California tightens drought rules as San Diego officials fear higher water rates


California approved new drought restrictions Tuesday, much to the chagrin of San Diego County’s top water managers, who fear increased conservation will further drive up the region’s soaring cost of water.

The new rules, called for by Gov. Gavin Newsom, require nearly all water suppliers in the state to ratchet down residential water consumption, while banning commercial water users from irrigating “non-functional” turf.

The new rules, which go into effect in June, specifically require water agencies to activate what’s known as “Drought Level 2,” a series of actions and prohibitions outlined in locally drafted contingency plans required by the state. The idea is to prepare for a water shortage of up to 20 percent.

In the city of San Diego, for example, Level 2 will restrict all outdoor watering to no more than three assigned days a week. The city will also be required to conduct outreach and messaging campaigns to promote conservation. Many San Diegans will be familiar with these rules, as the city made a suite of the restrictions permanent during the last drought.

The statewide ban on irrigating non-functional turf affects businesses, homeowners’ associations and institutions, such as universities and government agencies. Think highway medians and parking lot planters. It doesn’t apply to golf courses, sports fields or lawns used for civic activities. It also doesn’t apply to use of recycled water.

The San Diego County Water Authority has long argued that the region shouldn’t be subject to state-mandated cutbacks. Officials with the wholesaler have said the region has ample supplies for years to come, largely thanks to water supplies from the Colorado River and a high-priced desalination plant in Carlsbad.

Officials with the water authority raised these concerns during Tuesday’s meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board, which unanimously approved the new emergency rules.

Elizabeth Lovsted, water resources manager with the agency, pointed out that the region uses very little if any water from the California’s imperiled Sacramento River Delta.

“We’ve made historic investment in our supply portfolio. We have high-priority Colorado River water,” Lovsted told the five-person board. “We do not currently rely on the State Water Project to meet any of our demands.”

Her concerns were echoed by several other agencies that are not reliant on water from the delta and the Sierra Nevada’s drought-stricken snowpack. Southern California managers expressed concerns that strict conservation requires agencies to hike rates. As water use drops, so does ratepayer revenue needed to cover an array of fixed costs, including often badly needed repairs.

“To offset that loss in revenue, we could either defer water infrastructure projects and maintenance, thereby reducing reliability, or we could increase water rates,” said Kathleen Coates Hedberg, board president of Helix Water District, which serves eastern San Diego County.

San Diego is already grappling with sky-high water rates as consumption has dropped by roughly 40 percent since 2007, thanks to everything from turf rebate programs to water-efficient appliances. Many people have invested in drought-tolerant landscaping only to see their bills rise — a trend that is likely to increase with costly new investments in water recycling such as the city of San Diego’s $5 billion Pure Water program.

State water board officials recognized the situation but stressed the need to prepare for a rapidly heating world where water is increasingly scarce.

“You look at the Colorado River, you look at the delta, you look at these stressed systems and it’s hard for anyone in the state to justify and say, ‘We’re good,’” board Chair Joaquin Esquivel said during the hearing. “We need to activate Californians and really lean into conservation.”

Earlier this year, Newsom called for voluntary reduction of 15 percent water use statewide compared to 2020. However, with bone-dry conditions persisting, water use across the state has been up slightly in recent months.

Now the governor has signaled that if water savings don’t materialize this summer, even stricter water cuts could be on the horizon. It’s still unclear whether Newsom will try anything as bold as then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015 mandatory water cut of 25 percent.

Still, San Diego’s water agencies may not be quick to crack down on water use. It’s up to local jurisdictions to enforce the new drought rules, a process that’s proved challenging in the past given tight budgets for code compliance.

Residents can report water waste directly to the state at

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