California water cutbacks draw flood of complaints as reservoirs rise

GRANITE BAY, Calif. - Rick Williams stood on his dead front lawn near Sacramento, California, wondering why he still pays a drought surcharge on his water bill and cannot run his sprinklers as often as he needs when a nearby reservoir is so full ...

A visitor walks near the receding waters at Folsom Lake, which is at 17 percent of its capacity, in Folsom, Calif. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/Files


GRANITE BAY, Calif. - Rick Williams stood on his dead front lawn near Sacramento, California, wondering why he still pays a drought surcharge on his water bill and cannot run his sprinklers as often as he needs when a nearby reservoir is so full it could overflow come spring.

    After four years of catastrophic drought and nearly a year of mandatory water conservation measures, Williams is joining a growing chorus of consumers in the wetter parts of the state to call for an end to restrictions they see as overbearing. Their argument is even winning over some of the water utilities charged with implementing the rules.

    "This whole concept of using less and paying more is a very hard pill to swallow," said Williams, who is so angry he is considering running for the board of his local water district. "We have plenty of water."

    Although February was relatively dry this year, it rained so much in parts of California in December and January that engineers began releasing water from Folsom Lake near Williams' Granite Bay home for flood control reasons. March unleashed a series of deluges that filled far bigger reservoirs up to and above their normal levels.


Yet consumers must still meet water conservation requirements or face fines of $500 per violation per day.

State regulators say California's first mandatory conservation orders, which were extended in February to the fall, are necessary until it is clear that wet weather will continue and there will be enough water to last through the summer.

    This conflict shows the complexity of long-term water supply issues in a state with vastly different geographic regions and gets to the heart of why Californians have fought over this resource for decades. It also feeds the distrust many residents already have for government, particularly in areas such as the state's wet northern coast.

"People are just disgusted with the way it doesn't make any sense," said David Hull, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District on the far northern coast. "I don’t have a good answer for them. The answer is because the state told us. And that’s not a good answer to people."



    The battle over water in California dates back more than century. In 1907, William Mulholland began a quest to reroute water from the Sierra Nevada, the highest and longest mountain range in the contiguous United States, culminating in the opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913.

    Mulholland's success set the stage for Los Angeles to grow into the second-largest U.S. metropolis, but it also came at the cost of precious water for farmers and residents to the north.


    Coping with the latest drought, Governor Jerry Brown ordered first-of-their-kind mandates to cut overall water use by 25 percent, with some regions required to trim it by as much as 36 percent. By the end of January, the state was 96 percent of the way toward achieving its goal; numbers from February are not yet available.

As Californians refrained from turning on their spigots, Mother Nature turned on hers over the state this winter. Reservoirs remain full for this time of year along the northern coast, in much of suburban San Francisco, and in parts of the Sacramento Valley.

Because only a portion of the state's watersheds are connected to the massive system of dams and reservoirs that ferry water south, much of the water saved cannot be sold, shipped elsewhere or stored for next year. That makes conservation a hard sell.

"People are just outraged," said Pamela Tobin, board president of the San Juan Water District, which supplies Sacramento's eastern suburbs with water from Folsom Lake and elsewhere. "The lake is filling, but our people are still being told that they need to conserve by 36 percent."

That wariness is exacerbating a distrust of government that has been building for decades, said Thomas Holyoke, a professor who studies water politics at California State University, Fresno.

"When consumers see what appears to be needless government waste, especially when it comes to as precious a resource as water, they immediately see the worst," Holyoke said. "This is the same distrust playing into the Trump and to some degree Bernie Sanders campaigns."

    Several municipalities and water districts have asked the state to reduce conservation targets, including north coast areas that say their supplies are robust.

Even the San Diego County Water Authority, in the drier southern part of the state, has requested relief, and there are signs the message may be getting through. Barraged with complaints after extending the mandates to October, state water regulators have agreed to reconsider some cutbacks next month.


    But if spring rains do not materialize, the wet winter's gains may be lost, said Felicia Marcus, who chairs the State Water Resources Control Board.

    "We're in the better-safe-than-sorry approach," Marcus said. "People need to take the long view."    

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