The move marks a retreat from restrictions imposed earlier in the
year which had widely been expected to be tightened further, rather
than eased, and was welcomed in the agricultural community.
"California's agriculture is critical to the world's food supply,"
said assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, who represents part of the San
Joaquin Valley, who had lobbied hard against the restrictions. "An
inability to produce that food would clearly be devastating to
health and human safety not only in California but around the
Citing recent rains, regulators said Tuesday there was enough water
in the state's reservoirs now to partially ease restrictions.
"We were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public
health and safety," Tom Howard, executive director of the state
Water Resources Control Board, said in a conference call with
reporters on Wednesday. "This really had the markings of a historic
The move comes after weeks of intensive lobbying from growers,
lawmakers from agricultural regions and the state's two U.S.
Senators, who said the restrictions, along with the possible
curtailment of water rights for some agricultural and municipal
customers, would harm the state's economy.
The most populous U.S. state is in its third year of a drought that
may still turn out to be one of the worst in its history despite
storms that brought rain and snow last week, leaving some small
communities at risk of running out of drinking water and possibly
forcing farmers to leave fallow a half-million acres of land.
Recent storms dropped nearly a foot of rain in some areas, boosting
reservoir levels and the snowpack that the state relies on for
drinking water in the spring, but still leaving supplies way below
normal for this time of year.
Earlier this month, concern that the state was about to restrict
water supplies to farmers even further swept through the
agricultural community, spurring intensive pushback and a series of
tense meetings with water regulators in the administration of
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
"We are very concerned that if the current proposal as reported to
us is enacted, it will have significant near- and long-term effects
on the California economy and, more importantly, will not achieve
the desired water supply security intended," U.S. Senators Barbara
Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Congressmen Jim Costa and John
Garamendi, all Democrats, wrote in a letter to the water board.
[to top of second column]
CUTBACKS STILL POSSIBLE
Under the new rules announced Tuesday, which Howard said may be
modified again next month, the two massive public water projects
responsible for pumping in the delta will be able to deliver it to
farmers and others, once the state determines that there is enough
flowing to meet the health and sanitation needs of residents.
Scott Shapiro, an attorney specializing in water issues for the
Sacramento firm Downey Brand, said expanding the allowable uses of
tight water supplies was not just important for farmers.
"It's not just for agriculture, because there are other needs that
may be contracted for that go beyond health and safety," Shapiro
said. "It could include other municipal, industrial and agricultural
In addition to allowing more of the water pumped from the delta to
be used for purposes other than meeting health and safety needs, the
state planned to reduce by about a third the amount of water that
the projects were required to leave in the delta as a way of
protecting fish, Howard said during the press briefing.
But he cautioned that the state could still implement severe
cutbacks to the water rights of many users if dry conditions
Environmental groups, long critical of what they say is over-use of
the state's limited water resources for farming in dry areas, did
not immediately respond to the rules change.
Mark Cowin, director water resources for the state, said that fish
and wildlife experts consulted by his department said that
endangered species in the delta would not be harmed by the looser
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
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