Water & Drought

Sacramento water agencies push to end drought conservation orders

Drought's over? Not in Southern California

Weak local rainfall this spring and summer in Southern California show why California's drought is far from over.
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Weak local rainfall this spring and summer in Southern California show why California's drought is far from over.

Sacramento-area water districts urged state regulators Wednesday to release their customers from Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency urban water conservation order, contending that a relatively wet winter has made continued cutbacks unnecessary.

Local water officials made their case before the State Water Resources Control Board during a hearing Wednesday. The board was soliciting input on whether to revise, relax or rescind the mandates that flowed from the emergency order Brown issued last spring requiring California cities to reduce water use by an average of 25 percent compared with 2013. The board is expected to announce its proposed revisions in early May.

Most Sacramento-area water agencies were ordered to cut usage by 28 percent to 36 percent under the regulations in place since June. Many have complained about having to continue under the mandates, arguing they don’t reflect recent improvements in groundwater and reservoir levels, given the return to average precipitation in Northern California this winter.

“The bottom line here is, in the American River basin in the Sacramento region, we are not in a drought emergency any longer,” Andy Fecko, director of resource development for the Placer County Water Agency, told the board.

California officials have not declared the state’s five-year drought at an end, citing another dry winter for much of the south state. Water levels in most Southern California reservoirs remain well below historical averages, and groundwater aquifers in the south state remain depleted.

Historically, California’s severe multiyear droughts have ended when statewide precipitation totaled about 150 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. This year, statewide precipitation is close to average.

Southern California, even in average precipitation years, is heavily reliant on water shipped from Northern California for irrigation and drinking water. Environmental groups argue that because of the interconnected nature of the state’s water-delivery system, it’s imperative the mandatory restrictions continue.

“Now is certainly not the time to relax conservation in the state,” said Tracy Quinn, an urban water conservation advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re all in this together, for better or worse.”

Under Brown’s order, water agencies were assigned conservation targets, with higher per capita users targeted for deeper cuts. The Sacramento region typically has among the highest per capita water use in the state, largely because of summer lawn irrigation.

Statewide, urban water districts cut use from June to February by 23.9 percent, compared to 2013. Twenty of the region’s 23 water providers met their targets for the period or were within 5 percentage points.

Last month, the San Juan Water District, which supplies Granite Bay, one of the region’s most affluent communities, said it no longer would require customers to adhere to the state mandates because the local water supply had improved. San Juan’s customers consistently use more water per capita than the customers of other water districts in the region, though they also sharply reduced use over the last nine months.

During Wednesday’s hearing, members of the Regional Water Authority, an umbrella group for providers in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado, Yolo and Sutter counties, said area water districts had become more efficient and resilient in recent years. John Woodling, the water authority’s executive director, said his members are well positioned to return to emergency mode, should the need arise.

“If next year’s a 2015 again, we can turn those things on,” he said. “We can turn on the supply improvement projects. We can also turn on the 30 percent conservation again in pretty short order.”

Wednesday’s hearing drew water agency representatives from throughout the state, and almost all were asking for the conservation mandates to be relaxed or rescinded. Many supported a proposal put forward by a group of Southern California water agencies to allow local agencies to set their own conservation standards using a formula that factors in demand, local supply and resiliency.

Board members seemed receptive, but expressed concern about whether a “self-certification” process would result in some water districts understating their supply problems to avoid public outcry.

“I’m concerned that we’ll get a flood of self-certifications that may be overly optimistic,” board member Steven Moore said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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