By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California communities where a wet winter has filled reservoirs and begun ameliorating the state's catastrophic four-year drought begged water regulators on Wednesday to reduce or eliminate emergency conservation measures imposed last year.
Facing pushback from aggravated consumers under the ongoing rules, water utilities say they will have little credibility asking for conservation when the next drought hits if they must continue to order residents to cut back water use by up to 36 percent.
"By any measure, there isn't any emergency left," said Robert Roscoe, general manager of the Sacramento Suburban Water District.
The State Water Resources Control Board, which took testimony at a workshop on Wednesday, will decide next month whether to modify the rules, which have led to dry lawns and empty swimming pools as residents aimed to conserve.
Ordered by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown last April, the state's first-ever mandatory conservation rules led Californians to save 1.2 million acre-feet of water from June to February, enough to supply nearly 6 million people for a year.
The rules for residents and businesses came amid drought that forced farmers to fallow land and prompted the state to truck young salmon downstream after rivers ran dry.
But wet weather propelled by the El Nino ocean warming phenomenon filled many reservoirs, packed the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range with snow and began to replenish parched aquifirs.
So much rain fell in the northern part of the state that reservoir managers began releasing water downstream to avoid flooding. And consumers began to complain that it was unfair to continue demanding dramatic cutbacks in water use or imposing drought surcharges on their water bills.
At least one water district, serving part of suburban Sacramento, has unilaterally dropped the regulations, even though legally they remain in effect statewide.
"Our board decided to take action and provide some relief to our customers," Keith Durkin, assistant general manager of the San Juan Water District, said in an interview. "It's very hard to maintain your credibility when you see the lake spilling for flood control purposes."
On Wednesday, a coalition of water districts throughout the state proposed easing the regulations in favor of a plan that recognizes that some communities may have plentiful supplies even during periods of little rainfall.
Water districts in the drier southern part of the state also asked for relief, saying investments in underground storage and desalination plants had increased their supplies.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alan Crosby)