California Takes a Big Step Forward in Improving Water Efficiency

Yesterday, the Governor signed into law SB 7X 7, a bill that NRDC co-sponsored to improve water use efficiency in California.  This landmark legislation requires California to achieve a 20% improvement in water use efficiency per person by 2020, making California the first state to set numeric per capita water efficiency targets for every urban water district across the state.  But let's be clear: this legislation doesn't create water cops who will be timing your shower or watching your sprinklers.  Instead, the law creates financial incentives for water districts, which have the expertise and authority, to determine the most cost-effective and fair way to reduce water use in their district.  

Water efficiency is the quickest, cheapest, and most environmentally sustainable way to create new water for California's farms, businesses, residences, and the environment.  The State estimates that water efficiency holds the potential to create more new water than any other water supply tool, at a fraction of the cost of other supply strategies.  For instance, the Bureau of Reclamation announced $5.6M in grants for water use efficiency, estimating the programs and projects funded by these grants would generate thousands of acre feet of new water each year.  

Not only can businesses, schools, and residences save water by improving water use efficiency, but they will often save money in the process.  From replacing old toilets to fixing leaky sinks, from efficient landscaping to high efficiency clothes washers, saving water saves money on water and wastewater bills.   In the commercial, industrial, and institutional sector alone, NRDC estimates that cost-effective improvements to water use efficiency could enough water to fill 350,000 to 650,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.  Water efficiency projects for commercial, industrial and institutional users typically pay for themselves in one to four years, which is why many leading companies have already started making significant investments in water use efficiency.

In addition, thanks to major investments in water conservation and efficiency, the City of Los Angeles uses the same or less water today than it did 30 years ago, despite adding more than a million people to the population, a nearly 25% increase in population -- and the City plans to meet its future water needs through further investments in water conservation and water recycling.  The proven track record in Los Angeles, at many leading companies, and in other cities in Southern California and the Bay Area prove that water conservation and efficiency are an essential part of California's water supply future.  The legislation signed into law today will provide credit for past investments in conservation and translate these successful efforts statewide. 

At the same time, many commentators have noted that urban water use accounts for only approximately 20% of the State's water use, with agriculture accounting for about 80%.  This legislation requires most agricultural water users to adopt some pretty basic best management practices, which are already required for agricultural water users that get their water from the federal Central Valley Project.  But there's a lot more room for improvement in agricultural efficiency, as our friends at the Pacific Institute recently found. 

Some districts are very efficient with water use, and others, not so much.  We want to see continued improvement in agricultural water efficiency, but there simply wasn't the political will to include stronger measures to improve agricultural water use efficiency in this bill.  However, this bill sets the stage for future agricultural water efficiency legislation by requiring DWR to convene a task force to establish a methodology for determining agricultural water use efficiency by December 31, 2011 (see Section 10608.64). That process should give advocates useful information for follow up legislation to improve agricultural water efficiency.

Improving water efficiency is a continuous process, and it is an essential tool in achieving the State policy of reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and meeting our water supply needs through investments in the Virtual River of alternative water supplies.  The legislation signed today is a major step forward, but it's not the last step we'll take. And now that we've done the hard part of passing this into law, we all have to implement it.  If we all do our part, we can exceed the targets in this law, and California's economy and environment will be better off.  So let's get to work saving water (and money).