SAN FRANCISCO -- A year after California attacked the drought with an unprecedented water rationing program that drove cities and towns to cut back 24 percent collectively, state officials have changed course and given local agencies the leeway to come up with their own water-saving goals.
But the agencies are not exactly setting a high bar.
The self-set targets, which The San Francisco Chronicle obtained from the individual agencies, come as California water supplies run short of historic norms amid a fifth year of punishing drought.
The new goals -- or lack thereof -- are in stark contrast to the mandatory reductions of up to 36 percent ordered by the state's water board last June, and are worrying water experts who say the agencies can't get loose with the taps just because California enjoyed an El Nino winter that brought near-normal rain and Sierra snow.
``What this means is we're going to use much more water than we need to, and we're going to drain our rivers and reservoirs more than we should,'' said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a water think tank in Oakland, after reviewing the numbers provided by The Chronicle.
``The idea of letting districts set their own voluntary targets is a mistake,'' he said. ``I think the state board is going to have to reconsider this strategy in light of what apparently is a complete abandonment of urban conservation efforts.''
The State Water Resources Control Board changed its conservation policy last month in response to complaints from the local suppliers. The agencies argued they were in a better position to make water decisions than the state, and many of them were losing money because of plunging water sales.
The water board declined to discuss the conservation targets turned in by local agencies until they're reviewed. The deadline for water retailers to submit their savings goals was Wednesday, and state officials say it will be at least a week before they analyze the numbers.
Last year's rationing policy set specific cuts that each supplier had to make, when compared with their water use in 2013, to avoid fines. The agencies were required to reduce deliveries between 8 and 36 percent, depending on how much they had saved in the past.
The new policy takes a different approach, directing the water agencies to cut what's necessary in order to maintain enough water to supply consumers in the event of three dry years. If an agency projects a 10 percent shortfall, for example, it needs to cut back 10 percent.
Of California's 10 largest urban suppliers, which serve more than a quarter of the population, only the San Jose Water Company told the state it expects its supplies to come up short.
It set a conservation target of 2 percent -- still far below the state-imposed 20 percent reduction it previously faced.
The other big agencies, from the massive Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to the giant utilities in San Francisco and the East Bay, reported that they'll be able to keep at least three years' worth of water on hand without conserving any more than in the baseline year of 2013.
In interviews, local officials said the El Nino storms this past winter, while falling shy of expectations, produced enough rain and snow for reservoirs to fill up in excess of the the state's reserve requirement.
The mountain snowpack, which provides a third of California's water, registered close to 90 percent of average at its peak April 1, much better than the 5 percent it logged at the same time last year when the high country was nearly bare.
``Different water districts have different amounts of resiliency,'' said Andrea Pook, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. ``Once we refill, we can manage for a couple years after that.''
The district's reservoirs on the Mokelumne River, in the Sierra foothills southeast of Sacramento, stand at 85 percent of capacity, and officials expect summer snowmelt to soon put them near full.
Officials at some local agencies, like San Diego's utilities department, said their water future has been secured through investments in new supplies, like desalination plants.
The retailers, even as they set low targets, said they would continue encouraging residents to save. State restrictions on such activities as hosing down driveways and over-watering lawns remain in place. Moreover, many Californians have made conservation a habit, with some improving their homes to ensure permanent savings -- replacing lawns with turf and installing high-efficiency toilets.
``When we look at our historic record and what the rebound is after a drought, we know that people's behaviors will stick for a while,'' Pook said.
With the new goals in hand, state officials plan to audit the calculations made by local agencies in ``stress tests,'' and they reserve the right to reject them.
State climatologist Mike Anderson, with the Department of Water Resources, said many water agencies benefited from the wettest winter in five years, but some did not.
``Each locale knows where they're getting their water from and how they're operating their systems,'' he said. ``They have to demonstrate that to the board.''
The new conservation policy, which threatens penalties if suppliers don't hit their self-set targets, is expected to remain in effect until early next year. At that point, the water board plans to come up with a long-term savings plan.
State officials have said that if water supplies become problematic in the meantime, they'll re-evaluate their strategy.
``If we see high increases in water consumption,'' said Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist for the state water board, ``we're likely to go back to something in line with what we had before.''