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California drought: Stormy El Nino winter has some calling for end to strict water usage restrictions

Following a wet season that featured a super El Niño, which helped alleviate drought conditions across California, some water agencies are looking to lift water restrictions.

In a comment letter dated April 14, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) recommended that the State Water Resources Control Board rescind the statewide emergency regulation in favor of voluntary water use reductions.

"Continuing to ask Californians to sustain heroic water conservation efforts that are disproportionate to actual water supply conditions will undermine the credibility of the Administration and California's public water agencies and may make it much harder to generate the required response should emergency conditions re-emerge in the future," the letter states.

On Wednesday, April 20, the State Water Board held an informational workshop to consider conservation needs for the summer. They also discussed adjustments to the current emergency regulations while looking at available water supply, storage and snowpack.

At the meeting, several water managers said the wet winter has eased drought conditions and the existing conservation measures, such as those requiring a 36 percent reduction, are difficult or unnecessary for customers, according to the ACWA.

California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order in November 2015 authorizing the State Water Board to extend the statewide emergency regulation if drought conditions persist past January 2016. The regulation currently runs through October.

The workshop came several weeks after the State Water Board announced that Californians narrowly missed Brown's historic 25 percent water conservation mandate that went into effect back in June 2015.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Board, said Californians "rose to the occasion" by saving precious water resources in many ways such as taking shorter showers, reducing irrigation and fixing leaks.

"We are in better shape than last year but are still below average in most of California," Marcus said in a statement.

On April 1, 2015, Brown ordered the mandatory water cuts after officials announced the lowest snowpack ever recorded. According to the Department of Water Resources, the statewide snowpack summary was only 5 percent of normal for that date.

This past April 1, the snowpack was 85 percent of normal.

While El Niño did deliver welcome rain and snow, there was a disparity in results across the state, leaving some disappointed. AccuWeather meteorologists said last summer that a scenario could unfold in which the strong El Niño would not be enough to bust the drought.

Parts of northern California experienced above-normal rainfall and water levels at three major reservoirs in northern California, including Folsom Lake, Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta are above the historical average.

However, essential reservoirs in the central and southern part of the state remain below average.

In a blog post, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark said rainfall on the Central Coast was 30-40 percent below normal, while from Santa Barbara on south rainfall was 40-60 percent below normal.

Soon after the state's wet season came to an end, Marcus told the Associated Press it will be difficult creating new regulations for more than 400 water districts because some are recovering from drought better than others.

As the strong El Niño continues to weaken steadily, questions about the development of La Niña are beginning to arise.

AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said a strong La Niña could be "devastating" for California.

"During a moderate to strong La Niña, Southern California can run drier than normal throughout the wet season, leading to more drought conditions," Pastelok previously said.

Not everyone is in favor or relaxing the emergency regulation. Tracy Quinn, a water program policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, wrote a letter saying Californians need to keep conserving water. In the letter, she cited the possibility of La Niña and snowpack levels that remain below average as reasons to keep the restrictions.

"We need to lock in and build upon the savings we have achieved during this epic and unprecedented drought in order to be resilient in the face of future water scarcity," Quinn states.

With California now in its fifth year of drought, the most recent update from the U.S. Drought Monitor says just over 49 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, down from 66 percent one year ago.

Any potential changes to the current regulation will not be made until the May 18 State Water Board meeting, according to an ACWA news article.

Until then, regulators continue to stress the importance of complying with the existing water restrictions.

"We need to keep up our efforts to conserve the water we've gotten," Marcus said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook.