Water & Drought

Drought rules could be eased for Sacramento region, other inland areas

Video: First Sierra snowpack measurement of season shows promise for easing California drought

The state Department of Water Resources conducted the season’s first manual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, and pronounced the results encouraging.
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The state Department of Water Resources conducted the season’s first manual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, and pronounced the results encouraging.

Acknowledging the challenges posed by the hot, dry climate endemic to much of inland California, state drought regulators Friday proposed easing the water-conservation rules for Sacramento and other communities where it takes extra water to keep trees from dying.

The new rules also would loosen conservation mandates for communities that have invested in new “drought-resilient” water supplies, as well as those that have experienced rapid population growth in recent years.

All told, the proposed regulations released by the State Water Resources Control Board’s staff would make it unlikely the state would achieve 25 percent urban water savings in 2016 – the goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown last spring. Environmentalists criticized the board’s proposal, saying it would be a major mistake to ease off conservation mandates with the drought still in effect.

But water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the modifications are reasonable, taking climate differences into account and giving communities credit for buttressing their supplies. And she said the board isn’t abandoning the concept of conservation.

“We’re not taking our foot off the gas here,” she said.

The existing regulations, which took effect last June, are designed to reduce urban water consumption by 25 percent over 2013, as originally ordered by the governor. But the mandates vary widely from community to community, depending on historical per-capita usage. Agencies in the Sacramento area have been required to slash consumption by an average of 30 percent, and many have been told to hit 36 percent savings.

Sacramento area officials had complained those rules punish parts of the state where evapotranspiration means it takes more water to keep lawns and trees alive. Evapotranspiration is the water lost to soil and plant evaporation. While state officials have urged residents to let their lawns go brown, they’ve been adamant about saving trees.

Under the new rules, which would remain in effect through October, agencies in the hottest climates would have their mandatory savings rates dialed back by as much as 4 percent.

“The same drought-tolerant tree can take twice as much water to do the same thing inland,” Marcus said. “So it’s just the degree of it seems so much stronger that the proposal is meant to recognize in a modest way at least that, ‘Yeah, it’s a lot harder for them.’ We don’t want everything to die. That’s not our objective. Our objective was to focus on where we could save water.”

So far Californians have reduced consumption by 26.3 percent compared with 2013 since the mandatory cutbacks, the first in state history, took effect last June.

The new proposal would decrease the required conservation rate by up to 8 percent for agencies that have generated new supplies through desalination or other methods, but only for projects that materialized after 2013. The San Diego County Water Authority, for example, recently opened a $1 billion desalination plant and had been complaining that the existing conservation rules didn’t provide incentives for making such investments.

Some officials said the adjustments don’t go far enough. Tim Quinn, head of the Association of California Water Agencies, said it’s unfair not to credit agencies that invested in new water supplies prior to 2013. “They’re getting no benefit out of those early preparations,” Quinn said.

Nor is the state giving credit to water agencies, including several in the Sacramento area, that spent money recharging their underground aquifers during wet years.

“We planned, we prepared, we invested, and the state’s not recognizing that investment,” said Tom Gray of the Fair Oaks Water District, which spent $10 million in the past decade on augmenting its groundwater supplies.

The five-person state water board is expected to vote next month on the proposed modifications. The new rules are supposed to govern urban water usage through October, although they could be further eased or scrapped altogether if El Niño delivers enough precipitation to seriously weaken the impacts of drought. Marcus said it’s likely the board will revisit the regulations again in April, when a clearer picture of the water supply emerges.

John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said he’d like state officials to provide specifics on what it would take to have the drought declared over. As it is, he said it’s going to be difficult to persuade customers to keep conserving with the rains falling.

“If we don’t have clear and convincing evidence of an ongoing drought, it’s going to be hard to tell water customers to keep saving at the significant levels they were doing,” Woodling said.

Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the nonprofit environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance, blasted the state board for relenting on the conservation mandates at all.

“As we’ve been telling Californians for the past year and half and longer, we need to reduce our demand by conserving and pursuing sustainable supplies,” she said. “And so to suggest we need to conserve less ... is a really misguided approach to the dialogue that we want to have with Californians.”

Water board staff members, however, said the general goal of conservation would remain intact. Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director, said he thinks overall savings would surpass 20 percent, representing enough water to serve 2 million families a year. Hitting the governor’s original 25 percent savings goal wouldn’t be likely, although Brown said in November the board was free to adjust the conservation mandates if the winter is wet enough.

“We could see a few-percentage-point drop in totals from that 25 percent,” Oppenheimer said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler