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Water restrictions eased along Russian River creeks

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Enhanced water-use restrictions imposed last year on more than 10,000 Sonoma County landowners whose properties lie along four critical salmon-bearing streams will be lifted this spring in recognition of improved winter rainfall.

Property owners in the affected watersheds — Dutch Bill, Green Valley and portions of Mark West and Mill creeks — must still abide by an informational order requiring they report water diversions and consumption patterns to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Like all other residents of California, they also remain bound by a set of drought regulations designed to cut water use overall by 25 percent, compared with 2013 levels.

But adjustments approved Tuesday during renewal of the emergency regulation for four priority tributaries to the Russian River eliminate the extra layer of mandatory conservation measures above and beyond those imposed on the rest of the state — including a prohibition against use of potable water for irrigation of ornamental turf.

The extra requirements will officially be lifted April 1 or whenever the Office of Administrative Law formalizes Tuesday’s action.

Continued dry weather in the future could make enhanced regulations necessary again, but at this point — even with a very dry February — officials hope that standard measures and voluntary water savings will be sufficient.

“Within the next couple of weeks we’re going to be in the position of knowing, ‘Do we think we are going to hold up this summer, or do we come back to the board’” with a new proposal for additional rules, Erin Ragazzi, a staffer with the Division of Water Rights, told the five-member water board.

Properties along the four affected creeks were singled out for special treatment last year because four years of drought had created perilous conditions for juvenile Central California Coast coho salmon and steelhead trout. The fish can survive relatively low stream flows, provided the creeks don’t run so dry that only isolated pools remain. Pooling limits oxygenation and allows for rising water temperatures that put the survival of young fish at risk.

State officials ordered landowners in these critical watersheds to reduce their water consumption beyond what others were doing — prohibiting, for instance, use of potable water to wash cars, except at commercial car washes with recirculating systems.

Elsewhere, Californians can wash their cars but must have a shut-off nozzle on their hoses.

Property owners in the watersheds were also forbidden from using potable water on their lawns or from watering other landscaping more than two days a week or between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The measures, when announced last year, evoked a high degree of outrage from homeowners, especially as grape growers and other agricultural users were exempted from the extra conservation measures. But after several months of stakeholder outreach, numerous community meetings and one-on-one assistance, the state says 90 percent of landowners have complied with the information order, though not all have done so completely or accurately.

In the meantime, water officials said they need to more fully understand and document overall demand on the creek water flows. This, in turn, would allow water managers to more effectively target water-saving efforts in the future, if needed, and potentially impose on fewer people to reach conservation goals, officials said.

“The whole goal is to update the system more completely,” board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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