Environment & Science

Despite drought, most CA water agencies ditch mandatory conservation

Lush backyards outside San Diego, California.
Lush backyards outside San Diego, California.
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The vast majority of California cities say they have enough water to withstand three more years of drought and no longer need mandatory water conservation targets, state water regulators said Tuesday.

At the same time, officials with the State Water Resources Control Board acknowledged California remains in a stubborn drought -- now in its fifth year -- and urged all Californians to continue to save water.

It's a mixed message water board officials say they are struggling to convey.

"While we're still in a drought, and we still need to figure out how to conserve, we're not in the worst situation in 500 years," said Felicia Marcus, the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. "You don't want to cry wolf, but you don't want to stick your head in the sand. So we're trying to find a reasonable path forward."

In May, state water officials decided to relax mandatory cuts established last year after winter storms dropped near average rain and snow in Northern California -- the source of most of the state's drinking water. Instead, they implemented a "stress test." Agencies that passed it, by guaranteeing they would have enough water to meet customers' needs for three more dry years, would no longer have to meet mandatory conservation targets. For agencies that failed and did not have enough water, the targets would continue.

According to data released Tuesday, more than eight in 10 urban water agencies in California (343 out of 411) say they passed that test.

“We created the stress tests so that local agencies could demonstrate their ability to supply water under extended drought conditions, so we could step back from our unprecedented 25 percent water conservation mandate with some confidence,”  Marcus said. “Being prepared, however, is not a license to abandon conservation, because one thing we know is we can’t know what next year or the next will bring.”

But Marcus acknowledged that some agencies may be viewing the passing of the stress test as a license to use water with abandon. Indeed, 80 percent of water agencies in Southern California reported using more water in June 2016, the first month without mandatory water restrictions, compared to June 2015.

"So many of the agencies were so proud of themselves for passing a stress test that they may have...telegraphed the wrong message to their customers, even folks that were planning to continue their conservation rules," Marcus said. 

Just 36 agencies statewide found they would not have enough water to make it through three more dry years after completing their stress tests. These agencies will continue to face mandatory state water restrictions, albeit with targets they've established for themselves. In Southern California, for instance, Bellflower, Glendora and Yucaipa each reported anticipated demand outstripping supply by 20 percent.  

About 30 other water agencies, like those in Ventura and Santa Barbara, chose to keep state-mandated conservation targets out of their own volition.

On Tuesday, water board regulators said they had no plans to verify the accuracy of the supply-and-demand calculations from the agencies that did them.

"We asked for a specific set of information. And so long as the suppliers provided that, we’re not going to go looking under rocks to see whether they were fudging," said the water board's Max Gomberg.

At the same time, water regulators held open the possibility of reimposing mandatory cuts if water conservation drops between now and the end of the year. However officials wouldn't say how bad it would have to get before mandatory water cuts would be restored.

June was the first month without mandatory cuts, and water use rose by 7 percent compared to the 2013 baseline the state uses to measure water consumption.