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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Calif. Drought Restrictions Extended, Despite Soggy Winter

On the heels of record-breaking January rainfall and with another atmospheric river storm looming off the California coast, state water regulators on Wednesday voted to extend emergency drought laws another nine months.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – On the heels of record-breaking January rainfall and with another atmospheric river storm looming off the California coast, state water regulators on Wednesday voted to extend emergency drought laws another nine months.

The five-member California State Water Resources Control Board rebuked pleas by water districts asking for the state’s first-ever mandatory drought laws to be nixed in light of a recent series of powerful winter storms.

The drought regulators said Gov. Jerry Brown’s existing drought laws, which have been in effect since June 2015, have helped cities ration water supplies during the state’s historic drought and provide a valuable safety net for when the Golden State once again turns dry. The commissioners voted unanimously to readopt the emergency drought regulations.

“The dire nature of the emergency may be lifting, but the rationale for the basic elements of this regulation on a short-term basis still exists,” said Max Gomberg, water board climate and conservation manager.

The board’s decision wasn’t a surprise, since its staff released a report recommending an 270-day extension of Brown’s order prior to Thursday’s hearing.

The regulations can be rescinded once Brown’s emergency drought order expires, and the water board said it would likely readdress the emergency regulations this spring. Current urban prohibitions include a ban on landscape watering within 48 hours of rainfall and hosing down sidewalks, while suppliers are required to provide detailed usage reports to the water board.

The staff recommendation cited the state’s depleted underground aquifers as reasons to extend the drought laws. The report warned that allowing the order to expire at the end of the month could send the false message to Californians that the drought is over.

“Precipitation cannot be counted on to continue and snowpack levels, while above average for the current time of year, are subject to rapid reductions as seen in 2016 and before,” the report states.

Nonetheless, dozens of residents, farmers and water districts waited hours for the chance to convince commissioners to sack the water restrictions. Suppliers said their credibility is in jeopardy, noting the hypocrisy of asking customers to save water during the wettest winter in over a decade.

For the last 20 months, state water districts have been forced to meet stringent water conservation requirements or prove to the state they have enough water to withstand three straight years of drought. They are anxious to sell more water and make up for lost revenue caused by the mandatory conservation order.

With brimming reservoirs and a burgeoning Sierra Nevada snowpack promising to supply water through the summer, emboldened suppliers claimed the state is no longer facing an emergency water shortage.

“Let’s get out of this drought emergency order, we’re no longer in an emergency,” said Paul Helliker of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District. “Let these regulations expire.”

The El Dorado Irrigation District questioned whether the water board has the authority to extend drought regulations, considering most of the state’s reservoirs are above average.

“The conditions that exist today, not only do they warrant termination of the emergency declaration, they require it,” said Brian Paulsen, attorney for the district. “I would encourage you to think about whether or not this board has the authority to maintain emergency regulations that are adopted pursuant to an emergency declaration which should end.”

The regulator’s decision comes as much of California is bracing for another round of powerful storms expected to make landfall on Thursday, the latest in a series of “pineapple expresses” that have battered the state since January.

Pineapple express storms typically originate in the tropics of the eastern Pacific Ocean and are sometimes referred to by meteorologists as “horizontal hurricanes.” California relies on the high-intensity storms for a large chunk of its annual rainfall.

The January storms dumped 2.94 inches of rain in Los Angeles in a single day, while a monthly total of 9.85 inches fell in Sacramento – the fourth wettest January on record. Sacramento normally records 3.97 inches of rainfall in January.

While California is on track for one of its wettest winters on record, residents have remained stingy at the tap. According to the water board, Californians combined to cut urban water use in December by 20.6 percent as compared to 2013 levels.

“Conservation levels have remained incredibly strong, near the 20 percent level statewide,” Gomberg said.

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