State water rules fail to make a splash in Santa Clara County
San Jose Water wants to hike rates by double digits. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

In an effort to combat one of the worst droughts in California’s history, state regulators adopted new emergency conservation laws this year, but they won’t make a big splash in the South Bay.

The State Water Resources Control Board adopted the new emergency regulations in January. According to the National Weather Service, San Jose experienced the driest January this year in decades. The new rules will last for a year and are aimed at maintaining what little water supplies are available.

The conservation rules include things such as the mandatory use of a shut-off nozzle when washing a car and the prohibition of decorative fountains and washing driveways.

But many of Santa Clara County’s local water retailers are ahead of the game, implementing harsher restrictions last year. San Jose Water, one of the three water retailers in the city, enacted rules that limit outside watering to no more than 15 minutes a day, two days per week. Car washing is also prohibited unless it is at a commercial water facility that uses recycled water.

“We have been pushing the messaging to our customers very very strongly,” said Liann Walborsky, spokesperson for San Jose Water. “Asking them to please only water twice a week… don’t fill your pools. Don’t wash your car in your driveway.”

Valley Water, which supplies water to the various local agencies, said it’s proud of the conservation work retailers have been doing.

“(Santa Clara County) was faster and more strict than the state was in this case,” Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller told San José Spotlight. “What they’ve done, we’ve already been doing for a long time, or we’ve been doing more. So there’s not much of an impact here in Santa Clara County for these new rules.”

One question that lingers is how the new state rules might be enforced.

It appears some local water utilities have found the key to actual enforcement—surcharges. But that’s all they can do.

“Now as a water utility, we’re not water cops, so we cannot directly enforce these. There are no tickets that we can write or anything… but as a utility we are now charging drought surcharges,” Walborsky said.

Companies like San Jose Water and Great Oaks Water began assigning allocations to each customer late last year. If a customer exceeds their allocation, they are billed for every unit of excess water.

Great Oaks customer Shaheryar Ahmed says his water bill has almost tripled since the conservation surcharges began.

“My water bill went from about $100 every two months to almost $300 every two months, but our usage remained the same,” he told San José Spotlight.

Other companies have been using incentives, such as discounts, to encourage customers to conserve. Valley Water offers up to $3,000 in rebates for residents who cut their water consumption by a certain volume.

The local rules seem to be working. Valley Water recently reported Santa Clara retailers achieved a 20% reduction in water use for the month of November, compared to 2019. As a result, the county exceeded Valley Water’s conservation goals by 5%.

Still, Keller said that the state laws mandating reductions in water use are needed.

“We’re happy that the state is doing this… drought is not just a local thing, it is a regional and statewide thing,” Keller said.

Critics like Ahmed think some rules, such as the surcharges, won’t work in the long run. He believes people should conserve because they want to—not because the price is too high.

“While it might make some folks conserve—not for conservation’s sake, but because Californians are already paying through the nose to live in this state—it’s not going to make any kind of meaningful impact to conservation,” he said.

Follow Newsha Naderzad at @NNaderzad on Twitter.  

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