It might be the regulatory version of “Are we there yet?”
Even as local water officials are telling customers to use less water during California’s worst drought in more than 1,000 years, they are also asking state regulators when they can stop telling people to save so much water.
The concerns are spelled out in a Sept. 18 letter  to members of the State Water Resources Control Board that was signed by 10 local water agencies, including the city of San Diego and the San Diego County Water Authority.
The current emergency restrictions were imposed at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown. He called for urban water users to reduce their demand by an average of 25 percent. The fight now is over what happens after those regulations expire in February.
Local water agencies are keen to know if Californians can quit saving so much water if “more normal” rainfall and snowfall return. The problem is that rain and snow may become more erratic because of climate change. In other words, the drastic conditions might be more normal than anomaly.
“While the evidence strongly suggests changing climate conditions, that shouldn’t mean current statewide emergency conditions are the new normal by which policy is set,” said Mike Lee, a spokesman for the County Water Authority.
State regulators take a different view. Max Gomberg, the state water board’s climate and conservation manager, said there is no “normal” or “new normal.”
“This idea there ever was a ‘normal’ is inaccurate – I don’t even like the term ‘new normal,’ because you still have the term ‘normal’ in there,” Gomberg said. “What ‘normal’ means for California is wide variability.”
While this year’s El Niño is expected to drench Southern California, it’s unlikely to end the years-long drought.
So, state officials are looking to lock in the water savings seen this summer so Californians don’t backpedal after a rainy season and find themselves unprepared for yet another drought, or even the continuation of the current one. The No. 1 goal in the governor’s 2014 Water Action Plan  is “Make conservation a California way of life.”
But in the view of local water agencies, the state doesn’t have the power to indefinitely mandate water conservation.
Keith Lewinger, a member of the County Water Authority’s board of directors, said there would be a “firestorm” if the state goes that route.
“The state does not have the authority, nor do we think they have the reason, to mandate these permanent types of conservation requirements, it’s just not necessary,” he said.
San Diego wants to have a choice about saving water, in part because it has worked for years to buy itself out of droughts.
The County Water Authority helped build a desalination plant, which makes seawater drinkable, and has secured access to new water supplies from the Colorado River. Those are expensive projects and San Diego officials do not want to have spent all of that money on water that the state can suddenly prevent them from using.
In this view, local agencies across the state should have two choices: Use less water, or spend money to buy or create new water supplies.
“We’re asking people to conserve, and that’s a good thing. And up in Sacramento, we’re saying we support water conservation, we’ll do our part on water conservation – and that’s especially during drought conditions,” Lewinger said. “But during non-drought conditions, don’t tell us we have to conserve. We’ll develop our water supplies and spend our money where we think it’s most good.”
Environmentalist groups have objected to this line of thinking, saying it could leave poorer regions hung out to dry in a drought.
“That takes us down a very dangerous road where water conservation requirements are implemented against communities that have scarce resources,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental group that has participated in discussions about long-term state regulations.
San Diego Coastkeeper has fought the desalination plant and argues that its main purpose is sustaining growth without attempting to reduce overall demand for water.
In theory, new sources of water – particularly desalinated water and recycled water – will eventually allow San Diego agencies to use less water from Northern California and the Colorado River. That will free up water for others in the state to use.
But that’s not happening yet. Even with the desalination plant starting up in coming weeks, the County Water Authority is planning to buy all the water it can from Northern California and the Colorado, in part because it wants to fill up San Vicente Dam, which was emptied during a recent upgrade.
Other local water agencies are questioning what benefit Californians got from saving so much water.
For instance, the city of Sacramento does not get to keep the water it saved this year, said Jim Peifer, the supervising engineer of that city’s water department. Some of the water the city is saving is instead going to farmers or into streams and rivers that run out to the ocean.
“We’re not getting any credit, we’re not able to carry that water over for the city,” he said.
Peifer said the emergency regulations were a quick, blunt instrument to cope with the drought, but any long-term regulations need to be crafted by the Legislature.
“We do need to do better job at using water more efficiently and reducing our demands but I think we do need to do it in a way that is sustainable,” he said.
Gomberg, the state water official, said at the end of the day, saving water during a drought of unpredictable length is insurance against the worst.
“What this all comes down to is the better safe than sorry – why would we sort of want to roll the dice?” he said. “We’re not going to try to save as much as possible even though we don’t we know when the drought is going to end, just because someone invested in local supply?”
But the water agencies’ letter to the state was the “final straw” for Coastkeeper, which provided a copy of the letter to VOSD.
“I do wonder if San Diegans really want to be represented that way in Sacramento on water issues – I really do see people embracing conservation,” Aminzadeh said.