Water & Drought

California extends mandatory water cuts despite growing snowpack

The snow keeps piling up, but the rules requiring water conservation aren’t going away.

California’s drought regulators agreed Tuesday to extend water conservation mandates through the end of October. The decision came in spite of increasing evidence that El Niño is delivering better-than-average precipitation, including an encouraging measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack recorded just hours earlier.

The new regulations adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board mean urban Californians will have to reduce their water usage between March and October by about 23.4 percent compared with the baseline year of 2013.

That represents a slight easing of the existing mandates expiring this month, which require a savings rate of 25 percent compared to 2013. Sacramentans will be among the main beneficiaries of the relaxed rules, as the state board voted to ease requirements for hot inland communities where it takes more water to keep trees and lawns alive.

The state board voted after hearing hours of dispute and concern from stakeholders on all sides of the issue. Environmentalists argued against relaxing the rules, saying Californians need to save as much water as possible given the lingering effects of the current drought and the forecasts for longer, more frequent dry spells ahead.

Scores of local water officials countered with pleas for additional leniency, especially in winter, saying it’s tough to maintain conservation efforts when rain and snow are falling. Other local officials wanted more credit for work they’ve done to improve their supplies.

A somewhat exasperated Felicia Marcus, the state board’s chairwoman, shot back at suggestions by some local officials that the conservation mandates should be abandoned altogether while it’s raining.

“If we add up everything everyone is asking for, we’d have to give water back,” Marcus said. The board has pledged to revisit the rules in the spring, when a full accounting of the winter rain and snow can be made.

Ninety miles east of Sacramento, employees from the state Department of Water Resources unearthed fresh evidence that this season promises at least some relief from the state’s historic drought, now in its fifth year.

As a steady but moderate snow fell, DWR employees conducted the season’s second manual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack at Phillips, near Echo Summit off Highway 50. The findings: 76 inches of snow, or 25.4 inches of water content. That’s 130 percent of average for the Phillips location for early February.

By comparison, the snow’s water content was only 12 percent of average at Phillips a year ago and 25 percent statewide.

“It’s a good start,” Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the DWR, told about 30 media representatives after taking the measurement. “We need to keep on this track.”

Gehrke’s measurement represented a snapshot of just one location, however. Broader electronic measurements show the snowpack throughout the Sierra is somewhat less robust: 114 percent of normal, according to DWR data.

Other indicators suggest the state is making progress against the drought, but water shortages remain. Persistent rain and snow have raised Folsom Lake levels to above normal for early February, but the far larger reservoirs at Oroville and Shasta remain comparatively empty.

An ample Sierra snowpack is crucial to ending the drought, and replenishing reservoirs through the dry spring and summer. Gehrke said the snowpack is approaching levels similar to February 2011, the last healthy winter before the drought started. One nice “Pineapple Express” would put the snowpack over that mark.

“We haven’t seen a really good one of those this time,” he said. “The snowpack is growing even in that absence.”

Later Tuesday, at the state water board hearing, Northern California water officials said they should be given more lenient regulations than other areas of the state because of the recent rain and snow. Some urged the board to let the regulations lapse completely until spring, when a clearer picture will emerge of how much rain has fallen.

Einar Maisch of the Placer County Water Agency said “there’s no longer a drought” in his service territory – a comment that drew gasps of disbelief from some board members. Shauna Lorance, of the San Juan Water District in suburban Sacramento, said enforcing conservation is hard when Folsom Lake is so full that water likely will be released soon for flood control purposes.

“Our customers are going to roll their eyes, and we’re going to lose trust,” Lorance said.

Meanwhile, environmentalists warned the board against relaxing the existing conservation standards. “I would hate to have those efforts lose steam going forward,” said Kyle Jones of the Sierra Club California. “We don’t know how long this drought is going to last.”

The current rules are based on historical per-capita consumption rates and tend to punish hot, dry areas like Sacramento. The new rules make allowances for climate differences and give credits to communities that have invested in “drought-resilient” new water supplies.

In the Sacramento area, where the conservation mandates are among the toughest in the state, most agencies are expected to see targets fall by 3 percentage points. An agency that’s had to slash consumption by 36 percent, for instance, would now have to meet a 33 percent savings rate.

Agencies that don’t meet their mandates could be fined.

State board officials were wary of relaxing the standards too much. As it is, they’re concerned that conservation efforts currently in effect won’t meet the 25 percent threshold ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Earlier Tuesday, the board announced that conservation in the state slipped to 18.3 percent in December, the lowest savings rate since mandatory conservation took effect last June. It was the third straight month that the savings rate fell below 25 percent, although the cumulative savings since June totaled 25.5 percent, just above the governor’s order.

Katheryn Landau, with the water board’s office of research, planning and performance, said she was “cautiously optimistic” the savings rate would remain above 25 percent through the end of February, when the current mandates expire.

Savings rates were considerably higher in the summer, when conservation largely amounted to cutting back on outdoor watering. Officials say it’s harder to achieve major year-over-year savings in winter because residents have to reduce their indoor water use.

Sacramento-area residents continued to be among the most diligent in the state at saving water. The area’s conservation rate averaged 26 percent in December, according to data compiled by the Sacramento Regional Water Authority. All told, Sacramentans have cut water use by 33 percent since June, the authority said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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