Despite drought’s end, conservation rules were still in place in California – until now

First the drought ended. Now the last vestiges of mandatory conservation rules are over, too.

California’s main water regulatory agency ended mandatory conservation regulations for urban residents Wednesday, following Gov. Jerry Brown’s official declaration that the drought ended April 7.

The decision by the State Water Resources Control Board means urban water agencies no longer have to submit to “stress tests” proving they have enough water to withstand three straight years of dry weather. All other conservation requirements have ended, too, although Californians are still prohibited from engaging in “wasteful practices” such as watering their lawns while it’s raining or hosing down sidewalks. What’s more, urban agencies will have to continue to report their monthly water usage to the state.

The water board, responding to a Brown executive order, in 2015 imposed mandatory cutbacks averaging 25 percent, with the amounts varying according to per-capita usage patterns. The Sacramento area and other inland regions, saddled with some of the state’s hottest weather, bore the brunt of the regulations. Many agencies in the region had to cut consumption by 36 percent.

A year later, following a relatively wet winter in Northern California, the state board greatly relaxed the regulations. Agencies that could pass the stress tests didn’t have to meet any mandatory cutbacks; the vast majority of the state’s 400-plus urban water agencies were able to meet that standard.

With the standards eased, conservation efforts tailed off, but only slightly. Most agencies continued to reduce water consumption by 20 percent or more in the past year, according to the water board.

Despite the official end to the drought, the water board and several other agencies are continuing to sketch a long-term conservation plan titled “Make Conservation a California Way of Life.” The plan will require urban agencies to meet new targets, based on their local climates, land-use characteristics and other factors. The urban agencies would set the targets themselves, based on parameters set by the state.

State officials have called the plan a more flexible, reasonable approach than the 2015 plan. But some local agencies have already protested that state officials will use the program to impose permanent cutbacks on urban water use.

Brown’s decision to end the drought covered all but four counties where diminished groundwater supplies have dried up some municipal drinking water wells: Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler