Opinion: No, Californians Cannot Be Fined for Using Too Much Water

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Sprinklers watering a Southern California lawn. Courtesy Metropolitan Water District

By Caroline Koch

Following California’s adoption of new water efficiency legislation in May, quite a lot has been written about the implications for urban water providers and their customers. The dominant emerging narrative is that by signing these “draconian measures” into law Gov. Jerry Brown has made it “illegal to shower and do laundry on the same day,” that individuals using more than 55 gallons of water per day will be subject to “hefty fines,” and that state authority over local water utilities has expanded in ways that “amount to tyranny.”

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Yet, the efficiency bills do none of these things. That’s why an evaluation of what the new legislation really does and — doesn’t do — is sorely needed.

First, it is simply not the case that it is now illegal to shower and do laundry on the same day. Under the new statutes, water suppliers will establish an annual “water use objective.” This is essentially a water budget tailored to the unique circumstances of a water utility’s service area that estimates the total amount of water that can be used efficiently in that community based on local conditions.

The much-hyped 55-gallon indoor residential standard set out in the legislation is actually just one part of the water budget calculation. It is not a limitation on consumers’ water use. The other parts of the water budget equation are efficient outdoor water use (e.g., lawn watering), reduced system losses (i.e., fewer leaks), and variables unique to each community.

To be clear, 55 gallons of indoor water use per person per day is a target many if not most California communities are already meeting. Assuming water-efficient appliances, for a family of four this target represents about one load of laundry, four 20-minute showers, one run of the dishwasher, 10 toilet flushes, and 3 pots of pasta every day.

Caroline Koch

In May 2018, San Diego residents used a combined indoor and outdoor total of 63 gallons per person per day. This level of water usage is consistent with San Diego’s indoor and outdoor residential water use in May for the past three years, which ranged between 58 gallons to 62 gallons per person per day. San Diegans’ combined indoor and outdoor water use for July 2017 rose to a total of only 73 gallons per person per day. Based on recent reporting data, it’s fair to say that San Diego residents would meet a 55-gallon per person per day indoor standard — if one actually existed, that is.

Second, the efficiency legislation does not impose fines on individuals for using too much water. Rather, to evaluate whether their community is within its budget, water suppliers will compare their urban water use objectives to their actual water use for the entire service area. The law’s objective is to put local water suppliers in a better position to identify and eliminate water waste, not to penalize individuals or households.

Third, nothing in the new legislation authorizes state regulators to dictate how local water providers meet the new standards. To the contrary, the bills establish a protocol for calculating a planning target. How to meet those targets will be based on the expertise and authority of local decision makers. The state Legislature specifically designed the new rules to ensure that urban water suppliers “retain the flexibility to develop their water supply portfolios, design and implement water conservation strategies, educate their customers, and enforce their rules.”

The misinformed alarm bells popping up in published articles and social media about the efficiency legislation do a disservice to water suppliers and consumers alike. Our ability to provide clean and reliable drinking water faces growing challenges from climate change, recurrent drought, polluted stormwater runoff, aging infrastructure, rising costs, and more. California’s new efficiency legislation establishes readily achievable, flexible goals for our communities to use this precious resource more efficiently while keeping rates affordable.

Making efficient use of water a way of life is an important step to securing our water future. Ensuring Californians understand how they can meaningfully participate in this process rather than instilling unfounded fears of “tyranny” is crucial to success.


Caroline Koch is the water policy specialist for the San Francisco-based WaterNow Alliance, a network of local urban water leaders championing widespread adoption of sustainable water solutions.

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