomberg, the state water board’s climate and conservation manager, said there is no “normal” or “new normal.”

“This idea there ever was a ‘normal’ is inaccurate – I don’t even like the term ‘new normal,’ because you still have the term ‘normal’ in there,” Gomberg said. “What ‘normal’ means for California is wide variability.”

While this year’s El Niño is expected to drench Southern California, it’s unlikely to end the years-long drought.

So, state officials are looking to lock in the water savings seen this summer so Californians don’t backpedal after a rainy season and find themselves unprepared for yet another drought, or even the continuation of the current one. The No. 1 goal in the governor’s 2014 Water Action Plan is “Make conservation a California way of life.”

But in the view of local water agencies, the state doesn’t have the power to indefinitely mandate water conservation.

Keith Lewinger, a member of the County Water Authority’s board of directors, said there would be a “firestorm” if the state goes that route.

“The state does not have the authority, nor do we think they have the reason, to mandate these permanent types of conservation requirements, it’s just not necessary,” he said.

San Diego wants to have a choice about saving water, in part because it has worked for years to buy itself out of droughts.

The County Water Authority helped build a desalination plant, which makes seawater drinkable, and has secured access to new water supplies from the Colorado River. Those are expensive projects and San Diego officials do not want to have spent all of that money on water that the state can suddenly prevent them from using.

In this view, local agencies across the state should have two choices: Use less water, or spend money to buy or create new water supplies.

“We’re asking people to conserve, and that’s a good thing. And up in Sacramento, we’re saying we support water conservation, we’ll do our part on water conservation – and that’s especially during drought conditions,” Lewinger said. “But during non-drought conditions, don’t tell us we have to conserve. We’ll develop our water supplies and spend our money where we think it’s most good.”

Environmentalist groups have objected to this line of thinking, saying it could leave poorer regions hung out to dry in a drought.

“That takes us down a very dangerous road where water conservation requirements are implemented against communities that have scarce resources,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental group that has participated in discussions about long-term state regulations.

San Diego Coastkeeper has fought the desalination plant and argues that its main purpose is sustaining growth without attempting to reduce overall demand for water.

In theory, new sources of water – particularly desalinated water and recycled water – will eventually allow San Diego agencies to use less water from Northern California and the Colorado River. That will free up water for others in the state to use.

But that’s not happening yet. Even with the desalination plant starting up in coming weeks, the County Water Authority is planning to buy all the water it can from Northern California and the Colorado, in part because it wants to fill up San Vicente Dam, which was emptied during a recent upgrade.

Other local water agencies are questioning what benefit Californians got from saving so much water.

For instance, the city of Sacramento does not get to keep the water it saved this year, said Jim Peifer, the supervising engineer of that city’s water department. Some of the water the city is saving is instead going to farmers or into streams and rivers that run out to the ocean.

“We’re not getting any credit, we’re not able to carry that water over for the city,” he said.

Peifer said the emergency regulations were a quick, blunt instrument to cope with the drought, but any long-term regulations need to be crafted by the Legislature.

“We do need to do better job at using water more efficiently and reducing our demands but I think we do need to do it in a way that is sustainable,” he said.

Gomberg, the state water official, said at the end of the day, saving water during a drought of unpredictable length is insurance against the worst.

“What this all comes down to is the better safe than sorry – why would we sort of want to roll the dice?” he said. “We’re not going to try to save as much as possible even though we don’t we know when the drought is going to end, just because someone invested in local supply?”

But the water agencies’ letter to the state was the “final straw” for Coastkeeper, which provided a copy of the letter to VOSD.

“I do wonder if San Diegans really want to be represented that way in Sacramento on water issues – I really do see people embracing conservation,” Aminzadeh said.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Science/Environment, Water

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and land use. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Is it the worst drought in more than 1000 years?  That is an interesting statement.  Do you realize that is 10 centuries?  That is the first time I have heard that statement about the current situation.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Is this an editorial or a news article?  The author needs to retract the opening statement.  There isn't enough recorded rainfall history to know whether this is the worst drought in more than 1000 years.  Also the phrase, "More than 1000 years" isn't even definitive.  That phrasing has no meaning.

    Sam Ballard
    Sam Ballard

    Australia installed ten desalination plants of which eight have been shut down and the two remaining are slated to be shut down.  Their view "Big waste of money that is not cost effective.  Follow the money you will find the corruption! 

