SAN FRANCISCO – California will consider lifting a mandatory statewide water conservation order for cities and towns after a rainy, snowy winter eased the state's five-year drought, water officials said Monday.
But an executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown would make permanent some of the measures adopted to deal with the current drought, including prohibitions against excessive water use while washing cars and watering lawns.
Members of the state Water Resources Control Board — czars of the state's drought emergency program — will decide May 18 whether to remove the 11-month-old statewide order for mandatory water use cuts. The conservation effort required at least 20 percent water conservation overall by most of the water districts serving California's nearly 40 million people.
Cities and water agencies that can prove they have enough water to get by if the wet winter proves a blip, and drought continues another three years, would be able to get out from under a mandatory conservation target. The rest would be required to save enough water to cover that longer-term drought shortfall.
"This is not a time to start using water like it's 1999 ... this year could simply be a punctuation mark in a mega-drought," warned Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.
California residents had achieved a nearly 25 percent overall cut in water use, saving an amount of water that would supply 17 percent of the state's population for a year. Water districts paid families to rip out water-thirsty lawns and tried name-and-shame techniques for celebrities and others who failed to conserve.
But the state has been under pressure from water agencies to relax conservation requirements after snowfall and rain returned to nearly normal in some parts of the state this year.
Brown, who ordered the conservation in April 2015 at the worst of California's driest four-year stretch in history, made clear Monday that conservation must continue even if the statewide target is lifted.
With climate change, "we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life," Brown said in a statement.
The actions by the governor and state water officials "are making permanent the idea that conservation programs are not a drought-only policy," said Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute think-tank on water policy. "Even without a drought emergency, we have to do a better job of monitoring and measuring and managing water. There's just not enough of it anymore for everybody."
Gleick said he was concerned by the state's emphasis now on turning more conservation decisions back to local water districts, saying state water authorities would need to monitor closely to make sure local water agencies were working in the best interests of the state as a whole.
Under Brown's order, the state's roughly 400 water districts would be required to keep reporting their monthly water use, a requirement laid down last summer.
Water-wasting practices, such as letting lawn sprinklers send water streaming into the street or washing cars in the driveway without a shut-off nozzle on the hose, would be banned permanently.
Brown's order also requires more intensive drought planning by both urban water districts and by farms, and directs state water officials to prepare new water restrictions in case the drought carries into 2017.
Agriculture was exempted from the statewide mandatory cutback order but many rural water districts serving farms saw their water allotments cut.
A strong El Nino brought Northern California winter storms that have filled water reservoirs in that part of the state higher than in most years, and laid down Sierra Nevada snowpack that is vital to the state's year-round water supply.
But nearly 90 percent of California remains in moderate drought or worse. Southern California overall is heading deeper into, not out of, the fifth year of drought, the government's U.S. Drought Monitor said last week.
"We got a reprieve" thanks to El Nino, Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said Monday. With climate change already making California hotter and drier long-term, "We need to use this moment wisely to prepare for the years ahead."