California Ends Unprecedented Water Restrictions As Drought Eases

California suspended its mandatory water restrictions on Wednesday, marking a major shift in the state’s water policy. The State Water Resources Control Board in California voted to lift the tough emergency conservation mandates in light of easing drought conditions.

Originally implemented to combat one of the worst droughts in history, the statewide mandates reduced urban water usage by 25 percent and by as much as 36 percent in some local communities, often resulting in unprecedented fines for citizens. Now, state regulators have decided to end them in light of a relatively wet winter filled with rain and snow, in combination with drastically reduced water use that alleviated drought conditions. According to the Washington Post, the decision was reached as part of a compromise.

“The decision, called a ‘compromise’ by the board’s chair, lifts a conservation order put in place last year that required at least a 20 percent savings in water. California’s five-year drought has sucked reservoirs dry and browned yards across the state, forcing cities and towns to cut water usage or else.”

El Niño-driven storms have partially refilled northern California’s reservoirs and, perhaps even more importantly, helped to replenish the mountain snowpacks; a critical supply of water during the spring and summer months. Now, the board will allow water providers in urban areas to set their own water reduction targets. Those districts can base their conservation goals on current local water supplies and weather conditions. Beginning next month, local water districts with a total population of over 4o million will report their goals to the state.

“Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in a prepared statement quoted by the Post. “But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.”

Governor Brown issued an executive order last April to conserve water, and Californians responded by dutifully reducing their use of potable water by approximately 24 percent compared with levels measured in 2013. State officials who approved the change have said the objective of lifting the restrictions is not to encourage communities to abandon their recent successes in water conservation, but rather to get rid of drastic regulations no longer needed in light of the increased water supply. Many of the 411 water agencies across the state are already doing this, according to SFGate.

“The East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Bay Area’s largest water retailer, decided last month to stop penalizing households that use more than 1,000 gallons per day, essentially making reductions voluntary and halting what amounted to some of the state’s stiffest fines for guzzlers. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which serves the city and 26 other communities, is considering dropping its mandatory 25 percent water cut for irrigation accounts like golf courses and office parks.”

Not all agreed with the decision to roll back water restrictions, however. Environmental activists questioned if the restrictions were coming off too fast while the drought was still ongoing.

“California’s water challenges are immense and extend far beyond the current drought,” a letter from the California Coastkeeper Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Pacific Institute said, according to BuzzFeed. “We have made tremendous strides toward making conservation a way of life in California and must build on this success to secure the sustainability and reliability of California’s water resources.”

The decision comes only a week after Governor Brown issued an executive order for longer-term water conversation measures, including the ability of the State Water Resources Control Board to establish new restrictions for 2017 should the drought continue, and banning “wasteful practices” like spraying down sidewalks and driveways or overwatering plants.

[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]