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California turns attention to conservation stragglers after big savings by some agencies

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SACRAMENTO, California — California residents heeded the call to turn off sprinklers in the first month of mandated water conservation, leading to a 27 percent plunge in June.

Nearly two-thirds of the 411 local agencies in the state hit or nearly reached savings targets, according to data released Thursday by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Now it's time to get stragglers in line.

In the coming weeks, state regulators will review the conservation programs of communities missing their marks and will draft intervention plans for the worst performers.

They have the power to levy big penalties but stress that fines don't create water in the fourth year of drought.

"Our first goal is to sit down and say what's up. We'll save the really big fines for the most egregious cases," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the water board.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent statewide reduction in urban water use compared to 2013. Communities have nine months to hit assigned conservation targets between 4 and 36 percent.

Some that are falling short welcomed the state's help and said it won't have to pry the hoses out of their cold, wet hands.

PHOTO: FILE -- In this July 9, 2014 file photo a woman works among drought-tolerant plants in her front yard in San Diego. Water use in San Diego plunged 24 percent in June well past it's target of 16 percent. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, file)
FILE -- In this July 9, 2014 file photo a woman works among drought-tolerant plants in her front yard in San Diego. Water use in San Diego plunged 24 percent in June well past it's target of 16 percent. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, file)

"We're doing the best we can. I'm not sure what else we can do," said Hanford Public Works Director Lou Camara, whose city fell 18 percentage points short of its 28 percent savings goal.

Hanford, a Central Valley community of 57,000 people, limits lawn watering to twice a week, as the state recommends, and has issued dozens of penalties for water waste. Trees at parks and schools have died because of reduced watering. A newly hired water officer begins night patrols next week.

Max Gomberg, a scientist with the water board, said the state reviews will assess the extent of water use restrictions, budgets for conservation programs, grass removal rebates, and the number of water waste inspectors.

Before issuing fines, the board may order communities to conduct an audit of water delivery systems for leaks, place additional limits on watering lawns, or take other measures.

The 16 agencies that could face state-mandated conservation measures serve 1 million Californians. The agencies doing well, including San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco, serve 27 million.

Summer is the peak water use season, but some communities want more time to test new conservation measures.

The Coachella Valley Water District, serving wealthy desert communities, imposed drought penalties on water bills in July to dissuade high consumption. It says its customers have ripped out nearly 3 million square feet of grass to make way for drought-tolerant landscaping.

Meanwhile, California's separate effort to reduce the number of farmers diverting water from rivers and streams for crops is facing court challenges.

A Sacramento County judge indicated at a Thursday hearing that she would side with the state's new approach to warning of insufficient supplies after she ruled that earlier notices violated farmers' rights.


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