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Mandatory water savings may soon be over for most Sonoma County residents

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For most Sonoma County residents, the days of strict water savings mandates could be over by summer, a result of brimful reservoirs and a dramatic shift this week in state water conservation rules.

Santa Rosa and five other Sonoma County water providers should be excused from state-ordered water-saving standards as soon as next month under California’s updated conservation campaign, tailored for the first time to match regulations to the reality of regional water supplies, officials said Friday.

With the region’s two major reservoirs nearly full from above-average rainfall, six local agencies that serve more than 340,000 customers meet the new requirement for demonstrating a sufficient water supply over a three-year period under drought conditions.

“It’s good news,” said Brad Sherwood of the Sonoma County Water Agency, the water wholesaler that serves the local agencies. “Our Russian River water supply system is not in a drought condition.”

The water agency released calculations this week showing that the local water suppliers can balance water demand and supply over three more dry years, thereby gaining exemptions from the conservation standards imposed 10 months ago by the State Water Resources Control Board. In addition to Santa Rosa, the affected municipal systems include Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Sonoma and Valley of the Moon Water District.

Local water suppliers that cannot meet demand will be assigned water-savings targets equal to their shortfall, according to the revised conservation program adopted by the water board on Wednesday.

“It does appear we have an adequate water supply for the next three years,” said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of water resources for Santa Rosa.

If the City Council and Board of Public Utilities concur, the city will seek the state board’s formal approval of an exemption from the conservation mandates imposed in June last year. The most recent standards required a 16 percent reduction in water use by Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Windsor. Valley of the Moon had a 20 percent target, and Sonoma a 28 percent standard.

The orders carried the threat of fines up to $500 a day for property owners who don’t comply, and civil liabilities up to $10,000 a day for suppliers that don’t meet conservation targets.

The state conservation plan covers 411 urban water suppliers but does not set standards for small water agencies, including Cotati, Cloverdale and Sebastopol.

The revised standards are scheduled to take effect in June and remain until the end of January.

If severe drought conditions return, the state could restore the original blanket mandate of 25 percent, the water board said.

“Drought conditions are far from over but have improved enough that we can step back from our unprecedented top-down target setting,” board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a press release.

Sonoma County water managers have maintained for months that the state mandates overlooked differences in water conditions from one end of California to the other.

The Russian River watershed, which supplies water to farms and cities from Ukiah to Marin County, is separate from the vast state water system that depends on the Sierra snowpack and a network of massive reservoirs and canals to move water from Northern California to the arid southland.

“We’re facing a different water situation from Los Angeles right now,” Sherwood said. “We should be evaluated differently from Los Angeles.”

Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg, the region’s largest reservoir, is 99 percent full for this time of year, and smaller Lake Mendocino near Ukiah is at 98 percent of average water storage, the Water Agency said. Rainfall since Oct. 1 in the Santa Rosa Basin totaled 32 inches, 3 inches above average, according to the Water Agency. The Ukiah Basin received 36 inches, less than an inch above average.

The rainfall resulted in “hydrologic conditions in parts of California — particularly Northern California — (that) have markedly improved relative to 2014 and 2015.”

A map generated by the Western Regional Climate Center showed vast stretches of Northern and Central California, including the northern half of Sonoma County, had precipitation of 100 to 130 percent of average from Oct. 1 to May 11. Most of the area from San Luis Obispo County to San Diego County had 25 to 90 percent of normal precipitation.

Dan Muelrath, general manager of the Valley of the Moon district, said local water managers been lobbying for a conservation plan that recognizes regional differences. “Now it seems they are handing it to us,” he said, with state regulators “doing a 180” and trusting local agencies to conserve water appropriately.

Valley of Moon’s board of directors has scheduled a special meeting on Tuesday to rescind the mandatory conservation standards.

Santa Rosa will maintain the other aspects of its water conservation program, including rebates for water-saving devices, and will “continue to ask our customers to keep up their efficient water use behavior,” Burke said.

“Drought or not, we still want to see everyone use water wisely,” Sherwood said.

The state water board retained prohibitions against cleaning sidewalks with a hose, instead of a broom or brush, and overwatering landscaping to the point water runs over a sidewalk and into a gutter. Also extended were rules requiring restaurants to serve water only on request and giving hotel and motel customers the option to keep sheets and towels from laundering.

Under the mandatory conservation program from last June through March, the state has saved 1.3 million acre feet of water, enough to supply 6.5 million people with water for a year, the water board said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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