Most water agencies can ease up on conservation under new standards

California may be in its fifth year of drought, but on Tuesday, state water regulators effectively turned back the clock to 2013.

Staff members of the State Water Resources Control Board announced that 343 of the state’s 411 water districts reported having enough water to meet their customers’ demands -- even if the next three years are unusually dry.

To blunt the impact of drought, the state required water providers to reduce their consumption compared to 2013 levels. Each provider was assigned a so-called conservation standard, which was expressed as a percentage.  As of Tuesday, the vast majority of those standards have been officially set at 0%.

The changes signal the latest benchmark in regulators’ ongoing struggle to keep Californians drought-conscious while simultaneously easing the unprecedented restrictions that helped the state slash its statewide urban water use by almost 25%.   

Regulators acknowledged Tuesday that drought conditions have improved enough to lift the top-down mandates, but they were quick to warn against the return of lush green lawns and lengthy showers.  

“A bit of relaxation is OK,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. “Abandoning water conservation is not.” 

The new numbers came after districts submitted documents meant to show whether they could meet the state’s “stress test.” Since regulators adopted the stress-test approach in May, environmental advocacy groups have worried that most water suppliers would set their conservation standards at 0%.

According to the water board’s analysis, only 36 suppliers indicated that they would face a supply shortage in 2019 and gave themselves a conservation target higher than 0%. Montecito Water District gave itself a 31% conservation standard; Azusa set a 3% standard.

Suppliers including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Long Beach Water Department and Coachella Valley Water District set their conservation targets at 0%.

Staff members said 32 suppliers did not complete their paperwork and would therefore retain their current reduction targets from 2013, ranging from 8% to 33%.

But Tracy Quinn, a senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the new rules deficient.

Under the latest regulations, “a water supplier could chart a course of usage that would deplete every last drop of water — including emergency supplies — and still not be required to implement mandatory conservation,” Quinn said in a statement. 

The water board’s “history of lax enforcement is resulting in a lack of respect from some water agencies and encouraging them to cut corners,” she said.

State officials pledged to investigate any allegations that “stress test” data are inaccurate. The water board can reject submissions found to be wrong or misleading, officials said.

Faced with the most dismal snowpack in hundreds of years, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated statewide water conservation in April 2015. By then, scores of wells had gone dry across the San Joaquin Valley, groundwater was so depleted that in some places the land was sinking, and residents in some of the hardest hit towns were suffering without enough water to bathe.  

So, for nine months beginning in June of last year, water districts were instructed to cut their water consumption by varying amounts or face fines. 

By February, water regulators began to ease the restrictions, reducing some suppliers’ conservation standards by a few percentage points on the hopes of a wet winter. 

California never got the massive El Niño that some hoped would end the drought altogether. Instead, the northern part of the state enjoyed rains that were slightly above average while California’s snowpack recovered to levels just below normal.

Still, the state’s hydrology had improved enough by the spring to persuade regulators to revise the rules again in May; the changes gave water districts the power to return to 2013 water-use levels if they could prove that they have enough supply to meet their customers' water needs through 2019.

Officials from the Assn. of California Water Agencies have said that water providers that set their targets at 0% can do so only because they are well-prepared to cope with a prolonged water shortage. They reject the notion that water districts no longer care about conservation, pointing to the 160 suppliers statewide who still have voluntary water conservation targets. 

And although many local water suppliers will no longer be required to save a specific amount of water under state rules, some districts have indicated that they plan to continue mandatory water conservation anyway. For example, Beverly Hills, which set its state conservation standard at 0%, still requires a 30% cut in water use.

The conservation standards released Tuesday are in effect only until the state regulations expire in January. State officials said they will also closely monitor conservation in the months to come and could return to mandatory statewide conservation next year if drought conditions persist.

Max Gomberg, the water board’s climate and conservation manager, said that if residents and businesses continue to cut their consumption by more than 20% compared with 2013, the state would “be in good shape.” But he added that if savings percentages “fall significantly, that will be cause for concern.” 

The rules apply only to urban California, but roughly 75% of Californians’ water use is by agriculture.

Significantly more water flowed to most Central Valley growers this year than in 2015. The federal Central Valley Project gave Sacramento Valley irrigation districts and senior rights holders in the San Joaquin Valley 100% of their contract amounts.

On the San Joaquin Valley’s east side, farmers who last year received zero federal deliveries this year benefited from a 75% allocation.

The one glaring exception to that brighter picture is the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, which includes the sprawling Westlands Water District. There, federal deliveries are up just slightly this year, to 5% of contract amounts.

Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @bymattstevens


UPDATES:

8:02 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the new conservation standard.

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background.

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reactions and background.

This article was originally published at 1:50 p.m.

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