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Governor’s Water Plan a Boost for Conservation

Sacramento Bee, April 3, 2008 Editorial

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised many in 2006 by signing a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Now he seems interested in pursuing a similar cap on practices that waste water.

Schwarzenegger told legislators last month that, as part of a comprehensive water package, he wants a 20 percent reduction in per-person water use in urban areas by 2020. His Department of Water Resources is now formulating strategies to meet that target, and lawmakers could soon be debating bills to further the state’s conservation efforts.

This renewed focus on conservation is encouraging on at least two fronts. By finding common ground on ways to improve water efficiency, state leaders could lay the groundwork for progress in other areas, such as improving water quality and conveyance in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Conservation also makes financial sense. For many areas of California, it is the cheapest, most immediately available source of new water.

Consider these numbers: Each year, cities and suburbs use about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, or about 2.8 trillion gallons. Compared with agriculture, cities and counties consume just a fraction of the state’s overall supply. But because urban areas are growing quickly and generally don’t have seniority in water rights, many of them pay a steep price for their water. Thus they have a built-in incentive to make the most of every drop.

Over the last two decades, certain urban areas – particularly those outside of the Central Valley – have invested heavily in water efficiency. Those investments are a key reason why the state’s population has grown with only modest investments in water storage.

Yet more could be done. According to Chapter 22 of the current California Water Plan Update, an extra 3 million acre-feet of water – one-third of the current urban usage – could be saved yearly with existing technologies. These include installing more efficient sprinklers and landscaping at city parks and highway medians; expanding metering of water and replacing an estimated 10 million antiquated toilets that were installed in homes and offices prior to 1992.

In this session, lawmakers have introduced varied legislation – including Assembly Bills 2175, 2882, 2153 and 2219 – to tighten conservation. All are works in progress and vary in approach. AB 2175, for instance, would require water agencies to achieve a firm per-person target in reducing water consumption, but would give credit to those that have already invested in conservation. AB 2153 would require new developments to reduce their water consumption “footprint” by helping disadvantaged communities and farmers pay for improved efficiency.

While conservation isn’t a panacea for all of the state’s water challenges, it still retains untapped potential, as well as unseen environmental benefits. The less water that is pumped out of rivers and over mountains, the less energy the state must purchase from power plants, including those that burn dirty coal.

Water conservation goes hand in hand with California’s overall effort to prepare for, and reduce the threat of, climate change. If state leaders can recognize that nexus, 2008 could be a year of real accomplishment on water.

Article at the Sacramento Bee