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California water plan seeks more saving by cities, not farms

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A new conservation master plan for California's dry future for the first time would set custom water budgets for cities based on their climates and other local conditions, but some faulted the proposal Thursday for not ordering more water-savings by farms.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered up the state plans for improving long-term water conservation in May, when he lifted a statewide order for 25-percent water conservation by cities and towns. Brown ordered the 25-percent cuts near the height of California's ongoing five-year drought.

State agencies responded this week with the plan for a long-term water diet for California. It 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.

State officials say they anticipate climate change to cause the Sierra Nevada snowpack — one of California's largest source of water — to decline by half by the end of the century.

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.

Rather than dealing with each drought when the crisis hits, "the question is how do we move toward a more efficient future at a reasonable pace?" said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, one of the agencies involved in the planning.

"We're just trying to be smart for the future...and do it in the fairest way. It is a big change in thinking" from previous drought response, Marcus said.

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, but not the agriculture-heavy center and populous south, out of drought.

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 praised the effort Thursday.

Lester Snow, a former top state water regulator who has weathered droughts from the 1970s on, says that 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, Snow said.

"This policy change is fundamentally different," he said. "It's really recognizing that climate change is upon us."

Ben Chou, a water-policy analyst with the Natural Water Resources Defense Council, criticized state planners for not mandating any new water-savings by farm water districts. Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of all the water used by people in the state.

"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.

Diana Brooks, head of water efficiency at the Department of Water Resources, which oversees farm water use, said the plan's reporting requirements would make agricultural water district managers 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."

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