Some fear California drought cuts could erase water rights

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Some fear California drought cuts could erase water rights
Some fear California drought cuts could erase water rights

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A proposal to make California’s drought-era water restrictions permanent could allow the state to chip away at long-held water rights in an unprecedented power grab, representatives from water districts and other users told regulators Tuesday.

Members of the state Water Resources Control Board delayed a decision about whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s drought, spanning 2013 to 2017. It comes after U.S. officials declared that nearly half the state, all of it in the south, is back in drought, just months after emerging from it.

Officials from several irrigation and water agencies said the restrictions are reasonable, but not the plan to impose them under the state Constitution’s prohibition on the “waste or unreasonable use” of water. That would create a slippery slope of allowing the board to repeatedly chip away at California’s historic protection of water rights for landowners, they said.

“Erratic individuals can occupy great positions of power in government, and you had better believe they will occupy your chair someday,” said Jackson Minasian, an attorney for Stanford Vina Ranch Irrigation Co. “Their view of what is ‘waste and unreasonable use’ will be radically different than yours.”

The restrictions, punishable by a $500 fine, include prohibitions on watering lawns so much that the water flows into the street, using a hose to wash down sidewalks or using a hose without an automatic shut-off nozzle to wash cars. A final decision is now expected by April 17.

Hotels would have to ask guests if they really need their towels and sheets washed each day. Running an ornamental fountain without a recirculating system would be barred, as would watering outside within 48 hours of a good rain. Another measure would give cities and counties until 2025 to stop watering ordinary street medians.

Restaurants would be allowed to serve water only on request if the governor declares a drought emergency.

Water officials expect neighbors to be responsible for detecting most of the wasteful water use, and they have no plans to add more enforcement officers if the permanent restrictions are adopted. Generally, first-time offenders would get warnings, while repeat offenders risk fines.

California already has a website that allows people to report wasteful water use.

Many of the measures, like the one on hotel towels, are already widely followed and common sense, said Max Gomberg, a state water-conservation official.

“Nothing’s more wasteful than when the rain is falling from the sky and the sprinkler’s on,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown lifted California’s emergency drought status a year ago, after a wet winter. Strict 25 percent conservation orders for cities and towns and other restrictions then were phased out.

Some climate scientists say the drought never fully ended in parts of Southern California. The Los Angeles area has received just a fourth of normal rainfall so far this rainy season.

The winter so far has been the third-driest on record after the year’s wettest three months – December, January and February – produced very little rainfall, said John Leahigh of the California Department of Water Resources.

The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which feeds water supplies, is about 20 percent of normal for this time of year, he said.

“This is a very ugly picture in terms of the water supply management,” Leahigh said.

FILE – In this May 6, 2015, file photo, professional spa remover Juan Alexander empties a spa for permanent removal at a residence in which the owner considered it “a waste of water,” in Garden Grove, Calif. Members of the state Water Resources Control Board are scheduled to decide Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s 2013-2017 drought, and make them permanent. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 14, 2014, file photo, morning traffic makes its way toward downtown Los Angeles along the Hollywood Freeway past an electronic sign warning of severe drought. California water managers will vote on Feb. 20, 2018, whether to reinstate some water restrictions and conservation campaigns and make them permanent, as a year with no almost no rain plunges Southern California back into drought and sends water use there climbing to levels above those of the state’s historic 2013-2017 drought. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
FILE – This Sept. 3, 2015, file photo shows a dried-out lawn at Los Angeles City Hall, with a sign explaining that irrigation has been shut off due to the ongoing drought. California water managers will vote Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, whether to reinstate some water restrictions and conservation campaigns and make them permanent, as a year with no almost no rain plunges Southern California back into drought and sends water use there climbing to levels above those of the state’s historic 2013-2017 drought. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 12, 2016 file photo, a cyclist rides along recently installed temporary flood control walls along the low level L.A. River in Los Angeles. The US Army Corps of Engineers had installed about three miles of temporary barriers along the river through Griffith Park, Atwater Village, and Silver Lake, to increase the amount of water the river can hold during El Nino season. Members of the state Water Resources Control Board are scheduled to decide Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s 2013-2017 drought, and make them permanent. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
In this May 6, 2015, file photo, local resident Martha Mattison, left, helps out her son, Jacob with his dog walking business, as they walk past recently installed synthetic grass, seen at right, in Garden Grove, Calif. California water officials say they will consider dropping a mandate requiring conservation in the state’s fifth year of drought. The State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, will vote on whether to give local water districts control of setting their own conservation targets. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
FILE – In this April 8, 2015, file photo, water runs off from a sprinkler in Mount Olympus, a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles. Members of the state Water Resources Control Board are scheduled to decide Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s 2013-2017 drought, and make them permanent. U.S. drought monitors last week declared that a fifth of the state, all of it in Southern California, is now back in severe drought, just months after the state emerged from that category of drought. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2018, file photo, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, from left, accompanied by Grant Davis, director of the department, and Michelle Mead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, leave the nearly snow barren Phillips Station snow course, after conducting the first snow survey of the season near Echo Summit, Calif. Members of the state Water Resources Control Board are scheduled to decide Tuesday, Feb. 20, whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s 2013-2017 drought, and make them permanent. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
FILE – In this April 8, 2015 file photo, gardeners remove grass plants trimmed ahead of planned watering reductions at the Greystone Mansion and Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Members of the state Water Resources Control Board are scheduled to decide Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, whether to bring back what had been temporary water bans from California’s 2013-2017 drought, and make them permanent. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
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