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May 25, 2017

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As California water use rises, some ask: Were limits eased too soon?

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Stuart Palley / The New York Times

A dry side channel of the Tule River near the town center of Porterville, Calif., Oct. 5, 2016. Numerous trees and orchards have been removed or destroyed during the drought. After regulators lifted the mandatory 25 percent statewide cut following a relatively wet winter, water use is up again, a slide in behavior that has stirred concern among state officials and drawn criticism that California abandoned the restrictions too quickly.

EAST PORTERVILLE, Calif. — This state slashed urban water use over 25 percent in the face of a punishing drought last year, exceeding a mandatory order issued by Gov. Jerry Brown and turning California into a model of water conservation. Californians tore out lawns, cut back landscape watering and took shorter showers as they embraced Brown’s call to accommodate what he warned were permanently drier times.

But this year, after regulators lifted the mandatory 25 percent statewide cut following a relatively wet winter, water use is up again, a slide in behavior that has stirred concern among state officials and drawn criticism that California abandoned the restrictions too quickly. In August, water conservation dropped below 18 percent compared with August 2013, the third consecutive month of decline.

“The lifting of the mandatory conservation targets was a big mistake,” said Peter H. Gleick, a founder of the Pacific Institute, a think tank dedicated to water issues. “It sent the wrong message, it stopped the implementation of a growing set of effective urban conservation and efficiency programs, and it took pressure off both utilities and individuals to continue to improve water-use efficiency.”

Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the Water Resources Control Board, said the state could not continue to ask Californians to take emergency measures amid evidence that the situation had eased. Still, she said she was concerned by the rise in water use and warned that the state may reimpose mandatory cuts if conservation continues to decline and California endures another dry winter.

“It’s not clear whether it is an understandable and reasonable relaxation or a turning away from the effort,” she said. “You can see it as people still saving two-thirds of what they were saving in the worst water moment in modern history, or you can worry that people are saving one-third less than last year. It really appears to be a mixed picture.”

“I worry about the slippage,” Marcus said. “But folks are still saving a lot of water without the state giving them a number.”

By any measure, California is confronting a complicated new chapter as it enters the sixth year of a drought that has forced it to balance huge demand for a sparse resource — water — from farmers, residents, municipalities and developers. For one thing, the situation is not as dire as a year ago after a relatively normal rainy season. Some of the most searing symbols of the drought, such as near-empty reservoirs, are harder to find.

The improvement can be seen in and around this Central Valley farming community that became a national symbol of the drought. For nearly two years, Sebastian Mejia, a truck driver who lives here with his wife and four daughters, had to haul buckets of water to his home so his family could take showers, flush the toilet and wash the dishes. No more.

“I just took a shower right now,” Mejia said, standing on his dusty street on the edge of a community where many homes, including his, have temporary water tanks perched on their lawns.

A few miles away at the Drought Resource Center, no one was in line on a recent afternoon to use the temporary showers that were set up last year.

But the drought shows no sign of ending. Meteorologists say it would take five years of normal to heavy rain to replenish depleted groundwater supplies and reservoirs. Last year, after forecasts of a heavy El Niño weather system that would soak the state, California ended up with average rainfall, concentrated in the north.

And a number of environmentalists say this is not a typical cyclical drought that is part of life here but rather the beginning of a more arid era created by global warming.

“We’ve had less than 39 inches of rain in five years in LA County, which is absolutely unprecedented in our history,” said Mark Gold, an environmental professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The timing of the rollback and the mixed message could have severe consequences. The public did their part in responding to the emergency. We are still under emergency conditions.”

Even in places like this community, improvement in the availability of water has been limited.

Elva Beltran, who runs the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, which provides emergency water to families who run out, said that while the pace had slowed, people were still coming in for help.

“I never know from one day to the next when a family is going to come by and say, ‘Mrs. Beltran, we are out of water.'”

In suspending the cutback, the board instructed the state’s 411 water agencies to determine whether conservation measures were necessary in their districts. (By easing the rules, the board was also acting in response to financial problems that some agencies suffered as drops in consumption led to decreased revenue.) The vast majority of districts declared that they did not need to impose rationing, relying on consumers to restrict use on their own.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said he feared that that sent a confusing message to water users, signaling that it was fine to return to old habits when it was not. Marcus agreed that it was a challenging argument to make.

“It’s less easy to message, that’s for sure,” she said.

Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council, said the easing of the rules had come amid evidence that people were recognizing the severity of the situation and changing their habits. And some changes — such as replacing lawns with drought-tolerant plants — produced permanent reductions in water use.

“You had people willing to change their behavior altogether,” she said. “Watering their lawns less often. Taking shorter showers. I think people were making a lot of strides, and conservation was truly becoming a way of life.”

“We had one normal, average precipitation year among five,” she said. “We certainly don’t know what the next few years will bring.”

Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water for about 19 million people, said the state would have undercut its credibility if it had left the rule in place. He said that while conservation was down in his area, the agency had been able to build up its reserves by bringing water down from the north of the state.

“If you tell people it’s an emergency and you had an average water year, people get cynical and say you are only playing with numbers,” he said. “The tension is: Do you continue to push an emergency message when it’s really not an emergency?”

Marcus said she had been encouraged by the way the public had rallied during the worst months of the drought and was confident that people would come through again if conditions grew worse. If not, under the original drought order issued by Brown, the state can reimpose mandatory conservation with 10 days’ notice, though Marcus said the board would probably hold hearings to give the public a chance to comment. “We’re not planning on surprising anyone,” she said.

David Sedlak, a director of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in lifting the rules, the state risked having people return to old habits.

“But we have to balance that risk against the risk of crying wolf,” he said. “If we make the drought restrictions permanent, what do we do the next time the drought becomes severe? There will be no more buttons to push.”

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