Water regulators propose further relaxation of conservation requirements

Water providers that have struggled in recent months to meet  conservation targets could soon get some relief under the modified drought rules unveiled Friday by state regulators.

The proposed changes to California’s emergency drought regulation reward water districts for investing in new local supplies and allow for adjustments to savings goals based on a district's climate and population growth.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Cris Carrigan, chief of the state water board's office of enforcement, as Chris.

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Friday’s proposal also allows water providers to reduce their “conservation standards” by as much as eight percentage points. A previous plan had said that a water district’s target should drop by no more than four percentage points.

“We always said we were open to … some adjustments if we had a little bit of time,” said State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus. “The attempt is to just try and be reasonable.”

Last spring, Gov. Jerry Brown made history when he called for a statewide 25% reduction in urban water use. Regulators had to scramble to design a regulation that would achieve the cumulative reduction from June 2015 to February of this year.

Water board staff studied the residential water use in the state’s 411 urban water districts and assigned each district a conservation standard. Water providers with a history of high usage were told to cut their consumption by as much as 36% compared to the same months in 2013. Other districts with a history of low use were told they needed to cut as little as 8% or even 4%.

As the water board staff rolled out the rules -- and then in the months that followed -- some water suppliers complained that the system and their targets were inequitable or unfair. The board convened a work group with various water experts and district managers to get input on how to change the regulation, if necessary.

Then, in November, Brown issued an executive order calling for an extension to the regulation, which expires next month.

After the water board released a framework outlining how they might update the drought rules, water suppliers, advocacy groups and other stakeholders submitted more than 200 comments, officials said.

The result was Friday’s proposal, which gives consideration to a district's climate, growth and newly developed local water supply, as some local water officials had requested. 

Hot inland and desert areas are expected to benefit from the climate adjustments. Areas such as those getting water from a new seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad could benefit from the credits given for developing new local water supplies. Meanwhile, places that have recently experienced major local growth could see their targets get adjusted down, too.

Under the proposed regulation, a water district’s conservation target can drop by no more than eight percentage points.

Collectively, officials said the adjustments and credits proposed by the water board staff members could drive statewide water savings below the 25% target.

About one-third of the state’s urban water suppliers are already not meeting their savings goals, according to officials from the water board’s office of enforcement. The adjustments should help many of those providers, but Cris Carrigan, the office’s chief, said he “wouldn’t rule out the possibility of future fines.”

In another change, the proposed extension would also penalize homeowner associations or community service organizations for fining residents who wish to rip out their lawns or let them go brown.

Overall, though, Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director for the state water board, characterized the revisions as “modest.”

Depending on how much rain and snow the state gets this winter, officials said they could revisit the rules in March or April. They could adjust or even eliminate the regulation at that time.

“The recent rain and snow are an extremely welcome start to the rainy season, however we have to keep conserving – El Niño or not,” Marcus said. “We don’t know what the next two months are going to bring.”

“Even if we have promising Las Vegas odds, we are not going to bet on the weather,” she added. “Weather probably has better odds than the lottery, but that’s about all.”

The water board is expected to consider adopting the extension to the emergency regulation at its meeting Feb. 2. The current regulation expires less than two weeks later.

For more on the California drought and water, follow me on Twitter @ByMattStevens 

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