    George Courser
    George Courser subscriber

    There are no surprises to those watching the reactions of the SDCWA and local water district boards. Their agendas are attached at the hip to growth. Water agencies remain the single largest growth-inducing factor in San Diego, surpassing even SDG&E. Has any development ever experienced a refusal for a "will service" letter? Not in my experience or research.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    There's an easy, market-based solution: when water levels fall, raise the price of water, and when water levels rise, lower the price of water. Because people use less water when it's expensive and more when it's cheap, this would stabilize water levels in the same way that adjusting interest rates stabilizes the economy.

    SherryS subscriber

    I'm not sure that approach would work given the disparity of wealth in San Diego. It seems like the biggest water uses with big lawns and big budgets may be immune to price increases unless they are quite extreme. And those who use little water and have little budgets would not be able to afford even a small price increase.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @SherryS If the price of the first tier (maybe the first two tiers) remained the same, then those who use little water would not be affected.

    ann sswdfg
    ann sswdfg subscriber

    Make sure everyone opposes the Proposed rate increase you just received in the mail. It says "Notice for Public Hearing for Proposed Water Rate Increases". On the back of that booklet, there's a form to mail in. Let your voice be heard!

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    The headline fails to differentiate between San Diego water agencies and San Diego's water customers. A better headline might have been "San Diego water agencies ask state to let them stop helping customers use water more efficiently". Truth is that local water customers are far more committed to water conservation than local water districts and agencies, who's boards and staff don't like water conservation because it cuts into their water sales and revenue. While local water agencies are currently talking about ways customers can save water, they're not walking the walk in the form of offering customers incentives to save water.

    Having raised everyone's water rates, blaming it on water conservation, will the local water agencies reduce their water rates if the state says they can stop promoting conservation? I seriously doubt it. They will keep the money and stop urging customers to become more efficient. 

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    This drought wouldn't be so bad if the state stopped pumping 800k acre feet of fresh water from reservoirs into the ocean every year in an effort to lower water temperature for fish. The city of los angeles uses less than 600k acre feet per year and our billion dollar desalination plant will only produce 60k acre feet per year.

    ann sswdfg
    ann sswdfg subscriber

    @Sean M The problem with San Diego is there is no way to save millions of gallons of rain water. It doesn't rain much, but when it does, it all goes into the ocean. San Diego City officials can do a much better job. Maybe the Mayor should focus less on re election and the Chargers stadium and actually do some real work.

    Fleecing the tax payers has become common place.

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    @Sean M Did you even read the article you cited? The writer was making the point that 800k acre feet of water was left in the Delta and not allowed to be pumped to farmers in the Central Valley due to the protections afforded the endangered Delta Smelt. There was no "pumping 800k acre feet of fresh water from reservoirs into the ocean every year in an effort to lower water temperature for fish." And none of that really has much to do with this article you're commenting about.

    Without heightened public and political awareness of impending periodic/episodic drought, we'll continue to develop communities in water-wasting ways: sprawl housing, golf courses, irresponsible irrigation practices, etc. Making wise water use a long term proposition saves energy, facilitates wildlife, and in the end is good for our economy. We just have to stop wasting money on long term bond financed boondoggles like purple pipe and desalination.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    About 800k acre feet of water that could have been used for farming and residential use keeps getting diverted to the ocean every year. The need for conservation would not be so acute if the water had been retained. I would consider this diversion more wasteful than all the other uses you mentioned, especially since the project has not been successful, the last survey found only one fish. A more effective way to maintaintain the smelt population is in large aquariums, then reintroduce them to the wild when environmental conditions improve.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Sean M We give them far less water than they need, and yet we expect them to prosper. Or to put it in corporate-speak, "the beatings will continue until morale improves!"

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Mike @Sean M The article you cite say it's not just the smelt but lots of species declining.  From the article " not just Delta smelt, but also longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, Sacramento perch, river lamprey, green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead trout and spring and winter runs of chinook salmon. It's not just about saving a single species, they say, but about saving a precious ecosystem."  Do you want them all to go away so someone in another state can eat CA meat, vegetables, nuts & fruit?  Or keep golf courses, lawns, etc. green?  Because basically, you're saying sacrifice the whole ecosystem, which is already getting far too little water, for purposes like those.

    SherryS subscriber

    @Sean M Are environmental conditions going to improve? When?