California Makes Some Drought Rules Permanent While Easing Others

by | May 10, 2016

By Kurtis Alexander

California's historic drought is bound to come to an end. But the conservation efforts that have become habit for many after four dry years aren't likely to go away -- the governor is making sure of that.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that a set of urban water restrictions that the state established for the drought be made permanent, including bans on running sprinklers after rain and hosing down driveways. He also said mandatory reductions in water use by cities and towns were here to stay.

In the short term, however, the Brown administration announced plans to drop the strict schedule of water cuts that the state imposed on communities, some of which responded by levying big fines on water-hogging households. Instead, the administration's proposal would allow water agencies to set their own conservation targets until the permanent measures are finalized.

At a news conference in Sacramento, officials cited the state's nearly 24 percent drop in water use since June as evidence that residents are taking conservation seriously. From shorter showers to letting lawns die, regulators said they want to be sure the austerity continues, even as rivers and reservoirs benefit from the wettest winter in five years.

"Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before," Brown said in a prepared statement. "But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence, and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life."

Long-term cuts

The governor's executive order directs the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Water Resources to develop long-term water reduction plans for each of the state's 400 largest urban suppliers.

The agencies have been operating since June under a temporary mandate requiring cutbacks of 4 to 36 percent compared with 2013, depending on the provider's historic water use.

State officials did not say Monday what the new conservation targets will look like, only that they will be working with communities to come up with mandated savings that will probably take effect next year.

In addition, the new permanent regulations will include many of the water no-nos introduced last year with the drought emergency measures. Bans will remain in effect on washing cars without a shut-off nozzle, spraying down hard surfaces like sidewalks and driveways, using potable water in decorative fountains, watering lawns to the point of causing runoff or within 48 hours of rain, and irrigating street medians.

Advocates for the state's water supplies praised the long-term conservation strategy, which the State Water Board and Department of Water Resources are expected to finalize by January.

'The new normal'

"The reality of climate change is that hotter, drier weather will become the new normal in the West," said Tracy Quinn, senior water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's essential that California implement permanent regulations that build on the conservation we've achieved during this unprecedented drought and prepare our state for that new reality."

In the meantime, the state water board plans to vote May 18 on relaxing the current water quotas for cities and towns.

Under the proposal, local water agencies would evaluate how well they could survive three dry years and decide how much water they need to save -- if any -- to get by.

The new plan comes amid widespread criticism from suppliers that the current schedule of cuts is unnecessary and even punitive in places that have ample water and are spending money to boost supplies. Some agencies also said they were needlessly losing millions in water sales.

"I think it's great that they're allowing the water agencies to do their own calculations," said Paul Helliker, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District in Eureka, which has been forced to cut back water deliveries despite having a full reservoir for the past three years. "It's the water agencies that know what their supplies are."

State officials watching

State officials said the new "self-certifying" regulations were by no means a pass for water agencies and their customers to forget about savings. The actions of water providers will be be strictly audited, they said.

"It's more than just riding a line, saying we're OK," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board. "We'll be looking at (their plans). The public will be looking at it."

While California has seen near-normal amounts of rain and snow this past year, the previous four winters were exceptionally dry. As a result, nearly 90 percent of the state is still suffering drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Water experts say a handful of wet years will be needed to bring relief to much of California.

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle