California water conservation to return to local hands

Eric Graham has fake grass. Across the street, Louie Torres has dead grass. The Irvine neighbors, like most Californians, know lush, green lawns are a distant dream even as the state's long drought eases.

But California's decision Wednesday to return conservation goals to local control has them hoping their bills will get a little more manageable, and their yards a little less ugly.

"It looks terrible," said Torres, 49, as he looked at his brown yard. "I've been trying to save water. They said, 'brown is the new green.'"

Starting next month, hundreds of local water districts will set their own conservation goals after a wet winter eased the five-year drought in some parts of the state. The move lifts a 2015 statewide conservation order that requires at least a 20 percent savings.

Graham said he installed fake grass about three weeks ago after seeing his water bill nearly triple following rate hikes.

Graham said he'd much rather have the local Irvine Ranch Water District, which pushed for the new approach, decide how much water residents can use than the state, and believes local control will save him money.

"I would just hope it would be a better price," said Graham, who owns a cable installation business. "The state never goes, 'hey, we're doing good, here's your money back."

"I don't think the state knows me or my needs or isn't plugged into me at all," he said.

Torres said he hopes to eventually put in artificial turf like Graham to keep his water usage down and cut out the mowing and trimming that a traditional lawn requires.

Local water districts will compare water supply and demand with the assumption that dry conditions will stretch for three years. The districts would then set savings goals through January and report their calculations to the state.

Lee Nguyen, a 64-year-old retiree in Irvine, said she thinks the state should keep track of what local water agencies do to conserve and have penalties for those that fail to comply. But she'd rather see local officials — who have encouraged homeowners to report water waste and offered drought-related education classes — make the final call on how much needs to be conserved.

She has swapped out the grass on her front lawn for local native plants and cactus to cut down on her water use. She's also started catching rainwater for her garden to make the savings run even further — both in water, and on her monthly bill.

"I wash my veggies and I save the water," she said, explaining that she uses it on her plants. "I save water for myself, for all of us, and for the environment."

Her supplier, the Irvine Ranch Water District, led the push for a regional approach. Fiona Sanchez, director of water resources for the district, said she is confident that districts statewide will carefully study their supply and demand.

"If agencies are not taking it seriously, it will be very evident they can't meet their customers' demands," she said.

Some districts might set strict conservation goals for residents and businesses, while others could determine it is time to lift conservation mandates altogether.

Regulators considered the new approach after El Nino storms delivered nearly average amounts of rain and snow this winter in Northern California, filling key reservoirs.

Southern California, however, remains deep in drought.

Landscaper Greg Gritters says local water officials are best suited to manage their supplies.

His clients in Southern California's Coachella Valley have had to choose between keeping their lawns green at the expense of huge water bills or turn down their sprinklers and watch their yard turn brown.

"Either way they're unhappy," Gritters said.


Smith reported from Fresno.