Since June of 2015, Sacramento has handed down severe water conservation mandates to city and county water districts, and for the most part, those mandates have been followed. The State Water Resources Control Board announced in June that Californians cut water use by 26 percent in April this year compared with usage rates in April of 2013. Although Southern Californians in urban areas did not do quite as well as their counterparts statewide, cutting water use by only 23 percent this April compared to April of 2013.

In total, however, Californians have cut water use by 24 percent since June of last year, a remarkable achievement that is leading the state water board to cut back its cutback mandates. In May, the State Water Resources Control Board decided to allow hundreds of local water districts to set their own conservation goals, instead of following its strict mandates.

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The policy shift comes after a wet, El Nino-fueled winter that eased drought conditions in many parts of the state. Instead of a mandatory 20 percent water reduction goal, local water districts will set their own savings goals, but with the assumption that the dry conditions will persist for another three years.

The State Water Board could still return to strict conservation mandates if water consumption increases dramatically and the next winter does not bring sufficient rain to alleviate the drought, but some board members hope that empowering local water districts to set their own targets will actually increase conservation.

Some board members and environmentalists are opposed to handing over conservation goals to local water districts. State water board member Tam Dobuc said the decision made her uneasy, especially as California heads into the driest and hottest season of the year. Tracy Quinn, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that much of California remains in severe drought, and it is still too early to start letting up on conservation targets.

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Supporters, on the other hand, say that local water districts are the most suited to set local conservation goals. Each water district will have to show that its conservation plan sets aside enough water to weather at least another three years of drought. If local water districts cannot reliably demonstrate that their plan is viable, Max Gomberg, the board’s climate and conservation manager, says the State Water Board will reject the plan and demand revisions.

Rob Hunter, the general manager of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, issued a prediction that no water district in Orange County will forecast a shortage after more than three years of drought, and so no local district will face mandatory conservation requirements from Sacramento. State officials are adamant that even with the loosening of mandatory conservation requirements, local water districts must still exercise careful management of water use. Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said that the board will be watching local water districts carefully.

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(all data current as of 10/17/2017)

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