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California's drought is over, but water conservation remains a 'way of life'

California’s drought emergency is over, but reducing water use remains as important as ever as the state recovers from the impacts and prepares for likely future droughts.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California’s historic five-year drought on April 7, lifting most statewide water restrictions.

Brown’s executive order lifts the drought emergency in all California counties except Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne, where emergency drinking water programs will remain in place to help communities that ran short of groundwater supplies.

The executive order keeps in place conservation measures that are designed to make California more resilient against future droughts and promote water conservation as a long-term practice. They include bans on watering lawns within 48 hours of rain, washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose or cities watering grass on road medians using potable water.

“Conservation is a California way of life,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of California’s State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB).


In this photo taken April 10, 2017, birds fly over the Kings River swollen with water from rain and melting snow in the Sierra Nevada near Hanford, California. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

The drought placed a severe strain on both municipal water supplies and agriculture throughout the state. It devastated native fish species, killed millions of trees and forced farmers to rely heavily on groundwater. It also dried up wells, forcing hundreds of families in rural areas to drink bottled water and bathe from buckets.

Brown declared the drought emergency in 2014, and a year later, officials later ordered mandatory conservation for the first time in state history. Regulators last year relaxed the rules after rainfall was close to normal.

In January, the drought was effectively ended when a series of heavily moisture-laden storms known as atmospheric rivers struck the state, delivering heaps of snow and rain.

Mudslides and flooding resulted as California’s reservoirs began to refill and the Sierra Nevada snowpack — which provides a third of the state’s water in the warmer months when it melts — reached 173 percent of its historical average.

“This winter was a super boon to California,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark.

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Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate, he added, which makes water a highly precious commodity.

“When you live in an arid climate, you always have to be cognizant of the fact that these kind of years don’t come all the time,” he said. “We always need to make sure we use water where it needs to be used.”

On May 9, 2016, Brown issued an executive order to establish a long-term framework for water conservation and drought planning. The agencies involved include California Department of Water Resources (DWR), SWRCB, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and California Energy Commission (CEC).

The order has four primary objectives: use water more wisely, eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience and improve agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning.

According to Marcus, the final report was released after Brown lifted the drought emergency.

“With the drought being the wake-up call of wake-up calls, how do we make ourselves more water efficient?” she said. “The report is about the next steps of that process.”

water conservation

This July 2, 2015 photo shows a sign encouraging residents to save water in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

The water action plan, Marcus said, aims to curb “truly wasteful practices” such as watering lawns to the extent that the water runs down the street. In addition, restaurant servers are prohibited from serving water to patrons without asking.

The DWR will update its urban water contingency plan from three to five years and will set targets for a reasonable amount of water use by local water agencies, as well as set a standard for the amount of leakage allowed.

Another major goal of the water conservation plan, Marcus said, is helping homeowners transition their lawns and ornamental landscapes into “ecologically manageable landscapes” that are also aesthetically pleasing. Outdoor landscaping is the single largest use of water in the typical California home, according to the DWR.

Californians made water savings of 24 percent at the high point of the drought, Marcus said, and she is optimistic that the revised conservation plan will continue that momentum.