Pasadena To Change Water Usage Policies, Reporting Methods, Following Lawsuit Settlement

Suit claimed City failed to follow State law to prevent excessive water use; City will create new water-saving project, enact new ordinances, and change reporting methods

Published : Thursday, October 18, 2018 | 4:50 AM

Pasadena’s water usage and reporting in new housing developments will change dramatically following the settlement of a suit filed last December by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Pasadena will also complete a supplemental water savings project over the next two-plus years—a modest project, designed to save at least one-acre foot of water per year (326,000 gallons) for a period of at least ten 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.

In a statement, the NRDC said, “We welcome the action of City Manager Steve Mermell and the Mayor and City Council of Pasadena, for their willingness to strike a reasonable settlement of this litigation and take these important steps to improve Pasadena’s efforts to conserve drinking water supplies used in landscape irrigation.”

According to a statement from the NRDC, the litigation—NRDC v. City of Pasadena—and settlement “have implications for hundreds of cities across the state, due to widespread non-compliance with state regulations governing water use in new landscapes.”

As a result of the lawsuit, the City has also 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 City has also now prepared and filed annual reports 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.

The lawsuit had alleged that the City’s continually failed to comply with state regulations to prevent excessive water use in new residential and commercial landscapes. The City will also pay NRDC’s attorney’s fees.

“What we have found in reviewing this,” said Edward R. Osann, Water Director NRDC, “is that many jurisdictions are not complying with state law and regulations, and the law at issue is one that was enacted about 25 years ago, so this is not a new thing.”

“The city agreed to update its ordinance,” Osann continued, “which they’ve already done. So they’re now in sync with the 2015 requirements of DWR. There are three years worth of activity covered now in their reports and they agreed to develop over the next couple of years and implement a supplemental water saving projects.

Added Osann, “We felt that the fact that they had proceeded to allow development to take place over the last couple of years without applying the criteria that we’re in the 2015 regulations which they should’ve been doing meant that there were landscapes that were being installed that were less efficient than they should’ve been and those landscapes are going to be using water for the next 10, 20, 30 years.”
Osann told Pasadena Now that the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act, which was cited, goes back to the early nineties. “The goal of the State,” he said, “has been to ensure that newly installed urban landscapes would be as water efficient as is practical.”

Osann explained that the law is a set of requirements that apply primarily to new construction, including single family homes, and some office building.

“The law basically includes all new development,” said Osann, adding, “It’s the responsibility of all cities and counties to ensure that permits for construction that involve landscaping carry requirements to ensure that the design of those landscapes is water efficient, meeting the specifications laid out by the state.”

The new Pasadena supplemental water-saving project will be selected and implemented by the City, in consultation with NRDC, and be completed within 28 months, said a statement from the NRDC.

According to a NRDC report on the settlement, roughly half of California’s drinking water is used for irrigation on urban landscapes, In normal water years. NRDC called that “a staggering volume of water that is frequently overused and even wasted.”

The goal of the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act in 1990 is that new landscapes and major renovations of existing landscapes should be designed and installed to be water-efficient, said the report.

To implement the Act, said the NRDC report, the State developed a Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) in the early 1990’s. The ordinance was later codified in state regulation in 2009. When issuing development permits, each of California’s cities and counties must ensure that new landscapes are designed and installed to be water efficient, in accordance with MWELO or a local landscape ordinance that is at least as effective as MWELO.

DWR made major revisions to the 2009 version of MWELO in response to Governor Brown’s emergency water conservation Executive Order issued in April 2015. MWELO tightened the standards for new landscapes, reducing the maximum allowable water use for new residential landscapes by 20% and for new commercial landscapes by 35%, compared with the 2009 version.

According to the NRDC report, 60% of Pasadena’s water supply, on average, is imported from the Bay-Delta and the Colorado River, “resources that are already overextended,” the report said.

Until the litigation, Pasadena had not updated its landscape ordinance to reflect the new standards in the 2015 MWELO, which it was required to do by December 2015. Nor were any of the required annual reports on landscape permit activity filed with DWR. Nevertheless, the City authorized scores of permits for new buildings and accompanying landscapes. Many of the building permits issued by the City since December 2015 lacked necessary documentation. Still others included higher water allowances than set by 2015 MWELO.

“In essence, NRDC has been doing what the Department of Water Resources should have been doing all along,” said the report, “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.”

Pasadena is just one of several hundred communities that reportedly have failed to submit required reports on its landscape standards and permitting activity to DWR, and many of these communities have failed to adopt the 2015 MWELO, said the NRDC report.

“NRDC has compiled stacks of information on communities every bit as out of compliance as Pasadena,” the report said. “Cities and counties throughout the state need to take a close look at their current ordinances and reporting practices and assess their responsibilities under state law.”

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