NRDC Goes Back to Court to Save Water in California

El Dorado County Courthouse in Placerville. The town of Placerville strengthened its irrigation standards, while El Dorado County did not.
Credit: Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri

This week, NRDC filed suit against El Dorado County in Northern California, citing the county’s continuing failure to comply with state regulations designed to prevent the waste of water in newly installed irrigated landscapes. Under a law enacted over 25 years ago1, this responsibility falls upon every city and county in California as they issue building permits that include irrigated landscapes. State regulations, known as the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), include standards for landscape design and irrigation efficiency that were last updated in 2015. While hundreds of local jurisdictions have implemented the 2015 update (including Placerville, the county seat of El Dorado County), the County government itself has not, although brisk building activity has resulted in many new landscape installations receiving county permits. 

In a normal year, about half of all the water consumption in California’s urban areas is used outdoors, making the failure to prevent wasteful irrigation practices a serious threat to the reliability of urban water supplies in a changing climate. Statewide requirements for landscape efficiency make extra sense in light of the many interconnections provided by federal and state water projects and the critical need to protect vulnerable resources of statewide concern, such as the Bay-Delta system. In late 2017, NRDC brought cases similar to this one against the cities of Pasadena and Murrieta in Southern California for a list of infractions very much like those we allege against El Dorado County.  Both cases were settled within the past year with negotiated agreements ensuring stronger local standards and the installation of supplemental water-conserving projects to offset the excess water consumption of landscapes installed under the cities' former, less stringent standards. The Pasadena settlement is described here.

In recent correspondence with NRDC, the County offered no substantive excuse for its failure to comply with state regulations that were issued during the height of the drought with considerable publicity, as noted here. The County provided NRDC with information about the use of recycled water in some new developments, but such practices do not mean that the County is complying with state regulations. Indeed, while the El Dorado Irrigation District (EID), the primary water supplier in the western part of the county, has long offered recycled water, the EID recycled water service area is just a fraction of the total EID service area, which itself is a fraction of the unincorporated area of El Dorado County in which county building permits are issued. Also, the EID recycled water system was already oversubscribed as of 2014, and has to be supplemented with fresh water to serve its existing connections.  

The use of recycled water is recognized under MWELO, but it is not an off-ramp. All of the prescriptive requirements contained in 2015 MWELO, such as efficient irrigation equipment, mulching, metering, etc., apply to new landscapes served with recycled water. In any event, with permits for over 1,700 dwellings having been issued from 2016 through 2018, the number of permitted landscapes using potable water is likely to be considerable.

Some new homes in El Dorado Hills receive recycled water for irrigation. State landscape standards protect against the waste of recycled water as well, such as barring sprinkler irrigation on narrow strips of turf grass.
Credit: Image from Google Maps

El Dorado County is just one of several hundred communities that have failed to submit required annual reports on their landscape permitting activity since 2015 to the Department of Water Resources, and many of these communities have failed to adopt either 2015 MWELO or a local ordinance that is equally effective. In light of this persistent and widespread non-compliance with state landscape regulations, and the importance of prudent outdoor water use for maintaining drinking water supplies, further litigation may well be necessary. 

[1] In 1990, the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act aimed to reduce water used for irrigation on urban landscapes, by specifying that new landscapes and major renovations of existing landscapes be designed and installed to be water-efficient. To implement the act, the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) sets criteria for the design and installation of new landscapes. All cities and counties must report to the Department of Water Resources on the scope and enforcement of their landscape ordinance on an annual basis. Analysis of this information helps bring local enforcement into focus and helps spot gaps in the effectiveness of MWELO.