The Metropolitan Water District, citing the extraordinary March rain and snowfall that raised reservoir levels and doubled the Sierra Nevada snowpack, voted Tuesday to roll back, from 50% to 31%, the overall cuts in deliveries it imposed April 1.
With last week's promise from Gov. Pete Wilson to double the amount of water the MWD could expect from the State Water Project, directors voted without discussion to pass along the additional water to customers in its huge six-county service area. The MWD, through its 27 member agencies, supplies about 60% of the water consumed between Ventura County and the Mexican border.
Now that the agency has more water to sell, it can afford to charge less for it and still cover its costs for the year. Directors on Tuesday also approved rolling back a planned 24% rate hike to 12.7%. The increase will go into effect June 1.
While most consumers are likely to feel some easing of conservation restrictions as a result of the directors' near-unanimous vote, the greatest relief will be felt by the region's agricultural interests.
Under the MWD's plan scrapped Tuesday, water supplies to agricultural interests were to be cut by 90% and to municipal users by 30%--for an overall 50% reduction. Under the new plan, agricultural cuts will be rolled back to 50%, and municipal users to 20%--for an overall 31% reduction.
Representatives of most cities and water agencies supplied by the MWD reacted gratefully to Tuesday's action, and many said they will either relax existing rationing programs or at the very least abandon plans to order greater water cutbacks.
Other sorts of water restrictions--on lawn watering and hosing of driveways, for instance--are likely to remain in effect indefinitely, officials said.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials said that because of the changing supply they will reconsider "appropriate mandatory conservation levels," when the board of commissioners meets Thursday.
In Santa Monica, where residents were required to cut usage 25% below 1990 levels beginning just last week, officials have decided to roll back their rationing level to 20%.
Many water agencies and cities served by the MWD--like Burbank--had anticipated the board's action and had postponed harsh rationing programs, anticipating that they would be receiving more water from the giant wholesaler.
"When they went to a 30% cut (for municipal users), we started preparing plans to follow that with a tougher cut of our own," said Ron Stassi, general manager of the Burbank Public Services Department. "But then there were so many good things happening--including all the rainstorms, and the rumors of the state giving Met a greater allocation--that we put it on hold until we could get a better fix on the situation."
As a result, Stassi said, there will now be no change in Burbank's current program, which has required a 20% cut in residential water use since February.
City officials in Simi Valley and Camarillo, which last month adjusted their water rates to reflect MWD's 30% municipal cutbacks, said they will readjust their rates according to the district's changes. Two private water agencies that are also supplied by MWD and serve more than 23,000 residents of Thousand Oaks will do the same, officials said.
At least one Southland water official declared himself "honestly surprised that Met backed off" and expressed concern that the action might dim consumers' interest in conserving water.
"It was strange to see Metropolitan yell wolf and then, just because it rained for one month, act sort of like we may be out of the woods," said Ed Biederman, general manager of the Walnut Valley Water District, which has required a 30% reduction from 1990 levels and will now scale that back to 20%.
Other experts cautioned cities against a too-hasty retreat from rationing programs, noting that residents might get the impression that the need to use water wisely has passed.
"I think the overall message is we still need to conserve," said Diana Leach, assistant general manager of the Chino Basin Municipal Water District in San Bernardino County. "With these kinds of programs, once the momentum gets going, you want to be careful about hurting it by sending the wrong message."
In Orange County, local water district officials hailed the MWD's decision but cautioned that conservation efforts already in place will continue apace.
Peer Swan, president of the Irvine Ranch Water District, said his board will still implement a tiered pricing structure that discourages high water use, beginning May 1. "I'm glad there's an easing of the water situation," Swan said, "but we want there to be conservation all the time, whether there's a drought or not."
In Fullerton, where about a third of the water is supplied by the MWD, Water System Engineer Larry Sears said the city will still go ahead with specified hours for watering lawns and a ban on washing down driveways.