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California's drought presents big challenges for a desert region built on a lush image. Marilyn Chung, Jay Calderon, Ian James/The Desert Sun

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California's state water board on Tuesday approved emergency drought regulations that aim to slash water use in urban areas by 25 percent.

The measures call for cities and water agencies to reduce water usage by amounts ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent. The State Water Resources Control Board drew up the rules to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's order for a 25-percent cut in urban water use statewide.

It's the first time that California has ever put in place mandatory reductions in water use. The plan reflects just how bleak the state's water picture has become. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada has shrunk to a record low. Groundwater levels have plummeted across much of California, and in some areas of the Central Valley, the wells of hundreds of families have run dry.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the water board, called the cutbacks "a collective issue that we all need to rise to in this time of emergency."

According to the latest figures released by the board, Californians reduced water use by just 3.6 percent in March as compared to the same month in 2013. That was a slight change from a 2.8 percent reduction in February, and significantly less than a 22 percent drop in December and a 7.3 percent reduction in January.

Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist with the state water board, called the new mandatory measures a "desperate times approach."

The state water board will have the authority to issue fines of up to $10,000 against cities or water districts that don't reach their targets and that violate state orders.

State officials, however, said they prefer to work with water districts to help them achieve reductions in water use right away.

"We're going to be engaged with the suppliers from the beginning," Gomberg said during the meeting in Sacramento.

Under the regulations approved by the board on Tuesday night, water agencies will have discretion in determining how they achieve their overall reduction targets. They will be able to choose, for instance, how much of the cutbacks are borne by commercial and industrial customers as well as by domestic customers.

The regulations exclude the vast majority of farms in California. They also don't touch the use of recycled water. But properties such as golf courses that rely on water pumped from private wells are to be required to use 25 percent less water or limit watering to two days a week.

Brown and other state officials have recommended that water districts meet their targets using approaches such as changing prices and enforcing restrictions on watering times.

During Tuesday's meeting, the state water board for the first time released data on the actions that agencies have taken to enforce rules against wasting water, including issuing fines. The board said 290 of the 411 water suppliers provided data on their enforcement during March, and most of them issued 20 or fewer notices for incidents of water waste.

Water agencies reported a total of 10,877 complaints of wasteful water use or violations of drought rules, as well as 8,762 warnings issued and 682 penalties assessed.

Marcus and other state officials said they're focusing on ways to reduce the amounts of water used for lawns and other "ornamental" landscaping outdoors, which accounts for the biggest share of Californians' residential water use. They also are trying to move quickly to put the rules in place before the summer months, when the heaviest outdoor water use typically occurs.

With the extreme drought now in a fourth year in California, Marcus said, the latest measures aim to "ensure urban resilience" if the drought persists for another year or beyond.

In recent weeks, the state has received hundreds of comments from cities, water agencies and others about the measures. Some agencies, such as Mission Springs Water District in the Coachella Valley, have raised concerns that the reductions ordered by the state don't adequately take into account past progress in conserving water.

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There are hundreds of expired U.S. Forest Service permits that allow the removal of water from national forests in California. Jay Calderon

Managers of some water districts reiterated those concerns or called for the state to adjust the regulations to take into account factors such as the hotter climate of inland areas.

While listening to the concerns, Marcus defended the strategy drawn up by the state.

"Put yourself in our shoes as we're looking at a potential multi-year drought and figuring out how to save water," Marcus said.

"The things that people are concerned about today are going to seem like child's play compared to what would happen if we don't save this water now. So, just think about that. Our staff is there to talk with you all, but I think what they've proposed is actually pretty darn rational," Marcus said. "It's not an easy thing to do. But other communities have done it."

The Coachella Valley has long had relatively low water rates and some of the highest levels of per-capita water use in California. Four of the area's six water suppliers fall into the state's tier for the biggest reductions of 36 percent in water use: the Coachella Valley Water District, the city of Indio, Desert Water Agency and Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company.

Two water suppliers with lower average water use, Mission Spring Water District and the city of Coachella, will need to make reductions of 32 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The state is using water usage data from 2013 as a baseline for comparison.

