(TNS) -- Strict water conservation rules that have been in effect since last June for 990,000 residents of San Jose and neighboring Silicon Valley communities are here to stay.
On Thursday, the state Public Utilities Commission voted 5-0 at a meeting in San Francisco to reject appeals to drought regulations that San Jose Water Co. imposed on its residential customers. The vote also allows the rules to continue for as long as Gov. Jerry Brown's statewide emergency conservation mandates remain in place.
Roughly 1,000 customers of San Jose Water -- a private company that provides 80 percent of San Jose's residents with drinking water, along with Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Campbell and parts of Cupertino -- had appealed the rules last year. They complained that the company's water use limits, which carry surcharges for using more than a set amount of water each month, affect only single-family homes and do not apply to apartment buildings, condominiums or businesses' indoor water use.
A state consumer agency, the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, also appealed last year, saying the rules were "discriminatory, unfair and unreasonable" because they did not place an equal conservation responsibility on commercial and industrial customers.
But the PUC commissioners turned back those arguments.
"There is tremendous job growth going on in the South Bay and Silicon Valley," PUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval said. "There was concern that if they really went further with commercial and industrial cutbacks, at some point you hit job growth."
Brown's order last spring set specific water conservation targets for each city, private water company and water district to meet, based on their per-capita water use. But commissioners noted Thursday that the governor did not specify how each water supplier should meet those targets and that up to 70 percent of San Jose Water's use comes from residential customers.
The company, they noted, has done well conserving. From last June through this January, the company's customers cut water use 32.2 percent, compared with 24.8 percent statewide.
"It really is an impressive record," PUC Commissioner Mike Florio said.
San Jose Water's rules are stricter than drought rules in many other areas. The rules set a goal of 30 percent water savings each month compared with 2013 use.
But rather than allowing each customer to cut 30 percent from their own 2013 consumption, the rules instead averaged out all residential use in 2013 and cut 30 percent from that.
As a result, San Jose Water gives every single-family residence the same monthly allotment of water -- 9 units, or 6,732 gallons, a month in February, March and April, for example -- with surcharges of up to $7.12 a unit for exceeding their limit.
Company officials reiterated Thursday that they believe the system is the fairest way to conserve water because it requires the biggest cutbacks from people with large yards who have been using the most water, while not penalizing people who have been conserving all along and who may already be under the target.
"We are pleased," said San Jose Water spokesman John Tang. "We were confident that we are on the right track, and today's decision affirms that."
Tang said he has no idea how much longer the rules will remain in place. That depends on how much it rains in March and April, he said, and whether the Brown administration lifts or changes its statewide mandatory drought rules.
Critics of the rules, however, said they were disappointed with the PUC's decision.
"It's frustrating. I feel like I don't get a vote," said Will Samson, whose home sits on two acres in Saratoga.
Samson, an engineer who designs medical devices, said he replaced a large section of his lawn with mulch, put in drip irrigation for shrubs, fixed leaky pipes and installed new, efficient sprinkler heads for other landscaping. He cut water use 60 percent, but still has high water bills.
He said some allowances should be made for people with larger yards, since it is in the area's interest to keep trees alive.
"To say everybody gets the same is to say you are going to get the same amount of water if you have concrete over 80 percent of your property, instead of only 5 or 10 percent. That part seems unfair," he said. "But the drought is real. It's a changing world."
Although the Brown administration gave San Jose Water a target of 20 percent, the San Jose City Council and Santa Clara Valley Water District instead pushed for the higher 30 percent target. Water district engineers said it was necessary because the area has been drawing down its groundwater at unsustainably high rates during the drought.
If that continued unchecked, they worried, the region would be at risk of "subsidence," the ground sinking in some places -- as it did generations ago in Santa Clara Valley. That could cause cracked streets and sidewalks, as well as broken gas and water lines, engineers said.
Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said January rains have helped. But with all 10 reservoirs in the county only 43 percent full and the groundwater still stressed, it's likely some conservation rules will continue this summer.
"We're marginally better off than we were a year ago," he said. "But we don't want people to let their guard down and think the worst is over. We hope the worst is over, but we don't know."
©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.