California Regulators Want to Spend Billions to Reduce a Fraction of Water Usage

Maria Diaz keeps a bowl in the sink to save water while she washes her hands on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local)

By Dan Walters | CalMatters Commentary

Hydrologists measure large amounts of water in acre-feet – an acre of water one-foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.

In an average year, 200 million acre-feet of water falls on California as rain or snow. The vast majority of it sinks into the ground or evaporates, but about a third of it finds its way into rivers. Half of that will eventually flow into the Pacific Ocean.

That leaves approximately 35-40 million acre-feet for human use, with three-quarters being applied to fields and orchards to support the state’s agricultural output, and the remaining quarter – 9-10 million acre-feet – being used for household, commercial and industrial purposes.

In other words, nearly 39 million Californians wind up using about 5% of the original precipitation to water their lawns, bathe themselves, operate toilets and cook their food.

That number is important because it is such a tiny amount, even though the state’s perennial household water conservation programs imply that taking fewer showers or reducing lawn watering will somehow solve the state’s water problems.

The ludicrous nature of those propagandistic appeals is quite evident in the state Water Resources Control Board’s new plan to force local water agencies into cutting household water use even more, no matter the multibillion-dollar cost, and with penalties if they fail to meet quotas.

The water board says the plan, which was authorized by the Legislature in 2018, would reduce household use by 440,000 acre-feet a year when fully implemented. That would be about 5% of current use, which is only about 5% of average precipitation – scarcely a drop in the bucket.

The plan is drawing some well-reasoned criticism from two independent observers, the Legislative Analyst Office, an arm of the Legislature, and the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s premier think tank.

The LAO, in a report to the Legislature, said the plan “will create challenges for water suppliers in several key ways, in many cases without compelling justifications.”

In essence, the LAO said, local water agencies would have to jump through the state’s hoops by spending billions of dollars for a tiny reduction in overall water use that could have an adverse impact on low-income families.

The PPIC is similarly skeptical, summarizing the plan as “very high cost for little benefit.” PPIC fellows David Mitchell and Ellen Hanak also pointed out its effects on low-income communities and the difficulty it would impose on local governments’ programs to plant and maintain trees as a shield against hot summer weather.

California does indeed have a water supply problem, mostly because its political leaders for decades have failed to expand the state’s water infrastructure that had been built during the mid-20th century.

Household use is not the problem. It cannot be because it is such a tiny part of the overall water picture and actually has declined, in relative terms, as the state’s population reached 40 million, more than twice what it was when the last major water works were constructed.

The major mismatch of demand and supply occurs in the two largest categories of water use, agriculture and the environment. Agricultural water agencies and environmental groups have been jousting for decades in the Legislature, in Congress, in courts and in regulatory agencies such as the water board over how much water farmers can draw and how much should remain in rivers to protect habitat for fish and other wildlife.

That’s the issue that must be resolved by reallocating existing supplies, building new storage and/or creating new supplies, such as desalination of seawater. Spending billions of dollars to save a few gallons of household water is just an expensive exercise in virtue-signaling that accomplishes virtually nothing.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.


Written by CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. (Articles are published in partnership with

What do you think?


0 Comments deleted by Administrator

Leave a Review or Comment


    • SBROBERT – was that on Amazon? I’ve tried to order new shower heads and other plumbing parts and get the same notice that they can’t be shipped to CA. I agree, that’s getting ridiculous. Banning things like this is too much. If people want to pay for more water, let them pay. If it’s becoming excessive, notify them through the water company in their area. Banning the sale of certain products in an entire state, especially as large as CA, is absurd.

      Besides, a 1 second Google search shows you how easy it is to remove the flow restrictors 😉

      • I recently tried to order a kitchen faucet head from Amazon and got the ‘not to CA’. Did a Google search and found it new on eBay and it shipped no problem. It’s my understanding that the restriction is based on a list of known carcinogens that CA wants to protect its citizens from. So if the product, or any part of it no matter how small, is on the list it’s not allowed. In my case it was probably the rubber gasket made from a petroleum by product.

      • Sacjon Yes, this is the one we had been using since 2016:

        There is no option to remove the flow restrictors if you are not even allowed to order it.

        I did find a work around by having someone in another state order it and re-ship it. A waste of energy and resources and a hassle. And now I suppose I am a fugitive from the law.

        This is the kind of nonsense that makes our environmental side look foolish and obnoxious. And even might cause otherwise sane people to vote Republican. Argh.

  1. It probably comes down to any plumbing item containing brass. Brass is composed of copper and zinc, and sometimes a trace amount of lead is added (2%) for machineability. I recently tried to order some brass aerators on Amazon for my bathroom faucets as the old ones were corroded and had a lot of mineral buildup. I had successfully ordered a couple of them about 5 years ago but this time they wouldn’t allow sales of this item to California. No reason was given- you can draw your own conclusions.
    Ever wonder why garden hose with traditional brass fittings can’t be found at the hardware store these days? Same deal, the State wants you to buy hoses with aluminum fittings, which are junk and corrode from the get-go.

  2. While this is all very true, unfortunately our legislators and bureaucrats will ignore it and keep on mandating rules like this in their continued misguided efforts to save us from ourselves. Too much control; not enough freedom.

  3. The essential point of this column, I submit, is that we have not imposed appropriate and relatively mild and implementable rules on agriculture. Ignoring Walters’ nonsensical division (nature is not a “use” in my opinion), agriculture accounts for abouit 85-90% of human decided “use” of water. Much of that use is to produce crops like almonds and alfalfa that are exported to other nations. We are sending our water overseas. These exporters are major business, not the small family farm. Much of the land they now cultivate in the Central Valley (westside especially) was never usable for crops until the state water project subsidized them with cheap water. That should be ended whenever there is a shortage. And they should be stopped from pumping the aquifers dry across the state. All of human lifestyle and residential need water could be doubled just by requiring 10% efficiency gain in agriculture.

Fundraiser Created to Help Goleta Family Recover from House Fire

Santa Barbara Antique & Vintage Show and Sale This Weekend!