Water & Drought

Local water agencies plead for relief from California drought cutbacks

Video: California cities seek relief on drought cuts

State water board weighs changes on governor's emergency order for 2016
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State water board weighs changes on governor's emergency order for 2016

Municipal water agencies from Sacramento and elsewhere pleaded for relief from California’s mandatory drought cutbacks Monday, arguing they should be given credit for coping with arid climates and developing their own supplies.

Scores of representatives of local agencies urged the State Water Resources Control Board to revise its system of enforcing Gov. Jerry Brown’s order to reduce statewide urban water consumption by 25 percent. Last month the governor said the cutbacks, which are due to expire in mid-February, should be extended through the end of October, assuming the drought hasn’t ended, and the water board is considering whether to tweak the rules.

The current regulations, which took effect in June, have resulted in a 27 percent savings when compared with the baseline year of 2013. But local water officials, reviving arguments they made when the rules were first implemented, complained that the regulations have failed to take into account differences in climate, mushrooming populations and other factors.

Some of the loudest complaints came from the Sacramento area, stuck with some of the hottest weather – and toughest conservation mandates – in the state.

“The result is dead and dying landscapes ... severe impacts on the trees,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, at a daylong hearing before the water board. He said the state’s mandate is “creating some inequity for our customers.”

In addition, agencies said the state has essentially ignored their efforts to droughtproof their communities. Sacramento Suburban Water District, for instance, has invested $120 million in the past decade buying surface water in order to replenish its groundwater supplies. But it’s still under orders to reduce usage by 32 percent compared with 2013, the same as many neighboring districts that didn’t make a similar investment.

“We took these actions on our own, on the backs of our ratepayers ... and we should get some credit for that,” said Sacramento Suburban general manager Rob Roscoe. Currently, “we have the same mandatory cutbacks ... as those who didn’t make that investment,” he said.

The targets vary according to historical per-capita consumption, and most Sacramento agencies have to reduce usage by anywhere from 28 percent to 36 percent. So far, the Sacramento agencies have achieved savings of 33 percent, according to the Regional Water Authority.

Water board members said they were sympathetic to Sacramento Suburban and other agencies’ arguments, saying they’d like to make distinctions for climate differences and the work that some agencies have done to shore up their water supplies.

But they said they don’t want to severely weaken the standards, particularly if the drought persists for several years.

“What if we’re in an Australian-style millennial drought that goes on five, six, seven years?” said Felicia Marcus, the board chair. She said the board shouldn’t “create so many loopholes that (the regulation) becomes meaningless.”

The board is likely to vote early next year on the new regulations, Marcus said. The rules could get revised yet again next spring, after the board can assess the impact of this winter’s precipitation.

Fast-growing regions asked for adjustments so they can serve their population increases. The San Diego County Water Authority said it should get some degree of leniency for its $1 billion desalination plant opening this month, which is expected to augment the region’s supply by 7 to 10 percent.

Environmentalists, though, argued against any relaxation of conservation mandates. “We’re in an emergency,” said Sean Bothwell of California Coastkeeper Alliance. “Everybody should be conserving regardless.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler