Opinion

For water conservation, lawmakers should okay ‘decoupling’

Amid a drought, a leaking hose in Scotts Valley, a Santa Cruz County area south of San Jose. (Photo: Michael Barajas, via Shutterstock)

With climate change, our boom and bust cycle of rainy vs dry years will mean fewer rainy years and longer, more frequent dry years. We’ve all been doing our part to conserve water during this drought, but according to figures provided by state water regulators, it’s not enough.

We urge the legislature to pass and Gov. Newsom to sign SB 1469 which offers water providers a powerful tool to help encourage customers to save water and fight the drought.

Decoupling changes the water utility business model from selling to conserving water by severing the link between water sales and everyday system operations

SB 1469 makes permanent a program called decoupling which sounds technical but is really a very simple concept to conserve water.

When water customers pay their water bill, they are paying for maintenance of our water infrastructure as well as the cost of the water.

Decoupling changes the water utility business model from selling to conserving water by severing the link between water sales and everyday system operations. It eliminates an incentive for water providers to sell more water.

SB 1469 will ensure all customers equitably contribute to operations, maintenance, and infrastructure costs, but under SB 1469, water providers will be able to establish progressive, equitable water rates so those who use more water pay more, and those who use less will pay less.

In 2008, after decades of success with energy utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) established a pilot decoupling program.

SB 1469 will also make it easier for water suppliers to maintain robust water conservation programs to help incentivize Californians to conserve, including rebates for turf replacement and high-efficiency home appliances, making them accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford them, as well as programs to assist low-income families repair leaky sprinkler systems.

Decoupling came about because in 2008, after decades of success with energy utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) established a pilot decoupling program for the largest water utilities it regulates. That pilot program ended in 2020, but empirical, peer-reviewed research highlighted the effectiveness of decoupling.

For example, during California’s last major drought from June 2015 – April 2017, water suppliers that implemented decoupling “adopted more aggressive conservation measures, were more likely to meet state conservation standards, and conserved more water,” according to an independent study done in 2018.

The same study found that if all water suppliers had been using decoupling, the additional conservation would have equated to 54.6 billion gallons of additional water savings, enough to supply San Francisco for more than two years.

Low income and low water use customers will benefit the most from SB 1469. SB 1469 protects customers by ensuring they only pay the actual cost of operating, maintaining, and upgrading the water system.

Without the passage of SB 1469, 75% of customers served by PUC-regulated water suppliers could see their water bills increase by an average of more than 7.7 percent and water use would increase by 5 to 10 percent, according to a 2020 study from M.Cubed. The same study found that without SB 1469, lower-income customers who use the least water could see their monthly bills increase by 10 – 20 percent.

Every drop of water that is saved by decoupling and SB 1469 results in corresponding energy savings, making the water conservation efforts supported by decoupling a critical tool in the battle against climate change.

SB 1469 has been endorsed by a wide array of environmental groups, non-governmental organizations, and even President Obama’s Department of Energy as an essential tool to support water conservation because it removes the incentive for water providers to sell more water.

We are strong supporters of SB 1469 because it will help those from disadvantaged communities the most. We urge a YES vote on SB 1469.

Editor’s Note: Roberto Barragan is the executive director of the California Community Economic Development Association, which advocates for community revitalization in diverse urban and rural neighborhoods.

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