Big Yards Favored by California's Drought Regulations

Large lots, swimming pools, and "commercial agricultural uses"?  Valley Center Municipal Water District, San Diego County, CA
Large lots, swimming pools, and "commercial agricultural uses"? Valley Center Municipal Water District, San Diego County, CA
Credit: Photo: Courtesy MapQuest

What's the difference between a suburban yard and a farm? This might sound like the opening line of a stale joke, but it's serious business for California regulators heading into another summer of record-breaking drought. The State Water Resources Control Board has just adopted regulations implementing Governor Brown's order for an unprecedented mandatory reduction of drinking water use by 25% statewide. The worst drought in 1,200 years (long before 38 million people moved to California) calls for bold action, and the State Board is to be commended for swiftly moving to implement a serious program of urban water use reductions in advance of the hottest months, when landscape irrigation typically soars.

But during its late night sprint to final action on this regulation, the Board stumbled badly as it tried to parse out "commercial agricultural use" from other uses of publicly supplied drinking water, to offer it special treatment. A draft proposal emerged about two weeks ago to allow some water utilities to remove such water sales from the total quantity of thier drinking water production that will be subject to the 25% cut under the proposed rule. Unfortunately, the definition of agricultural use was so broad as to encompass many large-lot subdivisions that are landscaped with avocados and lemons, a popular lifestyle for the affluent, especially in Southern California. The shortcomings and unfairness of this proposal are laid out here in my previous blog.

Unfortunately, the Board failed to remedy the problems with the draft proposal - in fact, they made them worse. As adopted, even more urban water districts will now be able to find "commercial agricultural uses" of drinking water in their neighborhoods, and reduce their water-saving targets accordingly. Such actions by these districts will mean that either other, less affluent communities will have to reduce their own water use by a greater percentage, or the 25% statewide reduction will not be met. Either outcome seems contrary to the Governor's call for statewide savings to be apportioned equitably.

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