Cal Water supports Governor’s new water strategy

California Water Service, which operates in Visalia, encourages Governor Gavin Newsom to support Senate Bill 1469 and extend conservation program for major water suppliers

VISALIA – California Water Service, the utility company providing water to Visalia residents, is urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to support legislation encouraging water utilities to stress water conservation with its customers while also keeping their bills lower.

Newsom released an announcement on Thursday, Aug. 11 for a water supply strategy that, among other goals, focused on recycling more water in California communities and incentivizes water providers to encourage consumer conservation. Actions for the strategy are outlined in “California’s Water Supply Strategy, Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future”, which calls for an investment in new sources of water supply, accelerating current projects and modernizing how the state manages water through new technology, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

California Water Service (CalWater) issued a statement of their own, announcing their support for Newsom’s proposal. 

“California Water Service has been laser-focused on climate change, supply diversification, and demand management,” a press release from CalWater stated. “This includes an urgent call to do more to conserve water, and to identify and develop new water supplies through infrastructure improvements, recycling, desalination and more surface storage.”

Labeled Senate Bill 1469 (SB 1469), the legislation seeks to make permanent a water conservation pilot program created in 2009. The bill would allow the nine largest water utilities in the state to file under a system called decoupling, which would remove the incentive for large water suppliers to sell as much water as possible to customers to bolster profits while also billing customers for less than they would be charged under a traditional utility revenue model. The old system ended up overcharging low income residents for costs associated with providing water they didn’t use and undercharging middle and upper income residents too little to encourage them to conserve. 

Instead, water utilities will encourage conservation among all of its customers and invest in programs to help customers use less of the precious resource. Cal Water, the largest water utility regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), said the program would allow the state’s largest water providers to tally up the shortfall between the cost of providing water and the amount of money collected from customers and then divide that among all water users in a given district as a surcharge at the end of each billing period. While the surcharge would be in addition to the fixed monthly payment billed to customers, Cal Water said charging to stretch the existing water supply is far less costly for customers than developing new sources of water, such as drilling new or deeper wells, which could mean increases of 20% on their water bills.

In addition to Cal Water, the amended bill will also apply to California American Water, Golden State Water Company, San Jose Water, Suburban Water and San Gabriel Valley Water regulated by the CPUC. Cal Water, the only major water utility in the Valley, has been operating under the pilot program since 2020, however, due to its three-year cycle, the program will sunset this year without legislative action. If SB 1469 fails to pass, it would allow water utilities like Cal Water to operate under the traditional system that would harm low-income communities like Visalia and lead to the overuse of water.

Justin Skarb, director of community affairs and government relations for Cal Water, said studies show that there wouldn’t only be a decrease in water conservation across the state, but also increased water usage and rates for customers, who would only end up paying more for their water regardless of how much they use if the legislature fails to pass the bill. This would only hurt low-income consumers who typically use less water than their more affluent counterparts, according to Skarb. 

“That’s pretty antithetical to what we need to be doing in California, which is conserving energy, conserving electricity, conserving gas and, in our case, conserving water,” Skarb said. “There shouldn’t be an incentive to sell more of that product that we need to conserve.”

The governor’s climate proposal recognizes and outlines the two-step approach to resolving the water issues the state is facing. This plan consists of focusing on the demand side of issues related to water conservation and addressing supply side measures like reclaiming sewage water and desalinating ocean water and salty groundwater basins to make new water available for use.

Skarb said Newsom’s call for increased water recycling correlates directly with Cal Water’s plan to increase the percentage of recycled water being delivered to Cal Water customers. Cal Water’s goal is to capture more stormwater that currently flows into sewage systems. This water can then be heavily filtered and recycled to irrigate public landscape, parks and golf courses in local communities.

The governor’s plan also includes reusing more than 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030 by recycling wastewater before it is discharged into the ocean. This coincides with Cal Water’s plan to increase water desalination, the process of removing salt and other minerals and contaminants from seawater and higher salinity groundwater. Instead of desalination being used only for coastal water, Skarb said Cal Water is studying the process of desalinating brackish water, water that naturally has more saline than freshwater but less saline than seawater. With desalinated water, Skarb said freshwater sources that have come under the influence of saltwater can be reused as potable water. 

If Newsom’s plan is achieved, Skarb said it would kickstart projects which have been stalled or simply lacked proper funding. He said communities would see an increase in recycled water, which would increase the amount of water supply people have, and communities could see new developments like dual plumbing systems, meaning homes will have separate piping for potable water and sewage water systems. Recycled water lines, sometimes referred to as “purple pipe” for the color of the pipes, would be added to homes to irrigate yards and flush toilets saving potable water for drinking and cooking. 

“Overall, [the governor’s plan could lead to] increasing the supply of water in the state, making us less vulnerable to droughts over the long term and ensuring that we have a sufficient supply of water not only today, but also for future generations,” Skarb said.

Cal Water has provided service to Visalia residents since 1926, and offers several programs to assist customers in conserving water and saving water every day, according to the city of Visalia’s website. It currently offers eligible customers rebates on water conserving items like high efficiency toilets and laundry washers as well as smart sprinkler heads and timers. 

Cal Water is the largest, regulated American water provider in the state that, as a whole, provides drinking water and wastewater services to approximately 2 million people in 100 communities, according to the Cal Water website. It is the third largest water utility in the country and, additionally, Cal Water is the largest branch of the California Water Service Group, which includes Washington Water Service, New Mexico Water Service, Texas Water Service and Hawaii Water Service.

-This story was updated at 3:58 p.m. PST on Aug. 22, 2022.

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