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Meeting water-saving goals will be 'huge lift for everyone,' regulator says

Water regulators acknowledge slashing usage in the coming months will be difficult

With hot summer months around the corner and new conservation rules taking effect, Gov. Jerry Brown and other officials Wednesday called on Californians again to radically cut their water use in cities and towns to cope with the drought.

“We’ve got to change,” Brown said. “And how we use water is not exempt from that constant evolutionary process.”

Speaking to hundreds of local water officials at a Sacramento convention, Brown told them they would be on “the front lines” of making sure Californians take shorter showers and cut back on watering their lawns.

“We're going to back you up,” he said.

Brown’s speech came the day after California’s water board approved regulations, ordered by the governor last month, requiring a 25% reduction in water use statewide.

New data released Tuesday painted a stark portrait of the uphill struggle Californians face to meet Brown’s mandate.

Cumulative water savings since last summer totaled only 8.6% compared with the same 10-month period in 2013, the baseline year for savings calculations. And in March, California residents and businesses used 3.6% less water than they did during the same month in 2013.

“We’re taking what is, admittedly, a very big step and will be a huge lift for everyone,” Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, told reporters Wednesday. “We’re hoping people will really rise to this occasion as they really must.”

Marcus called the state’s dry spell, now in its fourth year, “the drought of our lives.”

The board's plan has come under fire from water agencies, interest groups and members of the public who have complained that it lacks fairness.

The regulations set varying reduction targets for more than 400 water suppliers, from 8% to 36%, depending on how heavily their customers consume water. Some suppliers also may be eligible for 4% conservation.

Under the latest framework, Beverly Hills and Bakersfield must slash consumption by 36% over the next several months, because their residents used more than 215 gallons of water a day last summer. Santa Cruz residents used only about 45 gallons a day during the same period and have to cut their consumption by just 8%.

Max Gomberg, the water board's senior staff scientist, said Wednesday that some water agencies had been submitting outdated population numbers to the board. In its latest revision, the board accounted for dozens of changes to the data and tweaked reduction requirements accordingly.

For example, Newport Beach previously was told it would have to cut water use 35%. Revisions issued last month would have required a 32% cut. Last week, its goal was reduced to 28%.

More adjustments could be made in coming weeks if water agencies modify their data, Gomberg said.

Marcus said the water suppliers that are “scrambling” are the ones that have not taken conservation seriously in recent months.

She emphasized the need to reduce outdoor watering during the summer.

“Turf rebates are not enough,” she said, referring to programs that pay homeowners for removing their grass lawns.

“People should reduce their watering to one day a week to keep their lawn on life support,” she said. “That’s pretty much the right thing to do.”

Marcus dismissed the idea that an El Niño weather event later this year would be the answer to the state's water problems.

At the beginning of 2014, “everybody wrote the stories that El Niño might save us and people didn’t start conserving,” she said. “As you may have noticed, it did not [save us].”

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

matthew.stevens@latimes.com

Follow @ByMattStevens for coverage of the California drought, the Westside and breaking news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

7:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with quotes from Gov. Jerry Brown's address to hundreds of local water officials at a convention Wednesday.

This story was originally published at 11:37 a.m.

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