BWP Wants Stricter Rules on Water Use Amid Drought

First published in the Sept. 11 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

With the effects of a statewide drought intensifying, Burbank Water and Power plans to request permission next week to tighten rules on water usage.
The utility will ask the City Council during a public hearing on Tuesday to allow it to move from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of Burbank’s water use ordinance. Under Stage 2, residents would be able to water landscaped areas via sprinklers for only 15 minutes once a week between November and March. They would also be prohibited from refilling artificial or ornamental bodies of water that don’t use recycled water.
BWP will also seek to get the OK to automatically transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 if water use isn’t sufficiently reduced, Assistant General Manager Richard Wilson said in an interview. If that change is implemented, residents would be able to water landscape only twice a week from April through October, be unable to hand-water or have sprinklers on between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and would have to cover pools when not in use.
Enforcement would be a key component of the plan, Wilson explained; if the council approves the transition to Stage 2, BWP will later ask to add a drought surcharge and fine residents who violate the regulations despite warnings.
“We don’t want to go there if we don’t have to,” Wilson said, emphasizing that many Burbank residents have responded admirably to previous calls for conservation. But, he added, “either it’s a rule or it isn’t.”
Wilson acknowledged that some residents might feel frustrated by the transition to more restrictive policies after having conserved water under the utility’s Stage 1 rules. In 2007, the city’s average per-capita water use was 204 gallons a day. In 2020, that average was just 138 gallons per day.
But, Wilson said, the drought affects all California residents.
“This isn’t just Burbank’s water. It’s not just Southern California’s water,” he explained. “Water is a human right.”
Convincing the council to add a drought surcharge after it recently approved water and electric rate increases that will start in October might be a difficult task, Wilson said, noting that many customers remain behind on their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter issue needs to be addressed first, he added, saying that BWP also plans to discuss the timing of the enforcement plans with the council.
California water officials have warned this summer that the drought affecting virtually all of the state has worsened. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked all residents to cut back water usage by 15%. That proclamation wasn’t a mandate, Wilson explained, but he added that BWP wants Burbank to be ready if that changes.
Newsom has indicated that he could implement mandatory water restrictions after September, San Jose’s Mercury News reported last month.
Marsha Ramos, a former Burbank mayor and the city’s representative on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s board of directors, told the BWP board last week that the district — which supplies water to Burbank — started 2020 with the biggest supply it has had. But with a low allocation of water from the State Water Project — one of MWD’s major sources — and a possible allocation of zero from the project next year, the local region may have to depend on that supply until drought conditions improve.
If those conditions don’t improve — meaning California doesn’t get the rain it needs this winter — MWD could start rationing its allocations to cities like it did in 2015, according to Ramos.
“If we reached [that stage] in 2015, it’s very possible we’ll reach it in 2022,” she said in an interview.
More than 88% of the state is experiencing at least “extreme drought,” according to California’s dashboard on the subject, with 46% in “exceptional drought,” the highest level. In Los Angeles County, only the northwest area — accounting for roughly 20% of the region — is in the latter designation; Burbank and most other L.A. County cities remain at the extreme level.
California has faced worse droughts in the past, Wilson said. But this one — in its second year — appears notable in how intense it has become in a short period of time.
“Back then, there were two words that weren’t in our lexicon as much as they are now,” Wilson added. “And that’s ‘climate change.’”
The City Council voted in 2014 to implement restrictions on how often residents could run sprinklers — Stage 1 in the BWP’s water use ordinance. Those regulations have remained in place since, becoming the “new normal,” according to Wilson. Whether the enhanced mandate, if approved, will experience a similarly prolonged stay depends on how much rain the state receives.
“It could very well be,” he added, “that Stage 2 is the new normal.”