SACRAMENTO (CN) - Despite a healthy snowpack and a series of El Nino-driven storms, drought regulators on Tuesday extended California's mandatory statewide water restrictions for another nine months.
The updated urban water use restrictions will allow regulators to scale back cities' conservation requirements in April after final surveys of the state's snowpack are completed.
The State Water Resources Control Board said the amended plan is more flexible and sets a cumulative water savings goal of more than 20 percent compared to 2013 levels.
California's worst drought on record has shrunk reservoir levels, decimated groundwater supplies and threatened salmon populations and it's up to residents to continue saving water, the Water Resources Control Board said.
"After four years of extreme drought, there is still a need for Californians to keep up their stellar conservation practices," said water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus.
Despite saving a cumulative 25 percent since Gov. Jerry Brown's first-ever mandatory water restrictions went into effect in June, California cities and water suppliers will be forced to meet strict conservation standards until at least October. The current restrictions were set to expire in February but with more than 95 percent of the state still suffering from drought, the governor tasked regulators to extend the drought rules.
The hearing featured hours of testimony and debate between the water board and environmentalists, city leaders and water suppliers. Environmentalists urged the board to tighten restrictions, while water officials said the initial order was too harsh and failed to account for climate factors.
Last summer, California's 412 water suppliers were placed in water conservation tiers and told to cut water use in some cases by up to 36 percent.
The revised order allows cities and suppliers to apply for water savings credits based on factors such as climate and drought-resilient investments. Qualifying cities could cut their conservation standards by a maximum of 8 percentage points.
"We expect a savings rate greater than 20 percent, but perhaps not quite achieving the prior call for 25 percent," Marcus said. "We anticipated this might occur with any tweaks to our existing regulation.
Officials cited a mixture of drought-related impacts as justification for extending and amending the drought mandate, particularly diminishing reservoir levels. As of Feb. 1, seven of the state's 10 largest reservoirs are less than half full despite recent surveys showing an above-average snowpack.
Surveys taken Tuesday measured California's snowpack at 114 percent of normal, the largest it's been since 2011. By comparison, measurements in January 2015 found statewide snowpack levels at just 25 percent and in 2014 just 14 percent.
California receives approximately 30 percent of its water supply from the water savings account each year once the snow melts into rivers and eventually reservoirs.
Opponents asked the water board to delay extending the drought orders until El Niño runs its course this spring, and give officials time to calculate how much water is available for farmers and urban water suppliers.
Marcus said that while there are signs that California's epic drought could be losing momentum, the state must continue to plan for drought conditions this summer.
"While we are hopeful that we are turning the corner on this drought, the truth is that it's just too soon to tell," Marcus said.
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