Water & Drought

California regulators want to extend statewide drought restrictions despite wet winter

Despite an enormous snowpack and more rainfall than California can store in its reservoirs, the state’s drought regulators say the water crisis hasn’t ended.

The staff of the State Water Resources Control Board proposed keeping statewide drought emergency controls, which expire Feb. 28, in place for another 270 days.

“Some reservoirs remain critically low and groundwater storage remains depleted in many areas due to the continued impact of prolonged drought,” the board’s staff said in a report this week. “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 five-person board will vote on the proposal Wednesday.

Drier weekend in Sacramento in forecast

As it is, the drought controls have been greatly relaxed. After ordering urban agencies to slash consumption by an average of 25 percent in 2015, the board lifted the mandate last spring for agencies that could show at least three years’ worth of water on hand. Eighty percent of the agencies passed the test.

Nevertheless, water agencies – including those in the Sacramento region – have been urging the state board to lift the rules altogether, arguing that they’re losing credibility with customers by pleading drought in a wet winter.

“The drought-related curtailments up and down the state really rely on people like you and me responding and using less water outside and not flushing the toilet all the time,” said Bob Reeb, who lobbies for water districts. “When the message is continued that you need to cut and we’re seeing the weather conditions that we’re seeing this year, you just lose that trust.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has been reluctant to rescind the drought rules; instead, it’s starting to flesh out ideas for permanent conservation programs under the philosophy of “conservation as a way of life.” That concept is creating additional tension with some local water agencies. They say they’re happy to encourage customers to buy drip-irrigation systems for their lawns to curb usage permanently, but they resent the state ordering them to conserve at a time of relative abundance.

“The state is trying to take over … local control,” said Einar Maisch of the Placer County Water Agency.

Every major city in the state has seen above-average precipitation this water year, which started in October, including communities in Southern California. Sacramento is at 192 percent of normal. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which serves as a sort of water bank for the state, sits at 171 percent of average for this time of year. Most of the state’s major reservoirs are at above-average depths.

The U.S. government’s weekly Drought Monitor says about half the state is now drought free.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler