Water Efficiency Standards for Water Agencies & Local Governments Now State Law
As part of a package of water related legislative reforms championed by both Assemblymember Laura Friedman and State Senator Bob Hertzberg, California established landmark water efficiency standards and enforcement mechanisms when Governor Brown signed the bills in May. Sitting down with TPR, Asm. Friedman explains how her AB 1668 (along with Hertzberg’s SB 606) codifies the many of the goals outlined in the Governor’s Water Action Plan. As the new laws are implemented by SWRCB and DWR over the next several years, they will dramatically change how local water suppliers plan for, report and achieve water use efficiency and drought management within their service areas. Friedman explains how the new water use standards for various industries take a balanced approach, and provide guidance for water agencies to help facilitate drought resiliency. Friedman also provides an update to the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk project in Los Angeles which now plans to create a bridge to Griffith Park.
You and Senator Hertzberg authored AB 1686, now signed into law, to establish new water efficiency standards for various industries and to provide guidance for California’s water agencies. What are the new law’s primary objectives?
Laura Friedman: The first goal of this law is to make every water agency and every user of water across the state highly efficient over time. Right now, different water agencies have different levels of efficiency based primarily on their access to water. We have districts that didn’t have meters until recently, and districts where multifamily housing still doesn’t have meters. There are areas where water efficiency has not been a priority, while in other parts of the state, agencies have had to become highly efficient because of drought.
Water, obviously, is a statewide resource that is precious, and all of us, no matter where we live, should be efficient in our use of water. This law is an attempt to, over time, create a situation where all water agencies work with their users to become efficient.
The second goal of this law is to make sure that all water districts, large or small, have better planning to deal with drought. We discovered during the recent drought that some agencies were well prepared with very good contingency plans, while others fell short. We want to make sure that everybody has good plans that are workable and approved.
You have served in local government, both as a councilmember in Glendale and on the board of the Metropolitan Water District. How will AB 1686 affect the practices of water agencies and local governments?
Local government has a role to play, both as overseer or customer of water agencies and as the representatives of water users. Local governments work directly with residents and businesses on efficiency and can coordinate efforts with water agencies, who may be a bit further removed.
It’s the agencies themselves that have to live within the water budget; any impact on individual users is fairly limited. The agencies will aggregate the number and types of users they have and be given a budget for indoor and outdoor use. Then, they can work closely with local governments to figure out how best to get to that efficiency goal over time.
In some districts, that might mean working with local government to make sure that users are aware of rebates for water-smart appliances like low-flow toilets. In some districts, it might mean working to get individual water meters on older multifamily housing units. There are all sorts of ways to get to these efficiency goals.
Metropolitan’s project to replace water-thirsty turf with more drought-resistant landscaping was highly successful in getting homes to reduce their outdoor water use. I expect that we’ll see more of that type of cooperation between residents, businesses, local governments, and water agencies.
Another point to keep in mind is that many agencies lose a lot of water within their own system, and there’s never been any real penalization for that. We know that there are water agencies losing as much as 60 percent of their water to leaks in their system. That’s pretty outrageous considering how important water is. We’re hoping that the punitive part of this law, even though it rolls out over time, will make agencies realize that it might be more cost-efficient in the long run to fix their leaky systems than to have to pay penalties to the Water Board for failing to do so.
How challenging was it to include and win acceptance for penalties and enforcement provisions in SB 606?
The whole process has been difficult. At our first hearing, we had a line of opponents that went through the committee room, out the door, and down the hallway. They were from water agencies across the state. In some cases, their argument was simply: “We don’t want anyone to tell us what to do. We want to run our agency the way we want to run it, and we certainly don’t want penalties or forced conservation. If there’s no drought order, we should be able to sell as much water as we can.”
Water agencies certainly understand the need for conservation, and they want to help with it, but at the same time, they have to sell water. Like any other retailer, they have an incentive to sell a lot of their product. That’s how they pay for their systems. And when they’re selling less because of a drought order or mandatory conservation, they still have fixed costs. They still have employees and lines that they have to maintain. Meanwhile, Proposition 218 and other measures make it difficult for them to recover their costs.
