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California Retains Drought Measures, Despite Wet Weather

A snowplow clears snow from the side of Highway 50 near Echo Summit, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Associated Press
A snowplow clears snow from the side of Highway 50 near Echo Summit, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
California Retains Drought Measures, Despite Wet Weather
California Retains Drought Measures, What's This Mean For San Diego County? GUEST:Jeff Stephenson, principal water resource specialist, San Diego County Water Authority

Our top story on midday edition it's too early to say California is out of a drought emergency. That is the decision of the state water resources control Board. The regulators refused to lift the emergency drought regulations on local water agencies despite above average rainfall is snowpacks animals record levels. Many agencies including the Sandeno County water Authority urged the board to end the drought regulations and the best they got was a vow for the group to reconsider the designation after the water your Ensign April. Joining me is Jeff Stephenson principal water resource Specialist. Welcome to the program. Thank you. What case did the 103 make to the state board to try to get them to lift the emergency regulations? Last month in January, our board got the resolution saying that drought conditions in San Diego were over and they pointed to the fact that we have supplies that include the recycled water. We've been able to put water in storage. We took their stress test and we got three years of additional supplies. Then the results were only bolstered by the fact that we have above-average conditions in snowpack and precipitation in Northern California. I read that part of the argument to the board to lift these regulations were that the term emergency needs to mean something. Is right we felt that is a water agency we lose credibility if we declare an emergency and asked people to conserve. People can see that it is snowing and raining and California and in San Diego and when we come back in the future we declare another emergency and look at us like is this really an emergency or not. What is the water authority required to do under the present emergency drought regulations? It hits our member agencies more. We have 20 for agencies that we supply water to. They will report on the water use numbers and there is permanent prohibitions that are in place and we support all of those things. We are in favor those in many water agencies how those in their drought ordinances already and will continue to do those things. So we want to post to those things. We wanted the messaging to be to the public that if it is an emergency, call it in and if it is not you should not be calling an emergency. The U.S. drought Monitor still lists most of San Diego County as in a moderate drought. We spoke with an executive director of the Coast keeper an organization that wants to save the drought restrictions kept in place. It is interesting despite a lot of that we've heard from the regulations they are looking to encourage more growth in San Diego to us we cannot pretend we are disconnected from the rest of the states. So there are still areas in our county that have moderate users in this places were bases are overdrawn. So I do think this approach is appropriate. The U.S. drought Monitor is taking conservative reproach. Why the discrepancy what the water three says we are not in a draw anymore and what the U.S. drought Monitor says quick The drought Monitor is used in the Western United States. We do focus on California they look at things like rainfall in soil moisture and other things that don't apply in San Diego. We get very little of our water supply here locally we have other supplies. We can go without a lot of rainfall and still be fine on our water supply situation we think of drought we think of drought in terms of the we have a supply shortage? The state emergency drought restrictions cause customers to decrease usage and that means the County water authority gets less revenue. How much of an effort to get the state water agency restrictions has to do with increasing revenue? The two are not really connected. Water agencies have fixed costs that they have to cover that includes the pipes your home and the distribution system and by the water from other places. All those costs don't necessarily change if someone uses less water or more water. The infrastructure. Our argument was not that we were losing revenue happening with the what is the culprit the cost of water has to go up as people use less, is out right? Is some instances that will happen. If they sell less water they have to make adjustments in the cost to collect revenue for the maintenance. It is hard to make the case that if Senegal people should use more water, isn't it?. We want businesses to know their here and thinking of coming here or expanding we want them to have a realistic picture of what the water supply situation is and not necessarily be left in what the rest of the state that are in emergency conditions. Elect the board agreed to revisit the drought regulations and may. Do you think they will be lifted then? I think it is too early to tell. It is kind of a wait-and-see. So it is too soon to tell what they will do. For San Diego, we will continue to practice our water use efficiency as we always have. The region is doing a good job and we will continue to do so. I've been speaking with Jeff Stephenson. Thank you.

Water regulators in California on Wednesday extended what are now largely symbolic conservation measures lingering from the drought after the state has seen one of the wettest winters in years.

Regulators decided to retain the measures at least until spring as a precaution against the possible return of dry weather.

Related: KPBS Drought Tracker

"I don't think there's just one way to go," Felicia Marcus, chair off the State Water Resources Control Board, said after several local water districts urged members to lift the regulations. "The better decision is to extend it and see later where we are."

Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen is leading a coalition of lawmakers and water districts that believe it's time for Gov. Jerry Brown to end the emergency and accompanying drought rules — or lose the public's trust.

Related: Coalition Calls For End To California Drought Emergency

"This is an emergency?" Nielsen, who represents an area of Tehama County, asked before the meeting. "It's pretty hard to argue to the public, the citizens of California, that we are now in an emergency."

The current regulations are largely symbolic because roughly 80 percent California water districts say they have ample supplies and aren't requiring residents to cut back on how often they water lawns and flush toilets.

Californians heeded the call to conserve water during the height of the five-year drought. But the weather has dramatically changed, which everybody can see, Nielsen said in a letter to the governor that was also signed by other officials.

Related: Drought Increases Severity Of West Nile Epidemics

State residents used roughly 20 percent less water in December compared to the same time in 2013, the year before the drought emergency was declared, officials reported during the board meeting.

Enough water has been saved since mandatory conservation began in June 2015 to serve nearly one-third of the state's population for a year.

In January, storms drenched the state and filled some reservoirs. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides much of the state's water as it melts in the spring, recently measured at 182 percent of normal.

The rain total in downtown Los Angeles since October — the start of the wet season — has reached 15 ½ inches — far exceeding the normal annual rainfall.

It's unclear whether Brown might lift the drought emergency, independent of any water board actions.

The governor's office referred request for comment on ending the emergency to California Natural Resources Agency spokeswoman Nancy Vogel, who said in an email before the meeting that the state is "not yet declaring an end to the drought."

Some residents in the San Joaquin Valley still survive on bottled water because their wells are depleted, and swings from wet to dry years is only intensifying with climate change, Vogel said.

Brown declared the drought emergency in 2014 during the driest four-year period in California's recorded history.

He later ordered California's nearly 40 million people to cut water use by 25 percent —the first mandate of its kind in the state.

The State Water Resources Control Board relaxed the requirement last year, allowing districts to set their own conservation measures.

Tracy Quinn, a senior water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wants the state to hold onto its restrictions. She says it's unclear what weather spring will bring, let alone next year.

She says water districts aren't always motivated by conservation because their revenue is often tied to how much water they sell to customers.

The healthy snowpack and brimming reservoirs don't tell the whole story, she said, noting that the drought decimated groundwater supplies that will take years to be replenished.

"This is a long game," Quinn said. "Although we have had a welcomed respite from the drought, we don't know whether this is an aberration in an extended drought."