Some of the area's water agencies have argued that the state's stats on per-capita water use are skewed because the calculation method relies on census figures that leave out many seasonal residents.

Katie Ruark of the Desert Water Agency urged the board to allow for agencies to submit some local data in order to properly account for seasonal residents in the Palm Springs area.

"Our population of tourists is very significant. Even more significant is our seasonal residents, and I can assure you, with all due respect, tourists water lawns," Ruark said. "We have a huge, huge vacation rental population, and even more importantly, our snowbirds have their sprinklers running whether they're there or not. So they do matter, and they do need to be counted in our population."

Marcus replied: "But they do need to be regulated, too."

Ruark said DWA has made progress in reducing water use and will put in place the new restrictions.

"Even with these new calculations, it's very likely we'll still be in a high tier. But what we were asking for is an accurate calculation," Ruark told the board. "At DWA about 30 percent of our bills are sent outside our service area, so we know a lot of people are just not in the population number."

Some who spoke at the meeting called for hotter areas to not receive special treatment for higher outdoor water use.

Others emphasized that the targets are achievable. Matt Petersen, chief sustainability officer for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, expressed confidence that "we'll be able to hit these numbers" — a 16 percent reduction for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"Mostly it's going to come from conservation and turf replacement," Petersen said, referring to programs in L.A. and elsewhere that provide cash rebates for each square foot of grass converted to drought-tolerant landscaping.

During a daylong meeting filled with serious talk of the drought woes, there were also light moments as some of the speakers cited quotations from the film "Jerry Maguire" and the humorist Will Rogers. Playing off a well-known quote by Rogers, water rights attorney John Mills said: "This would be a great state to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler."

The board also heard from representatives of landscaping businesses, as well as businesses that build and maintain swimming pools. Keith Harbeck of the California Pool & Spa Association said pools represent an important business, and many jobs, and can be relatively water-efficient compared to lawns and water-intensive landscaping.

"Industries like mine can be part of the solution," Harbeck said.

The state's drought measures, however, don't deal specifically with pools. Any rules barring the filling of pools will be up to the discretion of local water agencies at this stage.

The state board unanimously approved the regulations without any major changes from a proposed version released late last month by the agency's staff.

Before the vote, Marcus said the long drought in Australia showed the importance of acting swiftly to conserve water.

"It is better to prepare now than to face much more painful cuts should it not rain in the fall," she said. "I do get all the fears and the concerns, but I do think this is a moment to rise to an occasion and an all-hands-on-deck kind of a moment."

State officials have described the strategy of requiring cuts in water use as a short-term approach that will yield time while they promote longer-term plans such as recycling more wastewater and investing in new water storage projects.

On top of the drought, California's dire water situation has been compounded by the warmest three-year period on record. Scientists have said that unusual heat provides an indication of how climate change will likely worsen droughts across the arid West in the future.

As the state's reservoirs have been running low during the past few years, deliveries of water to Southern California through the canals and pipelines of the State Water Project have been slashed. Last year, water agencies received just 5 percent of their full allocations. This year, they're expected to receive 20 percent — far below the last high of 80 percent in 2011.

The pumping of water into the State Water Project from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has also been restricted in recent years by protections for fish including endangered Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. Cities and water districts haven't received 100 percent of their water allocations since 2006.

Ian James can be reached by email at ian.james@desertsun.com and on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.

By the numbers

Water waste enforcement actions in the Coachella Valley during March

Coachella Valley Water District

Complaints received: 69

Warnings issued: 70

Penalties assessed: 1

Desert Water Agency

Complaints received: 61

Warnings issued: 41

Penalties assessed: 0

City of Indio

Complaints received: 26

Warnings issued: 26

Penalties assessed: 0

Mission Springs Water District

Complaints received: 5

Warnings issued: 5

Penalties assessed: 0

Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company

Complaints received: 1

Warnings issued: 1

Penalties assessed: 0

City of Coachella

None listed

Source: State Water Resources Control Board

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