Across California, the amount of drinking water devoted to landscape irrigation is enormous. In a normal year without drought restrictions, half of all water in urban areas is used outdoors. An estimated 2 million acres of turf grass surround homes and businesses, nearly all of it requiring irrigation. For the state to support a growing economy and population with reliable supplies of drinking water, it is critical that all new urban landscapes be designed and installed to be water-efficient, as well as attractive.
It has been the goal of the State since enactment of the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act in 1990 (the Act) that new irrigated landscapes and major renovations of existing landscapes should be designed and installed to be water-efficient. The primary mechanism to achieve landscape efficiency was the publication of a Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) by the Department of Water Resources. MWELO is a model ordinance that promotes efficient water use in irrigated landscapes by requiring that new and renovated landscapes be designed and installed to meet a specified annual water budget. The Act has been strengthened over time, and MWELO itself is now in its third iteration because of Governor Brown’s Executive Order that called for MWELO to be strengthened in light of the drought of 2014–2016, which was the most widespread and severe water shortage since California became a state.
The third edition of MWELO, which was published at the height of the drought emergency in 2015, went into effect on December 1, 2015. Under the 2015 MWELO, local jurisdictions were required to
- Adopt these new and stronger standards for the design and installation of irrigated landscapes, or adopt local ordinances that are at least as effective
- Start reporting on their implementation on an annual basis
Noncompliance by California’s Local Jurisdictions
In early 2017, NRDC conducted a review of the 2015 reports that were due to be filed in January 2016. Out of 482 cities and 58 counties, barely a third (34%) of responsible local jurisdictions had filed an MWELO Implementation Report with DWR.
NRDC continued to assess compliance with state regulations by reviewing the content of local landscape ordinances throughout 2017. This assessment found numerous local ordinances that were lacking key water-saving elements of 2015 MWELO. Many of these jurisdictions simply had not updated their outdated ordinances that were based on the 2009 version of MWELO.
NRDC found some common shortcomings in local WELOs. These included a failure to:
- Meet the Required Adoption Date: Local agencies were required to adopt the 2009 version of MWELO or an equally effective local ordinance by January 1, 2010. After the 2015 revision by DWR, local agencies were required to adopt the third version of MWELO or an equally effective local ordinance by December 1, 2015.
- Meet Size Thresholds for Landscapes That are Subject to Regulation: The 2015 version of MWELO applies to any new landscape project with an area of 500 square feet or more, and to any landscape renovation of 2,500 square feet or more. Some municipalities have set higher size thresholds, which means that their local ordinance applies to fewer projects than MWELO.
- Adopt New Water Application Limits: Each landscape covered by MWELO must meet a performance standard known as the evapotranspiration factor (ETAF), a combined measure of the efficiency of the landscape’s irrigation system as well as the amount of water that evaporates from the landscape’s soil and transpires from the leaves of its plants. A landscape that conserves water by using more water-efficient plants and a more efficient irrigation system has a lower ETAF. The 2015 version of MWELO requires an ETAF of 0.55 for residential landscapes and 0.45 for commercial landscapes, which is more stringent than the ETAF value of 0.7 included in the 2009 version, and results in allowable water use that is 21 and 35% lower, respectively, for residential and commercial landscapes.
- Require the Installation of Dedicated Landscape Water Meters: Dedicated landscape water meters measure the amount of water applied specifically to the landscape, and thus are highly useful for confirming the efficiency of irrigation and the avoidance of water waste. 2015 MWELO requires that a dedicated landscape water meter be installed for all non-residential irrigated landscapes of 1,000 square feet or more, and all residential irrigated landscapes of 5,000 square feet or more. Ordinances that either have no requirements for dedicated landscape meters at all, or set their requirements at higher size thresholds, require dedicated meters in fewer instances than MWELO.
- Ensure an Objective Irrigation Audit: After installation of a landscape project, MWELO requires that an irrigation audit report be submitted to confirm that the landscape was installed as planned and that the irrigation system is working properly. MWELO prohibits such landscape audits from being conducted by a person who either designed or installed the landscape to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
These deficiencies open up critical gaps in the ordinance’s protection against water waste.
NRDC followed up with the local jurisdictions that had these deficiencies by sending Public Records Act requests to DWR and to 11 cities and counties in July 2017. At that point, one jurisdiction, the City of Rancho Cucamonga, took notice after receiving our request and moved quickly to enact 2015 MWELO in October of that year. However, most of the local governments NRDC contacted failed to take action and update their local ordinance to be as stringent as the 2015 MWELO.
In essence, NRDC has been doing what the Department of Water Resources should have been doing all along: reviewing the content of local reports and ordinances, contacting those communities that appeared to be falling short, and taking legal action if necessary, to bring non-compliant communities up to date with today’s requirements to curb wasteful and unnecessary use of drinking water for landscape irrigation.
