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Water control board hands conservation efforts over to local districts
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The efforts to keep water usage at a reasonable level will now be the responsibility of individual water districts as the State Water Resources Control Board voted Wednesday to replace the percentage based reductions with local conservation goals.

The percentage reduction-based water conservation standard will be replaces with a localized “stress test” approach that mandates urban water suppliers act now to ensure at least a three year supply of water to their customers under drought conditions. This approach lifts the statewide mandate that was set last year that called for an overall 25 percent reduction in water use in California and set mandated goals for water districts that varied depending on previous water usage. The City of Turlock had a goal of reducing water usage by 32 percent for most of the mandate, until recently when a revised rate of 29 percent was issued.

These standards require local water agencies to ensure a three-year supply assuming three more dry years like the ones the state experienced from 2012 to 2015.  Water agencies that would face shortages under three additional dry years will be required to meet a conservation standard equal to the amount of shortage. For example, if a water agency projects it would have a 10 percent supply shortfall, their mandatory conservation standard would be 10 percent.

“Drought conditions are far from over, but have improved enough that we can step back from our unprecedented top-down target setting,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “We’ve moved to a ‘show us the water” approach, that allows local agencies to demonstrate that they are prepared for three more lousy water years.  This reporting will show us what agencies plan to do, and how they do, throughout the year.  Trust, but verify.  In the meantime, we’ll be watching and prepared to come back with the 25 percent state mandate early next year if necessary, which we hope it won't be.”

The new emergency conservation standards take effect in June and remain in effect until the end of January 2017.

Water board officials rejected a proposal for a modest statewide conservation level, saying it contradicted the intent of the plan to empower local districts.

Regulators said they maintain the authority to return to strict conservation, if water-saving efforts dramatically slip or if last winter's rain and snow turns out to be a blip in the easing of the drought.

Regulators considered the new approach after El Nino storms delivered nearly average amounts of rain and snow this winter in Northern California, filling key reservoirs. Southern California, however, remains deep in drought.

“El Nino didn’t save us, but this winter gave us some relief,” said Chair Marcus. “It’s a reprieve though, not a hall pass, for much if not all of California.  We need to keep conserving, and work on more efficient practices, like keeping lawns on a water diet or transitioning away from them. We don't want to cry wolf, but we can't put our heads in the sand either.”

The adopted regulation also keeps in place the specific prohibitions against certain water uses.  Those prohibitions include watering down a sidewalk with a hose instead of using a broom or a brush, or overwatering a landscape to where water is running off the lawn, over a sidewalk and into the gutter. Prohibitions directed to the hospitality industry also remain in place.  Prohibitions against home owners associations taking action against homeowners during a declared drought remain as well. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.