Despite objections, state water board extends drought emergency

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Over the opposition of many water agencies, the State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously Wednesday to extend its emergency drought regulations until May. 

The existing rules, which have been in place since May 2016, were set to expire at the end of the month unless the board decided to renew them.

The board argued drought conditions are still severe enough to justify continuing emergency water conservation restrictions. But many water agencies disagreed, saying it has rained and snowed enough this winter to call it off.

The state has been cracking down on urban water use since the beginning of 2014 when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. After yet another dry winter, Brown passed the first ever mandatory water restrictions in April 2015, which required a statewide reduction of 25 percent from urban water suppliers.

But last year, Brown backed off of the mandatory cuts, which were enforced by the water board. Instead, agencies had to prove they had enough water to make it through three more dry years and still have water left over. If they could, they wouldn’t be required to conserve. Those rules, passed in May 2016, were to remain in effect until the end of this February, unless the water board voted to extend them.

On Wednesday, many water agencies, including a number in the South Coast, urged the board to let the restrictions expire at the end of the month. They cited the fact that the state’s largest reservoirs and Sierra snowpack are well above their historical averages.

“It is clear that the water supply emergency declared in 2014 is now over,” wrote Paul Jones, the general manager for Riverside County’s Eastern Municipal Water District, in a letter to the water board.

Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 19 million Southern Californians, said its local reservoir, Diamond Valley, has recovered since the worst of the drought and as such, it was difficult to justify continuing the drought emergency.

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Water agencies also argued that extending the emergency drought regulations would undermine the credibility of state water regulators and confuse the public.

“Extraordinary conservation measures and messaging are tools that should be preserved for use when actual shortages are projected and supplies are not adequate to meet customer demands,” wrote Paul Cook, general manager for the Irvine Ranch Water District.

Not every water agency agreed. Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Santa Ana and Newport Beach all urged the state board to extend the restrictions, as did L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who sent a representative to testify on his behalf.

"The public can understand that a few months of rain doesn’t reverse five years of drought," said Liz Crosson. "We have to use this momentum to solidify behavioral changes we have worked so hard to achieve."

Staff for the SWRCB maintained this winter's rain and snow could stop abruptly and a shortage could still happen. They recommended the board extend the emergency recommendations through spring.

“Precipitation cannot be counted on to continue, and snowpack levels, while above average for the current time of year, are subject to rapid reductions,” read a staff memo to board members.

The staff also noted that while the Sierra Nevada has been pounded by snow and rain, “some reservoirs remain critically low and groundwater storage remains depleted in many areas.”

This includes places like Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, where key reservoirs like Lake Cachuma and Lake Casitas are still just 15 and 37 percent full, respectively.

Peter Gleick, with the non-profit Pacific Institute, agreed with the board's decision. He said it would have been premature to call off the emergency restrictions before the end of the wet season in April. He noted that the current drought restrictions aren’t nearly as strict as the ones the water board first implemented. 

“California doesn’t have enough water to waste, even in a wet year,” he said. 

Before the vote, board member Frances Spivy-Weber spoke directly to water agencies' concerns about confusing the public by extending a drought emergency during historic rainfall. She said she thought people would understand that a few months of rain did not reverse six years of drought.

Dorene D'Adamo said it was not up to the State Water Resources Control Board to lift the drought emergency designation. That responsibility falls to the governor, and as long as his declaration stands, she said the board was justified in maintaining the regulation. 

And chair Felicia Marcus urged water agencies that had asked for the emergency regulation to be lifted to think beyond their individual districts. 

"Are we one state or multiple states?" she asked. "We need to think about the whole range of communities."

The board will reassess the emergency restrictions in May. Until then, wasteful uses of water, like hosing down sidewalks, washing cars without a shut off nozzle and irrigating grass on medians, will continue to be banned.

And water suppliers will continue to be held to their so-called “stress tests,” the exercises proving they have enough water to make it through three years of drought. They will also have to continue reporting their monthly water use to the state through October 2017.

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