California regulators on Monday proposed relaxing water conservation targets that have required communities statewide to cut use by 25 percent during historic drought.
Communities in hot inland regions and those using new sources, such as recycled water and recently built desalination plants, could be eligible for reduced conservation requirements, said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board.
The state's overall water conservation target could drop to about 22 percent if all of the 411 eligible water agencies apply for adjustments, he said, adding that the moves come in response to some community leaders who complained that strict conservation targets assigned to individual communities are unfair.
"For right now, drought conditions are persisting," he said. "We're proposing modest changes."
California is in its driest four-year span on record, and officials anticipate a possible fifth year of drought. Weather forecasters say a strong El Nino weather system could drench the state, but one good year won't be enough to rehydrate the parched landscape.
Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year required communities throughout the state to reduce water use by 25 percent. State water regulators set individual targets for local agencies to meet, varying between 4 and 36 percent compared with 2013, but those targets will expire in February.
Brown recently extended his executive order, giving regulators authority to enforce conservation measures through October 2016, if California still faces drought in January.
Local community leaders have criticized the individual targets as unfair and unrealistic. In Southern California, local governments argued state officials should acknowledge huge investments in new supplies to prepare for drought.
This year, the San Diego region completed a $1 billion seawater desalination plant, the largest in the Americas. Orange County recently expanded wastewater recycling to produce 100 million gallons of drinking water daily.
"It has been difficult to tell our ratepayers that their investments in local supply projects have not resulted in providing the buffer against drought as intended," Halla Razak, the city of San Diego's public utilities director, wrote state regulators this month.
Some environmental groups oppose giving local governments credit for new supplies, saying it might discourage conservation.
The state water board will take public comment on the proposed changes for roughly two weeks. Gomberg said the state water board could hold a public hearing Feb. 2.