California retains drought measures, despite wet weather

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — 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 — even as another major storm bears down on the state.

"I don't think there's just one way to go," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of 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."

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 water.

The regulations require water districts to make monthly reports on their water use and prohibit residents from wasting water, such as washing sidewalks with a hose and turning on sprinklers after it rains.

Californians heeded the call to conserve water during the height of the five-year drought. But opponents of the regulations say the weather has dramatically changed.

"Here in San Diego County we are not experiencing drought conditions — many areas of the state are not," said Dana Friehauf, water resources manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, which has invested millions of dollars in desalination and water efficiency.

"We're going to continue to encourage people to use water efficiently," she said. "We don't need the drought emergency regulations in place to have folks do that."

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.

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.

Joone Lopez, general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District in Orange County, encouraged the state to leave the regulations in place after they focused the public's attention on conservation.

 The district receives much of its water from the Colorado River, a system that is overdrawn regardless of California's drought, she said.

"People recognize this historic drought was years in the making," Lopez said. "Two months of rain isn't going to get us out."

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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