NRDC Sues Pasadena and Murrieta
In December 2017, NRDC filed suit in state courts against the cities of Pasadena and Murrieta for their failure to comply with the California’s Water Conservation in Landscaping Act. In the lawsuits, NRDC alleges that both cities:
- Failed to adopt new landscaping standards by December 1, 2015, as required by law;
- Issued permits for hundreds of housing units and associated landscaping since December 1, 2015, without applying the state-required standards intended to prevent the waste of water in new landscapes; and
- Failed to submit required reports to the state on the content and enforcement of their local landscape requirements.
Pasadena and Murrieta are clear examples of local jurisdictions failing to meet their responsibilities under California’s Water Conservation in Landscaping Act to ensure that new landscapes are water-efficient. However, they are far from alone. The lawsuits filed by NRDC involving these two communities should encourage many other local agencies to review their own landscape regulations and ensure that they measure up to current state standards. They should document their progress in their reports to DWR and share these reports with their own citizens.
NRDC v. City of Pasadena Settlement
After 10 months, NRDC and the City of Pasadena reached a settlement on the lawsuit over the City’s continuing failure to comply with state regulations to prevent excessive water use in new residential and commercial landscapes.
As a result of this lawsuit, the City of Pasadena agreed to take the following actions:
- Adopt Stronger Rules for New Landscapes: The City has adopted the most current version (2015) of the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), which significantly reduces the maximum water use in new landscapes compared with the City’s previous ordinance. The effective date of the City’s new ordinance was July 7, 2018.
- File Missing Annual Reports: The City has now prepared and filed annual reports for calendar years 2015, 2016, and 2017, on the content and enforcement of its landscape ordinance with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), as required by DWR regulations, covering the period back to December 2015, when annual reporting was first required.
- Implement a Supplemental Water Saving Project: The City has agreed to implement a supplemental water-saving project within Pasadena, in addition to any similar projects currently underway, to offset the lack of stringency in the City’s previous ordinance. This modest project will be designed to save at least 1 acre-foot of water per year (326,000 gallons) for a period of at least 10 years following installation. The supplemental water-saving project will be selected and implemented by the City, in consultation with NRDC, and be completed within 28 months.
- Compensate NRDC’s Attorney’s Fees: The City has agreed to pay NRDC’s attorney’s fees.
NRDC welcomed Pasadena’s willingness to improve its efforts to conserve drinking water supplies used in landscape irrigation.
It is not over yet. As of this writing, the settlement discussions with the city of Murrieta in Riverside County are still underway. Also, Pasadena and Murrieta are just a few of several hundred communities that have failed to submit required reports on their landscape standards and permitting activity to DWR, and many of these communities have failed to adopt 2015 MWELO.
It should not have taken the time and expense of a lawsuit by NRDC to achieve this outcome, but it did. If that is what it takes to ensure responsible stewardship of California’s drinking water, we can do it again. The litigation, NRDC v. City of Pasadena, and the terms of its settlement have implications for hundreds of cities across the state, due to widespread non-compliance with state regulations governing water use in new landscapes.Meanwhile, the state agency charged with administering the Act has done little to remedy the current widespread non-compliance with either the reporting requirement or the failure to adopt and enforce the standards in the 2015 MWELO. DWR initially published reporting forms for cities to fill out, but it failed to capture all the elements required by its own regulations, and only belatedly revised these forms when contacted by NRDC. Additionally, DWR’s year-long effort to consider revisions to further strengthen MWELO appears to have run out of gas, notwithstanding hundreds of stakeholder hours preparing for a 2018 version of MWELO. And after 25 years, DWR has failed to provide written guidance on key aspects of MWELO implementation, such as how to determine whether a local ordinance is actually equivalent to MWELO in saving water. Under a new Administration, this program certainly deserves a fresh look in 2019. In the California of the 21st Century, using water efficiently is not an option—it needs to become a California way of life.
Edward Osann, Director of National Water Use Efficiency, Natural Resources Defense Council
Ed Osann works to improve the efficiency of our water use. From 1993 to 1996, he was director of policy and external affairs for the US Bureau of Reclamation. Previously, he was director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Water Resources Program. Later, he helped form the Steering Committee for Water Efficient Products, a coalition of manufacturers and environmental organizations that helped launch the WaterSense voluntary-labeling program. In 2010, he received the Mike Moynihan Excellence Award for innovation in water conservation from the California Urban Water Conservation Council. Osann holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from George Washington University. He is based in Washington DC.
Susan Lee, Program Assistant, Natural Resources Defense Council
Susan Lee supports various teams at NRDC touching on issues in water efficiency, federal water policy, and Alaska conservation. Prior to joining NRDC, Lee promoted watershed stewardship through community education and stream monitoring with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and AmeriCorps. She received a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Cornell University. She is based in Washington DC.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington DC; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit the website at www.nrdc.org and follow on Twitter @NRDC.