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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Spins California’s Water Conservation Rules

In criticizing California for how it has managed its water supplies, President Donald Trump falsely said that residents “very shortly” will “get 50 gallons” of water to use a day. That’s a distortion of two state water laws, which set efficiency targets for water agencies, not individuals. 

Although Trump claimed the state would be “rationing water,” the laws don’t set limits on personal water use and don’t involve fines on individuals. Instead, the laws set a water use target across a water supplier’s entire service area.

The 50 gallon per capita indoor water target also doesn’t begin until 2030.

Trump’s comment came early in a Feb. 19 speech in Bakersfield, California, in which he announced a new memorandum that aims to increase the amount of water available to Central Valley farmers.

Trump, Feb. 19: Now that they’re rationing water for people, they’re saying you’re going to get, very shortly — I heard the governor saying you get 50 gallons. Fifty gallons sounds okay. People tell me it’s like nothing. By the time you do with your showers, and your hands, and your tissues, and everything, 50 gallons is very, very little.

It’s unclear what Trump may have heard, but he’s mischaracterizing two water billsSenate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668 — that were enacted in 2018 under former California Gov. Jerry Brown.

As fact sheets from the state’s Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board explain, the laws impose mandates on water suppliers, not homeowners, businesses or other customers. The idea is to encourage water conservation by setting a water use target across a water supplier’s entire service area.

If a water supplier’s water use exceeds its set objective, then a supplier could be fined up to $1,000 per day under normal conditions or up to $10,000 per day in drought emergencies.

Trump is also wrong about Golden Staters having just 50 gallons of water to use “very shortly.” According to the 2018 legislation, the per capita indoor residential water use target starts at 55 gallons and doesn’t go into effect until 2023. In 2025, the standard will decrease to 52.5 gallons, and only in 2030 will it fall to 50 gallons. 

Again, these targets are not limits on individuals, but objectives for water agencies to hit, on average, across a community. That means some people might go over the amount, but others will use less. People will be encouraged by the utility to limit their water usage, but households will not be restricted to a set number of gallons.

And in fact, the indoor water use target itself is somewhat misleading, since what will matter to water providers is total water use. This makes sense, given that utilities have no way of measuring how much water households use indoors via toilet flushing, showers or cooking, versus outdoor lawn watering or car washing.

The State Water Resources Control Board explains that the way the conservation law will work is that each urban water supplier will have its own water use “objective,” which includes not only its aggregate residential indoor water amount, but also its outdoor residential and commercial and industrial water amount, plus a certain amount of leeway for water loss and unique local conditions. The outdoor water amounts will vary depending on the climate, land cover and other factors. Water suppliers must stay within that larger water budget, or be subject to fines, starting in 2025.

“The water supplier has to comply with the overall urban use objective, of which the indoor standard is just an element,” said Paul Hefner, senior adviser to California state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, who sponsored SB 606, in an email. “There will be no individual enforcement of the indoor use standard.”

That is echoed in a primer on the water bills, which notes that the focus on the total water amount gives water suppliers flexibility in deciding exactly how they will meet their water targets. “This emphasis also means,” the document reads, “that urban water use efficiency requirements are applicable on the water supplier level and not on the individual customer level.”

Nell Green Nylen, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler Water Institute, told us that to meet the water targets, suppliers have a variety of options, including public education and outreach efforts, installing water meters, tracking down and repairing leaky pipes, instituting conservation pricing, and putting in place ordinances to prevent water waste.

“They can also do things like provide rebates for more water-efficient fixtures and appliances,” she said, and noted that California law allows suppliers to require the installation of “water-saving devices.” Since the goal is to reduce water use, many California residents may notice these changes and some might end up paying more for the water they use — but there isn’t a 50-55 gallon limit on their usage, as Trump claimed.

According to data from the California Water Boards, between 2015 and 2019 state residents annually used an average of 86 to 91 gallons of combined indoor and outdoor water per day. It’s not clear how much of that is indoor water, but Tia Lebherz, executive director of external affairs of the nonprofit California Water Efficiency Partnership, said a rough estimate is about 50%.

“We assume 55 gallons is an achievable goal,” said Lebherz in a phone interview of the indoor standard. “And if you have a house with high efficiency toilets and appliances, you’re likely already hitting that goal,” she said.

Some California cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Cruz, are already at or below 50 gallons per capita per day for indoor and outdoor water combined. Total water use, however, varies dramatically across the state, and is typically higher in more rural or arid places. Drier and hotter parts of the state use as much as 80% of residential water outside.

Max Gomberg, a climate and conservation manager with the California Water Boards, told the Sacramento Bee that preliminary analyses show that the starting 55 gallon indoor per capita standard is “way too high,” and suggested the target could be set as low as 40 to 45 gallons. Other groups have expressed concern that the tougher 50 gallon target may be difficult for places with older housing stock.

Trump is only the latest and highest-profile person to repeat a twisted version of California’s water conservation rules. Misinformation about the water bills has been a persistent problem since their passage. In June 2018, the Sacramento Bee, Snopes and PolitiFact all wrote pieces debunking the false notion that Californians would not be able to bathe and do laundry on the same day without incurring a $1,000 fine. 

Those concerns resurfaced early this year, when a local television station in Los Angeles repeated the claim on a morning news show. The segment has since been corrected and removed

According to the Sacramento Bee, that false news report led the state’s Department of Water Resources to create a fact sheet to correct the misinformation. The Association of California Water Agencies’ director of communications, Heather Engel, told us the TV segment was also the impetus for her organization to issue its own statement explaining the facts.