Nine months after California imposed its first-ever mandatory statewide water conservation rules to cope with the state’s historic drought, dozens of leaders of water agencies on Tuesday pleaded with the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown to relax them.
Their argument: It’s raining, reservoirs are filling, customers are mad — and selling less water is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars.
But rather than making major changes, the State Water Resources Control Board voted instead for modest adjustments after a six-hour meeting. The rules will shave a few percentage points off the conservation requirements of some places — particularly in hot areas like the Southern California desert and the Central Valley — while leaving drought rules unchanged in most Bay Area cities, Los Angeles and San Diego through at least May.
“We are just at halftime in this rainy season,” said Felicia Marcus, the board’s chairwoman. “A lot could change.”
Marcus acknowledged that the rules — aimed at cutting water consumption 25 percent from 2013 levels — needed to be adjusted to make them more fair in a state as large and varied as California. But she pointed out that Australia, beginning in the late 1990s, had a drought that lasted more than a decade. So, Marcus said, until California knows for sure it is out of its current four-year drought — in April or May, after winter rain and snow totals are in — caution and conservatism are the most prudent courses of action.
Under the new rules, adopted by the water board unanimously, California cities and water agencies will have to reduce their consumption 23 percent overall. The board allowed cities that have particularly hot weather or high levels of population growth in recent years — or which have developed new supplies from desalination or recycled water plants — to reduce their mandatory state conservation targets up to 8 percentage points. Those targets range from 8 percent to 36 percent, based on per capita use.
Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District, located 15 miles northeast of Sacramento. Lorance said her customers are furious that they see nearby Folsom Lake filling, amid regular rainstorms, while still being told they are in a drought and having to pay higher water rates to make up for reduced water sales.
“We already have a few customers who are looking to recall our board or go against them in the next election because of this conservation requirement and what it has done to rates,” she said.
An economic analysis commissioned by the water board said leaving the rules unchanged would cost the state’s water districts, cities and water companies $673 million from Feb. 1 to Oct. 31. Adjusting them as the board did Tuesday would cost $567 million.
Riverside County leaders wanted credit for having a large groundwater basin. Palm Springs leaders said their climate is so hot that they should get more of a break than other cities. Einar Maisch, general manager of Placer County Water Agency, said with a big snowpack and local reservoirs filling: “Locally you can’t tell people there is still a drought.”
But environmentalists pushed back. They argued that California is an arid state that wastes huge amounts of water on golf courses and lawns in hot areas and that the drought has helped put in place more efficient rules. Just as a wet December 2014 gave way to a bone-dry January 2015, they argued that no rules should be relaxed until it’s clear California’s drought is over.
“We don’t know how long this drought is going to last,” said Kyle Jones, with Sierra Club California. “Allowing the one period of wet weather we have to weaken this might be a serious mistake going forward.”
Meanwhile Tuesday, a new report by the water board showed that California’s water conservation habits are slipping a bit.
The state’s urban residents cut water use by 18.3 percent in December compared with December 2013. That’s down from 20.4 percent in November and is the lowest percentage saved in any month since June, when Brown’s order took effect requiring cities and water agencies to reduce water use 25 percent or face fines and penalties.
State water officials noted Tuesday, however, that because of huge savings by California residents who turned off lawn sprinklers during the hot summer months, in the seven months from June to December, Californians have cumulatively cut water use 25.5 percent, meeting the governor’s goal so far.
On Tuesday, the statewide Sierra snowpack was 114 percent of the historic average, the best for the beginning of February since 2011, when it was 129 percent. A monthly manual survey done near Lake Tahoe, at Phillips Station off Highway 50, found that the snowpack there was 130 percent of normal.