California adopts mandatory water cuts as savings by North Coast cities slips

In the weeks since he walked into a snowless Sierra Nevada meadow earlier this year to proclaim California’s drought a growing threat, Gov. Jerry Brown has argued that the Golden State would need a jolt to take water conservation more seriously.

That push may have finally come, as state water regulators late Tuesday took unprecedented action, adopting sweeping restrictions on how people, governments and businesses can use water in what is now the fourth year of drought. The moves include California’s first mandatory urban water conservation targets, meant to fulfill Brown’s call to cut urban water use by 25 percent statewide.

“It is better to prepare now than face much more painful cuts should it not rain in the fall,” State Water Resources Control Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said Tuesday as the board voted 5-0 to approve the new rules. “This is the moment to rise to the occasion.”

As outlined by the state water board in preliminary moves last month, the new conservation targets call for cuts ranging from 8 to 36 percent for hundreds of cities and water agencies, including those on the North Coast, where the reductions start at 16 percent and top out at 28 percent.

The rules also will trigger other local restrictions - some already in place - to limit outdoor irrigation and other water-squandering practices.

It’s still not clear what punishment the state water board and local agencies can or will impose for those that don’t meet the targets. Board officials said they expect dramatic water savings as soon as June and are willing to add restrictions and penalties for agencies that lag.

Brown also has proposed fines of up to $10,000 for the worst offenders, but that plan requires legislative approval and no bill has been introduced.

Tuesday’s action came amid the release of new state figures that showed Californians conserved little water in March and local officials were not aggressive in cracking down on waste.

A survey of local water departments, including eight in Sonoma County, shows water use fell by just 3.6 percent in March compared with the same month in 2013. That was the second-lowest savings rate since June.

Overall, statewide water savings have been only 8.6 percent since June, even though Brown early last year set a voluntary 20 percent target.

Customers of four local water suppliers - Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Sonoma and Valley of the Moon Water District - were listed by the state as using more water in March than they did two years ago in the same period.

Santa Rosa’s supplier had a 12 percent uptick in water consumption, the state reported.

But Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of water and engineering services, said that figure was because of a billing cycle function that included 28 days in March 2013 versus 34 days in March this year. Comparing an equal number of days showed Santa Rosa cut water use by 8 percent in March, she said.

Healdsburg cut water use in March by 7 percent, a savings that Meg Lawrence, a utility conservation analyst, attributed in part to residents taking advantage of “cash for grass” lawn replacement subsidies and installation of high-tech irrigation control systems that take into account weather reports via the Internet and soil moisture sensors.

Overall, state officials were “very disappointed” with the March conservation numbers, said George Kostyrko, state water board spokesman. But the low rate of water savings was “not too much of a surprise,” he said, noting that January, February and March were unusually dry months, especially in Southern California.

Among other restrictions, the new rules would bar cities from using drinking-quality water on street median grass and encourage homeowners to let lawns go brown to meet local mandatory water reduction targets.

“We really need to turn off that outdoor water,” Kostyrko said.

Some local water departments call the proposal unrealistic and unfair. They say achieving steep cuts could cause declining property values, restrictions on filling pools and washing cars and higher water bills.

An economic analysis of the water board’s proposal commissioned by the board estimated that private water utilities and local water departments would lose a total of about $1 billion in revenue through lost water sales if they meet the board’s targets. They will eventually charge higher rates to make up the revenue, the report said.

Reporting on local enforcement of water rules for the first time, the board said Tuesday that water agencies received 10,877 complaints of water waste, issued 8,762 warnings and assessed 682 penalties in March. Most agencies sent fewer than 20 warnings for violating water rules, but the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power issued 1,364 warnings, while Fresno issued 1,221.

In Sonoma County, Windsor reported 51 complaints and issued one warning, while Santa Rosa had 32 complaints and issued 35 warnings, including some left over from the previous month.

Paul Piazza, Windsor’s water conservation program manager, said the state’s reference to “complaints” may be misleading because the town takes a “proactive approach,” monitoring water meter readings and contacting residents whose use indicates a possible leak.

“We don’t consider that a lot,” he said, referring to the 51 cases recorded as complaints.

When Santa Rosa spots a water violation - typically runoff from an irrigated lawn - a notice is left on the front door, followed up by a letter to the resident asking the person to call and report a fix, Burke said. Most often, the problem is “something they’re not aware of,” she said.

Customers have complied with every notice, Burke said, noting that wasted water is also wasted money.

Santa Rosa’s water watch patrols resumed at the end of April, she said.

Another tool for water suppliers, tiered pricing in which the cost for customers rises as water use goes up, is in question after a court struck down water rates designed to encourage conservation in the Orange County city of San Juan Capistrano.

This story includes information from Press Democrat Staff Writer Guy Kovner and the Associated Press.

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