Looking Outdoors for Lasting Water Savings in California

The drought news from California this month is slightly less dire—“only” 64% of the state is still experiencing drought conditions that are considered “severe” or worse.

However, extreme drought still lingers over nearly all of heavily populated Southern California.  So while a modest snow pack in the mountains is allowing for an easing of water use restrictions in parts of the state, officials are also reinforcing the message that water conservation needs to become “a California way of life.” At least, that’s how Governor Brown put it when he issued a new Executive Order May 9, in which he directed state agencies to improve water efficiency and curtail unnecessary water use on a permanent basis. The following week, as if on cue, a set of recommendations with enormous potential for urban water savings was released by a state panel convened three years ago.

A new report by the Independent Technical Panel (ITP) on Urban Water Efficiency, on which I served, focuses entirely on landscape water efficiency in California. An enormous amount of water is used outdoors in California’s cities and towns, accounting for about half of the state’s total urban water use. The Panel’s goal is to cut landscape use of potable water in half from pre-drought, business-as-usual levels, and to do so within 20 years. If successful, this would save about 2 million acre-feet of water each year, which is about one-fourth of all urban water use in the state … or about four times the amount of water used annually by the entire City of Los Angeles.

The Panel also noted that more water-efficient landscapes can improve the financial health of water utilities as well as customers:

“Landscape water use is the most variable part of urban water demand—subject to wide swings in use between wet and dry years and from winter to summer. Nearly every urban water utility’s peak demands are shaped by landscape water use and these peak demands drive requirements for costly conveyance, treatment, and distribution capacity. A less thirsty urban landscape would mean less volatility in demand throughout the year and from one year to the next, and provide greater revenue stability for water suppliers and lower peak-related costs to be recovered from customers.” 

Last April, as he contemplated a future marked by a warmer climate and less predictable water supplies, Governor Brown stated:

“We’re in a new era. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”

Indeed, the ITP Report offers a vision for this new era:

“By 2035, the use of potable water on urban ornamental landscapes will be much less common than today. Residential and commercial landscapes will be attractive and functional, and will be largely sustained by natural precipitation where it falls, harvested rainwater, and on-site sources of water acceptable for landscape use. Such landscapes will retain most precipitation for storage, direct use, or recharge, rather than generating runoff.”

So landscapes can be both attractive and functional, while producing less runoff and requiring far less drinking water to be poured on the ground to keep them in shape.

The report’s 19 recommendations are a complementary set of policies to help reach this goal, some requiring new legislation, while others fall well within the current authority of state agencies.  A proposed tax credit for residential and commercial turf replacement over the next 5 years is one of the most visible recommendations, but the wide scope of the recommended actions are illustrated by these other examples:

  • labeling of all landscape plants sold in California for their expected water requirements
  • including a check on the irrigation system in any home inspection performed in connection with the sale of an existing home
  • requiring a local permit for the installation of large irrigation systems not otherwise covered by a building permit
  • reporting the water use and efficiency of all large landscapes every three years
  • adopting water efficiency standards for new landscape irrigation equipment
  • making water efficiency requirements for new landscapes part of the state building code
  • establishing a state R&D program for landscape water use efficiency
  • improving the examination for state certification for landscape contractors
  • transforming landscapes around all state-owned buildings

As the Panel noted, no single program will transform California’s urban landscapes, and

“. . . it is unrealistic to expect that all landscape conversions will be financed with public funds.  The policies and practices that will achieve these results will involve a combination of market forces, targeted incentives, reasonable regulations, improved business models, workforce preparation, evolving social norms, and applied research.”

Panel members were drawn from diverse interests, including water suppliers and landscape professionals, so their strong agreement on these proposals should encourage state decision-makers to act favorably. Nevertheless, some interests may be apprehensive of change, so we should expect some push-back along the way before the full package gets approved. With lawmakers still looking for drought solutions and state agencies charged with finding permanent water savings, this vision of a new and more sustainable urban landscape could be well on its way to adoption before the end of this year.

What’s not here? Most notably, the Panel made no recommendations for specific water efficiency targets for individual water providers. But the Governor’s order directs state regulators to develop such targets, and adoption of the ITP recommendations will help water suppliers meet the new levels of water savings they will be expected to achieve in the years ahead. 

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