In some ways, water agencies are going to have to rethink their model. But for now, it’s a real problem for them when they’re told to sell less water. For the state to tell them, “We’re going to cut back what you can sell, and we’re going to do it forever, and continue to ramp that number down,” is a real concern for them. That was an inherent issue we were up against, and we had to come to terms with it.
But we worked very closely with them for a year and a half, and we got the bill to a place that they felt that was doable. They understand the long-term goals and are on board with making efficiency a way of life in California. And we’ll be working with them to get them there.
At the end of the day, water agencies are not the enemy—wasting water is the enemy. I stand ready to offer agencies the support they need to make this doable for them. I think they want to be efficient, so we need to make sure that they are able to do that.
Let’s pivot to the state’s newly approved $8.6 billion water and parks bond—Prop 68, which passed in June—as well as to the water bond on the upcoming November ballot. How do these bonds contribute to the objectives of the governor and the Legislature with respect to the intentional management of California’s water supply?
Any funding that goes into more water infrastructure helps fulfill the goals of this legislation, because water agencies are going to need resources to invest in the infrastructure that will help with efficiency. Leak detection, smart meters, incentives for water-saving devices for businesses and individuals—all of that costs money. Even though it pays itself back in the long run because you’re paying for less water use, help is often needed with those upfront costs.
We’ve got systems out there that are 100 years old. We’ve seen what happened in Los Angeles when they weren’t able to invest fully in their infrastructure: exploding water mains and the like. No one wants to see that happen.
More locally, you’ve long been involved in the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk project. Share the project’s importance and what progress has been made.
If I could point to one accomplishment in my first term in the California Assembly, it would be this. I never thought I’d be able to get this project financed, and I did. I’m grateful to the governor and Speaker Rendon for their help with that.
The first two phases of the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk Project created a pedestrian and bike path on the eastern side of the LA River, from the Burbank border through Glendale. But that path essentially dead-ends when you get to the southern part. Now, Phase III will create a bridge to Griffith Park.
That part of Glendale—and really the whole east side of the LA River—is cut off from Griffith Park by the LA River and the 5 Freeway. They can only get there by taking the 134 Freeway or by diverting all the way into Burbank or LA to Los Feliz Boulevard, which is very unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists. It’s also very congested, and taking cars off that road is a real imperative for the district
This bridge will provide a safe way for people to walk and bicycle across the LA River to Griffith Park. It’s the missing link for the whole east side of the river to get to Griffith Park safely. Moreover, it will create connectivity from Burbank and Glendale to the LA River Bike Path, which is also inaccessible from our side of the river.
What makes this project even better is that Los Angeles is planning to run a small shuttle all around Griffith Park, and the bridge will be one of their shuttle stops. Now, 100,000 people who live within a mile of the bridge site will be able to walk or bike across the bridge and then take the LADOT shuttle to get to the Observatory, the zoo, the Hollywood Sign, the theater, and all the other destinations around the park.
We got $20 million in the state budget for the bridge, and hopefully the city of Glendale will move quickly to get it built. It’s an astoundingly important project for bicycle and pedestrian commuting and for getting cars off of Los Feliz Boulevard and the 134, and it’s a game-changer for residents on that side of the river.
The Planning Report has been tracking Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s work on the stormwater parcel tax measure for the November ballot. Speak to the importance and opportunity of that proposal.
We have an EPA decree and a lot of regulatory mandates to comply with when it comes to stormwater. If we don’t take action, we could face huge penalties from the federal government—millions or even a billion dollars. If we don’t do it, there will be a lot of financial costs on the other end, not to mention a lot of wasted water.
I hear from people all the time about how frustrating it is, when we’re being asked to conserve water, to see so much water wasted because it runs into the sewer drains and out to the ocean.
This is very necessary infrastructure. The question then is how we pay for it in a way that is equitable—that doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of coastal cities, but is spread more evenly around the county. I know the county has spent years negotiating this particular scheme, and I think it’s really important that people give it the utmost consideration.