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Will we have enough? Inside California's water agency managers' tough job

What if it were your job to make sure there’s enough water for everyone in your city to drink – in the middle of the worst drought in 500 years? That’s the job description for hundreds of water managers in California.

While balancing supply and demand is always difficult in drought, the past year and half have been especially challenging as the state of California has whiplashed back and forth on mandatory water conservation. The question for everyone in water policy right now is: In a state where water scarcity is the new normal, but not every year is a severe drought, how much water should we be saving?

Meet Joe

State regulators have come up with one answer to that question, but Joe Zoba, head of the Yucaipa Valley Water District, has a different answer.

Zoba has spent the past 22 years thinking about water in Yucaipa, a foothill town 10 miles east of San Bernardino. He has the demeanor of a pilot, a surgeon, or any other calm, controlled person whose actions have profound consequences on people’s lives. Standing outside the water district’s treatment plant on a 90-degree day, Zoba didn’t break a sweat, despite being dressed in a button-down shirt, tie and slacks. He gestured with a bottle of water in his hand.

For being such an unflappable guy, Zoba did something really unusual this year. But to understand why, we first need to understand what made the past year and a half so difficult for water managers in California.

Water regulation whiplash

On April 1, 2015, snow surveyors dragged a tape measure across a grassy meadow in the Sierra Nevada. It was the first time since 1942 the meadow had been bare. Governor Jerry Brown used the occasion toannounce California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions, telling reporters, “We’re in an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action.”

Brown told Californians that in order to stop using so much water, every city and water agency would be required to cut back by a certain amount (except for farmers). The percentages were calculated largely based on per capita water use in each community or agency. Collectively, the goal was to save 25 percent statewide.

Yucapia was told to cut its use by 36 percent, the highest tier, because its per capita water use (265 gallons per person per day) was high compared to the state average of 124.5.

And so, for a year and a half, Yucaipa tried to cut water consumption. It required all new houses to be dual plumbed with both potable and recycled water. The water district installed Wifi-equipped yard sprinklers that sense temperature to help control irrigation waste.

The city saw water use decline 22 percent between June 2015 and May 2016 – not as much as the state wanted, but still pretty good. Collectively, water use in California declined by 24.5 percent – nearly meeting the Governor’s goal. The mandatory standards appeared to be working.

But then something happened: the Sierra Nevada had a nearly regular snow year. By April 2016, the grassy, dry meadow that Brown had stood on to announce the historic cutbacks was buried under five feet of snow. The state’s largest reservoirs in Northern California filled up, and water agencies began complaining that the mandatory restrictions were too restrictive.

So in May, state officials decided they didn’t need to force everyone to save water anymore.

“Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before,” Brown said in a statement at the time. “But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.”

Starting in June, water agencies would be allowed to set their own conservation goals. And thus, the so-called “stress test” was born.

The stress test

At the heart of the test is an assumption and a simple math problem: assume that the next three years will be as dry and hot as the last three. Then add up all your expected water demands and subtract them from your estimated supply and see how much, if any, is left over.

In Yucaipa, Joe Zoba first calculated demand. He knew that homeowners and renters use almost 90 percent of the water in his community, more than half of that for watering lawns. He did some math and got his demand number: 3.9 billion gallons a year.

Next, he turned to supply. Two sources provide the entirety of Yucaipa’s water: 60 percent comes from the State Water Project, which carries water over 500 miles from reservoirs in Northern California to Zoba’s treatment plant in Yucaipa; the other 40 percent comes out of the ground.

When Zoba did the math, he had more than enough water for everyone in Yucaipa – even with three more very dry years. That meant he passed the stress test.

His reward was no more mandatory conservation. Yucaipa’s 36 percent conservation target would drop to zero. Any conservation measures he felt like pursuing would be voluntary, not subject to enforcement by the state’s water cops.

Nearly two-thirds of California was in extreme or exceptional drought in mid-May 2016 when water manager Joe Zoba passed his stress test, allowing him to forgo mandatory water conservation.
US Drought Monitor
Nearly two-thirds of California was in extreme or exceptional drought in mid-May 2016 when water manager Joe Zoba passed his stress test, allowing him to forgo mandatory water conservation.

"It just doesn't make sense."

But Zoba was skeptical. He didn’t like how the stress test reduced complex decisions – should he keep conserving, or use more water, and if so how much? — to a simple math problem. Moreover, 65 percent of California was still in extreme drought. Reporting a zero conservation standard to the state didn’t seem like a good idea.

“There’s something just not intuitive about that,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

First, he thought telling his customers that they no longer had a mandatory conservation target was sending the wrong message. Second, he didn’t believe his water supplier would actually deliver the amount of Northern California water that they had promised him. Their assumptions just sounded too rosy to him.

“I’m going to take the worst case scenario and assume we’re in year five of a 12 to 15 year drought,” he said. “If our future is going to be tied to imported water, that’s not a very reliable future.”

So Zoba did something very unusual. He asked the state to keep mandatory water restrictions in place even though Yucaipa had passed its stress test.

State water officials say it shows leadership to go above and beyond what their calculations require – calculations they stand by.

“The objective of the stress test was to make conservative assumptions,” said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board. What Yucaipa did, “shows a level of caution that wasn’t required, but that they felt was appropriate for that area.”

How much water should we be saving?

But it also shows how difficult it is to be in water policy in California right now.

“While we're still in a drought, and we still need to figure out how to conserve, we're not in the worst situation in 500 years,” said Felicia Marcus, head of the State Water Resources Control Board, during a conference call with reporters in August. “A bit of relaxation is ok," she said. "Abandoning water conservation is not.”

Ellen Hanak, director of water policy at the Public Policy Institute of California, said easing up on water restrictions made sensegiven the wet winter.

“You can have emergency conservation, and then you can have long-term, changin-a-way-of-life kind of conservation,” she said. “Humans can get by with very little water if it’s really an emergency. That doesn’t necessarily mean we only need to use the amount of water that’s absolutely necessary to live on.”

But other water managers worried the new regulations allowed people to relax too much – like Darron Poulsen, water manger in Pomona. He said he felt pressure to relax water conservation this summer after realizing so many other agencies were already doing it. More than 80 percent of California water agencies told the state they passed their stress tests and don't need mandatory conservation.

“If you’re the only agency that holds tight to it, all of a sudden constituents are calling their elected officials and saying, ‘the city next to me doesn’t have any restrictions, why is my lawn dying?’” he said. “You gotta succumb a little bit to those political pressures.”

Zoba worries that will be harder for people in Yucaipa to save water now that so many other Californians are backing away from conservation. Indeed,  water use in July increased 34 percent in Yucaipa compared to the same time in 2015.

The city isn’t meeting its state target, and it could get fined. But Zoba says he’s determined to continue. He plans to preach conservation this fall through community meetings and possibly raising rates. Still, he’s optimistic. "People want to do the right thing,” he said.