Unprecedented lawsuit: Nonprofit sues over half of California’s cities, counties for violation of water conservation rules

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Photo NRDC: New landscapes in California are required to be water efficient, and local governments are required to report on the results of their permit programs for irrigated landscapes each year.
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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that more than half of all cities and counties in California have failed to comply with the state’s water-efficiency regulations under the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act. Named in the lawsuit are San Bernardino County and the cities of Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, and Redlands, as representative of all other cities and counties throughout California that failed to comply with the reporting requirements outlined by state water conservation regulations.

“Local governments’ rampant noncompliance with state water conservation regulations is an affront to all Californians who play by the rules,” said Ed Osann, Director of National Water Use Efficiency at NRDC.  “If all residents are to receive safe and sufficient drinking water supplies in a future faced with climate change, it’s critical to make outdoor water use more efficient. Local permit programs are key to achieving this goal, and annual reporting provides the benchmark for progress. We are simply asking the Court to direct all cities and counties to comply with state requirements.”

The California Department of Water Resources sent reminders to non-compliant jurisdictions six months ago, but did not follow up systematically with the large number of cities and counties that failed to file reports for 2018. On November 15, NRDC sent letters to more than 400 local jurisdictions that – according to DWR’s website – had missing reports, urging them to file all their missing annual reports. Although some local governments heeded NRDC’s request, others failed to take action, prompting NRDC’s class action case today.

About half of California’s drinking water supply is used for urban landscape irrigation. Substantial water savings can be gained when new landscapes are installed through careful plant selection, efficient irrigation equipment, and proper installation.  Such measures improve the effective use of current water supplies and enhance California’s resilience to drought conditions and a warming climate.  Since 2015, the State has required all cities and counties to report on their local landscape permitting programs, including the number of permits issued and the conservation requirements they apply.  Out of 540 cities and counties in the state, the majority have yet to file one or more of the annual reports on landscape permitting activity required since 2015, with more than 1,000 of their annual reports still unfiled. The implications are alarming and point to significant water loss during one of California’s longest droughts.

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First enacted in 1990, the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act aims to reduce water used for irrigation on urban landscapes, by specifying that new landscapes and major renovations of existing landscapes must be designed to be water-efficient. To implement the act, the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) sets criteria for the design and installation of new landscapes. All local agencies must report on the scope and enforcement of their landscape ordinance on an annual basis. The reports allow state and local agencies and community groups to evaluate the effectiveness of current standards for landscape water use.

For more information on the lawsuit and MWELO, read: 1,100 Reports Missing: NRDC Files Suit on Water-Saving Rules: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/ed-osann/nrdc-files-class-action-suit-violating-water-saving-rule.

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