Riverside Pushes Back Against State Water Restrictions

The Gage Canal in Riverside delivers water pumped from a local aquifer to a reservoir in the city.  (Blair Wells/KQED)

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown made good on a threat that had been hanging in the air for months. He ordered the state's first-ever mandatory cuts in water use. Executive Order B-29-15 gave the State Water Resources Control Board authority to establish and enforce conservation targets for every water district serving residential and commercial customers. The goal: A 25 percent reduction in statewide residential/commercial water use.

To comply with Brown's order, the water board set conservation levels for each water district. Those targets are broken down into tiers: Communities that use relatively little water and have done a good job conserving may need to cut use by only 8 percent from 2013 levels; districts that have lagged in conservation need to cut use by 36 percent compared with 2013.

However, not every water district has accepted its water-savings tier. Some, including the Humboldt County cities of Eureka and Arcata, have persuaded the water board to grant less stringent conservation goals.

And then there's the city of Riverside, which was ordered to cut use by 28 percent -- even though the city says it's not dependent on outside supplies of water, has stored a four-year emergency supply and has invested more than $100 million in conservation and other measures.

The city argues it should be placed in a special 4 percent reduction tier for districts that have implemented effective conservation and supply measures -- and it's eager to avoid the $10,000-a-day fine the water board could levy for not cutting use by the mandated 28 percent. So last month, the city filed a lawsuit (embedded below) in Fresno Superior Court that requests a review of the tier structure in which Riverside was placed.

Sponsored

To see what Riverside is basing its case on, it's helpful to visit the Gage Canal.

The canal carries water pumped from a local aquifer past century-old citrus groves, homes and businesses, ending in a central reservoir that sustains the city.

"In 2008, we turned our tap off to the statewide water project," says Kevin Milligan, deputy general manager of Riverside Public Utilities (RPU). "We said we're on our own. We'll manage."

Riverside gets all its water from four groundwater basins, and says it's done more than its fair share to prepare for drought.

"Our argument with the state is less about conservation numbers and more about what we have done to become drought-resilient," says Milligan. "We knew this day would come, and our citizens chose to invest $100 million in being ready for today. And now the state is saying that investment doesn't count."

That investment includes a new water treatment plant, turf removal programs and educational outreach.

A worker at the Gage Canal Treatment Plant in Riverside.
A worker at the Gage Canal Treatment Plant in Riverside. (Blair Wells/KQED)

The city says that preparation has allowed it to store a four-year supply of groundwater. That's why, Milligan says, Riverside should have been put into the 4 percent conservation tier instead of the 28 percent tier.

But that position is up against the hard reality of the four-year drought and dwindling water supplies across most of the state.

"This is a statewide drought of historic proportions," says Caren Trgovcich, the water board's deputy director. "And so there are no exemptions in the regulations."

The water board's tiers focused on per capita residential water use. Riverside consumers used 135 gallons a day per capita last summer, the period used to set the tiers, and it's that level of consumption that landed the city in the 28 percent conservation tier.

The board's emergency regulation does include some wiggle room -- for water districts that have a four-year supply of water on hand and do not rely on water imports or groundwater.

Riverside says it's got a four-year supply in storage. But even though the city insists its groundwater supplies make it "water independent," the state board excludes that very supply from its conservation calculations.

John Rossi, general manager of the Western Municipal Water District, says the city's groundwater should count with the state.

"That is part of their water supply," says Rossi, whose agency oversees one of the groundwater basins that Riverside taps. "They have those rights. Those rights are severable like property rights. So they're very rock-solid."

If Riverside does not comply with its 28 percent reduction mandate, it could be slapped with fines of up to $10,000 a day. But Trgovcich says the state is not focused on fines.

"Our goal is conservation, not enforcement," she says. "We plan to take a progressive approach to enforcement, and our goal is really to help the suppliers to meet their conservation requirements. "

Riverside utility officials say the agency has spoken to other water districts that may want to join its suit. Meanwhile, the city continues to work toward a compromise with the state in the hopes of avoiding a costly court battle.