California Relaxes Tough Drought Plan

     SACRAMENTO (CN) — California drought officials Wednesday abandoned a strict statewide emergency water conservation order in favor of a relaxed plan that allows the state’s hundreds of water suppliers to set their own conservation targets.
     Officials said the scaled-back regional approach reflects improving drought conditions after a wet winter and the enormous amount of water Californians have saved in the past year.
     With drought persisting throughout much of the state, California State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus warned that mandatory statewide orders could return if cities mismanage their water supplies.
     “This reporting will show us what agencies plan to do, and how they do, throughout the year,” Marcus said. “In the meantime, we’ll be watching and prepared to come back with the 25 percent [reduction] state mandate early next year if necessary, which we hope it won’t be.”
     The water board called the new drought order a “trust and verify approach” that requires cities and water suppliers to self-certify their water supplies and ensure that a minimum three-year supply exists in case of extended drought.
     Critics of Gov. Jerry Brown’s unprecedented conservation order, issued 13 months ago at the height of California’s drought, said the plan failed to account for regional climates and varying water supplies across the state.
     While El Niño rehydrated most Northern California reservoirs this winter, Southern California received below-average rainfall.
     Many Northern California cities feel they have been burdened with unrealistic savings targets and have repeatedly asked the water board for more control over their conservation efforts.
     The scaled-back plan takes effect in June and replaces the conservation plan that spurred Californians into cutting urban water use by 24 percent over the past 10 months.
     Officials said that while the welcomed El Niño may have offered Californians “some empty promises,” it did produce enough rain and snow to fill the state’s vital reservoirs and allow them to roll back the first-ever mandatory water restrictions for the country’s most populous state.
     Under the new approach, if a supplier predicts that three years of drought would leave it with a 15 percent shortfall, then its mandated savings target would be 15 percent. The plan also bans residents from hosing off driveways, washing cars without shut-off nozzles and prohibits restaurants from serving water to guests without being asked.
     The water board approved the changes 4-0, with one member abstaining.
     The tweaks represent the fifth iteration of California’s water conservation policy in the past 22 months. Water suppliers will be trusted to monitor and report their conservation efforts to regulators, said Max Gomberg, water board climate and conservation manager.
     “We’re on an arc with these regulations and hopefully we’re on the downside of the arc,” Gomberg said.
     During several hours of public comment at Wednesday’s water board hearing, dozens of cities and suppliers thanked the regulators for relinquishing authority over urban water use plans. Proponents told the board that local districts are better able to estimate the amount of water its customers must save to combat drought.
     Others, less sanguine, told the board that a uniform conservation target encouraged Californians to come together to save water and that loosening the rules could give the impression that the drought is over.
     The water board’s decision could have an immediate impact on Californians’ wallets. Last week Fitch Ratings, a municipal bond speculator, said the water board’s changes could “lead to a quick rise in sales” for water suppliers.
     As of last week, 47 percent of the state remains in extreme drought and snowpack levels are at just 33 percent of normal for this time of year.
     Marcus said voting for the changes was difficult but that the water board was prepared to take water suppliers “at their word.”
     “This compromise allows us to keep our eyes wide open,” Marcus said.

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