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California’s new water conservation plan focuses on cities

FRESNO, Calif. — California officials crafting a new conservation plan for the state’s dry future drew criticism from environmentalists on Thursday for failing to require more cutbacks of farmers, who use 80 percent of the water consumed by people.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered up the state plans for improving long-term conservation in May, when he lifted a statewide mandate put in place at the height of California’s drought for 25-percent water conservation by cities and towns.

Ben Chou, a water-policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, criticized state planners for not mandating any new water-savings by farm water districts.

“There’s been a huge difference all along in what urban water districts have been required to do and what ag water districts are required to do” regarding conservation, Chou said.

Under the governor’s order, state agencies this week released the plan for a long-term water diet for California. They anticipate climate change to cause the Sierra Nevada snowpack — one of California’s largest sources of water — to decline by half by the end of the century.

The plan includes creating customized water-use limits for urban water districts, so that arid Palm Springs, for example, would have a different amount of water budgeted than foggy San Francisco. City water districts would have until 2025 to fully set and meet the budgets, and risk state enforcement if they fell short.

Other changes for urban water districts in this week’s proposal include a new focus on fixing leaks that drain away upward of 10 percent of processed water. And cities and towns would be required to draft contingency plans for droughts up to five years, up from the current requirement for a three-year supply of water.

But critics say the plan does little to address California’s $47 billion agricultural industry, which leads the nation, growing nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables produced in the United States.

Diana Brooks, head of water efficiency at the Department of Water Resources, which oversees farm water use, said the proposal would require agricultural water district managers to keep better track of how their water is being used, and better think through possible steps for saving water.

“The idea that agriculture is standing still is absolutely false,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “We know there’s a shared responsibility that we all have to do our part.”

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, one of the agencies involved in the planning, said that rather than dealing with each drought when the crisis hits, California is becoming more efficient at a reasonable pace.

“We’re just trying to be smart for the future … and do it in the fairest way,” Marcus said. “It is a big change in thinking.”

After taking public comment, officials expect to adopt the plan in January.

The current drought encompassed the driest four-year spell in state history, devastating some rural communities and many native species. A rainy fall this year has lifted the north of the state out of drought, but not the agriculture-heavy center and populous south.

New regulations and laws would be required to carry out some of the plan. The proposal leaves many of the details of carrying out conservation proposals to be worked out.

Some water and conservation experts, however, praised the state’s effort to make water conservation a way of life in California, given a changing climate.

Lester Snow, a former top state water regulator who has weathered droughts from the 1970s on, said each drought boosts the state’s water efficiency in some way. A house built today, for example, uses half as much water as a house built in the 1980s.

“This policy change is fundamentally different,” he said. “It’s really recognizing that climate change is upon us.”

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