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May 19, 2:37 PM EDT

Californians navigate changing tide of drought rules


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AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

IRVINE, Calif. (AP) -- California's decision to let local entities regulate how much water people use has residents hoping their bills will get a little more manageable and their yards a little less ugly.

Lee Nguyen, a 64-year-old retiree in Irvine, believes she has done her part to help in the five-year drought.

She has swapped out the grass on her front lawn with local native plants and cactus to cut down on water use. She's also started catching rainwater for her garden to stretch the savings even further.

Starting next month, hundreds of local water districts will set their own conservation goals after a wet winter eased the five-year drought in some parts of the state. The move by the state Water Control Board lifts a 2015 statewide conservation order that required at least a 20 percent savings.

Nguyen thinks the state should keep track of what local water agencies do to conserve and have penalties for those that fail to comply. But she'd rather see local officials - who have encouraged homeowners to report water waste and offered drought-related education classes - make the final call on how much needs to be conserved.

Eric Graham has fake grass. Across the street, Louie Torres has dead grass. The Irvine neighbors, like most Californians, know lush, green lawns are a distant dream even as the state's long drought eases.

"It looks terrible," Torres, 49, said as he looked at his brown yard. "I've been trying to save water. They said, 'brown is the new green.'"

Graham said he installed fake grass about three weeks ago after seeing his water bill nearly triple following rate hikes.

Graham said he'd much rather have the Irvine Ranch Water District, which led the push for local control of conservation measures, decide how much water residents can use. He thinks that will save him money.

"I would just hope it would be a better price," said Graham, who owns a cable installation business. "The state never goes, 'hey, we're doing good, here's your money back.'

"I don't think the state knows me or my needs or isn't plugged into me at all."

Torres said he hopes to eventually put in artificial turf to keep his water usage down and cut out the mowing and trimming that a traditional lawn requires.

Under the new conservation system, local water districts will compare water supply and demand with the assumption that dry conditions will stretch for three years. The districts would then set savings goals through January and report their calculations to the state.

Fiona Sanchez, director of water resources for Irvine Ranch Water District, said she is confident that districts statewide will carefully study their supply and demand.

"If agencies are not taking it seriously, it will be very evident they can't meet their customers' demands," she said.

Some districts might set strict conservation goals for residents and businesses, while others could determine it is time to lift conservation mandates altogether.

Regulators considered the new approach after El Nino storms delivered nearly average amounts of rain and snow this winter in Northern California, filling key reservoirs. Southern California, however, remains deep in drought, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 30 percent of normal.

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Smith reported from Fresno.

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