SAN FRANCISCO – The orange-and-black automated signs lining state highways still warn that California is in severe drought, but Californians this summer are getting a second chance to show whether they can save water without the state ordering them.
After lifting nine months of mandatory state water conservation for families and non-farm businesses, authorities caution that they could impose state limits again as soon as this winter should the state's 39 million people return to water-wasting, drought-oblivious ways.
"We've been clear at a state level we're still in a drought, there's still a need for conservation," Max Gomberg, conservation manager for the state Water Resources Control Board. But "we don't need people to go to extraordinary measures like they did last year."
While an El Nino system brought some rain and snow to Northern California last winter, nearly two-thirds of the state remains in severe drought or worse for a fifth year. But citing the slightly improved precipitation, California by June lifted a 25-percent mandatory conservation order in effect for cities and towns statewide for most of a year.
On Tuesday, the state announced that all but 68 of the 411 larger water districts had gotten out from under the threat of localized conservation orders from the state. The water agencies did that by declaring they had enough water to get by even if the drought lasts another three years.
Environmental groups are skeptical all the water districts have as robust a water supply as they claim, and say lifting of mandatory conservation sends the wrong message to ordinary Californians as the drought persists.
"Moving to zero percent mandatory conservation - it's a confusing message to be sending to California. We're in the midst of the hottest summer on record and fighting raging wildfires," said Tracy Quinn, senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group.
Water agencies, however, say they have built water-conservation into their operations now.
Most water districts had to raise rates last year, which gives consumers an incentive to save, said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies trade group. Most water districts also offered water-saving incentives, such as paying customers to remove thirsty lawns.
What the lifting of mandatory conservation means is that this summer, unlike last, Californians don't have to do things like keep a bucket in the shower to catch water for reuse, the water-industry representative said.
"It is the end of inconvenience, but it is not the end of conservation," Tim Quinn said.
Californians didn't do well the last time someone asked them to voluntarily save water. In 2014, requested by Gov. Jerry Brown to cut water use 20 percent given the drought, Californians managed less than half of that.
Brown made 25 percent conservation mandatory for cities and towns in spring 2015.
This time around, state officials will be happy if Californians manage around 20 percent water savings, compared to the benchmark water-use year of 2013, said Gomberg, the state water official. If people manage just 10 percent conservation or less now, that would be cause for concern for state water officials when they revisit the matter after January, Gomberg said.
In Palm Springs, water-agency spokeswoman Ashley Metzger said Wednesday that local water officials were still pushing hard on conservation programs, including kicking off a new rebate program promoting lawn removing at noon that day.
"Oh, my goodness, yes," Metzger said, when asked if she expected strong demand for the lawn-removal rebates.
Metzger's district, the Desert Water Agency, is now asking customers to keep water use down by 10- to 13 percent, voluntarily, she said.
The Palm Springs message to water users in summer 2016? "We have a strong local supply but there's a still a statewide issue" with water, Metzger said. "I think it's definitely a nuanced message."