By Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow

Marking a major shift in California water policy, state regulators Wednesday voted to lift the statewide conservation targets that for the past year have required dramatic cutbacks in irrigation and household water use for the Sacramento region and urban communities across the state.

The new rules adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board allow individual water agencies to propose their own conservation standards, based on the health of their water supplies and anticipated local demand.

The action effectively brings an end to an unprecedented conservation mandate, in place since June, that required urban water districts statewide to cut usage by an average of 25 percent over 2013. And it represents a sharp turn from the rhetoric of state officials for much of last year, when they warned that the drought represented a new reality that required permanent lifestyle changes and universal sacrifice.

Under the old rules, communities were targeted for cuts based on consumption -- with bigger users hit with bigger cuts -- rather than the state of their local supplies. Most Sacramento-area water agencies, traditionally among the state's heaviest per capita water users, had to cut consumption more than 28 percent.

By contrast, area water officials have said that the new rules could mean mandatory conservation targets of zero for most of the region.

The board's action follows a relatively wet winter in Northern California: For the first time since the winter of 2010-11, the north state had above-average rain and snowfall. Several of the state's largest reservoirs are near or above normal depths for this time of year.

But more than 70 percent of the state remains in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. And due to a warm spring, the Sierra snowpack, which serves as a water bank for California, is at just 33 percent of normal for this time of year.

In announcing their decision, state water board members said the shift was warranted, despite the lingering drought, because of improving conditions.

Water board Chair Felicia Marcus said the new rules give water districts a chance to prove themselves without the state dictating harsh terms. But she said they also maintain oversight by continuing to require water districts to report how much they conserve each month. "Rather than speculate on what people will do and what will happen, we have a learning lab over the next seven months," she said.

The regulations passed with one abstention. Board member Tam Doduc said she did not think the new measures were adequate in the face of continuing drought. "I just don't feel this proposal is quite in the context of the emergency," she said.

Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the board, said it is possible for many of the state's cities to maintain access to a healthy water supply even while most of the state is in drought. But, during a staff presentation, he also said water conservation could be expected to subside without tough mandates. "We are anticipating lower levels of conservation overall," he said.

That viewpoint was echoed in an analysis last week by Fitch Ratings, which evaluates municipal bonds. Fitch analysts expect the new rules to "lead to a quick rise in (water) sales for some utilities, resulting in higher revenues." However, the ratings agency said, "sales are unlikely to rebound fully to pre-drought levels."

Gomberg said the state could return to tougher water restrictions if necessary. He noted that climatologists suspect a dry La Niña weather pattern is likely this year.

"If in January things are looking dry again, we are directed and prepared to go back," he told the board.

The new rules center on a "self-certification" process in which individual water districts will forecast their demand and supply for the next three years, assuming continued below-average precipitation. Districts would be required to reduce water use by an amount equal to their projected shortfall. For example, in a district where three more dry years would leave a district 10 percent short of anticipated supply, the mandatory conservation target would be 10 percent.

In keeping with an executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month, the new rules make permanent some conservation measures. Those include prohibiting irrigation runoff into streets, watering street medians, irrigation within 48 hours of rainfall, and washing cars without a hose equipped with a shutoff nozzle.

A year ago, as the water board prepared to vote on the strict across-the-board cuts, dozens of water agency officials stepped to the podium to object to regulations they deemed too harsh. Sacramento officials, in particular, complained the rules unfairly punished the region, where hot summers and relatively large lot sizes accounted for heavier irrigation patterns.

On Wednesday, several agencies again stepped forward, but this time to praise the board for reverting to a system that relies on local autonomy.

Ashley Metzger, outreach and conservation manager at Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs, said water districts are best positioned to decide how much their customers need to conserve. "Recognizing local supply is a really big step in the right direction," she said.

Not everyone agreed. Susan Cordone, interim conservation manager for the California Water Service, which runs several water districts, advocated that the state maintain at least a 10 percent mandatory conservation floor.

"I would like to see this continue," she said. "I would think going from potentially some of our districts that have 36 percent reduction down to June 1 a zero ... is sending the wrong message."

Tracy Quinn of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the board should extend the mandatory conservation targets, given the severity of the drought. Mandatory conservation "reinforces the message that we're all in this together," she said, "and that conservation needs to be a way of life in California."

The board briefly discussed adopting a conservation "floor" of 4 percent or so for all districts, regardless of their supply issues, but opted against it, saying it would send a mixed message.

As it stands, some water districts in parched portions of the state may find themselves conserving frantically while districts a few hours away operate without restriction.

The new rules go into effect June 1. Water agencies will be required to submit their conservation targets by June 22.

(c)2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)