PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — California Gov. Jerry Brown announced the end of the state’s drought emergency Friday, stressing that water conservation must be a permanent part of life as the state adapts to climate change and prepares for the next drought.
Brown lifted the state of emergency in most of the Golden State after one of its wettest winters on record, which brought heavy snowfall to the Sierra Nevada and refilled reservoirs.
“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” Brown said in a statement. “Conservation must remain a way of life.”
Brown’s executive order lifted the drought emergency in all California counties except Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties — clustered in the southern part of the state's Central Valley — and Tuolumne County, mostly in the mountains north of Yosemite. State officials in those counties have emergency programs to bring drinking water to communities where wells have gone dry.
The California Water Resources Control Board will continue to require cities and water agencies to report monthly on water use and will keep prohibitions in place on water waste, including watering immediately after rain, hosing down sidewalks or watering grass on street medians.
“While we’re waiting to have that ‘drought’s over’ party until after the flood risk season has passed, it’s worth taking a moment just to be grateful for all the rain and snow out there," water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. "This drought has been one for the record books, but it won’t be our last or our longest in the years to come."
The drought lasted five years and was the most severe in California’s modern history. Some researchers concluded that the three years from 2012 to 2014 were the most severe drought in the past 1,200 years.
Brown declared the drought an emergency in January 2014 while standing on bare ground at a snow survey site in the Sierra Nevada.
Groundwater levels declined to record lows in many parts of the state. Wells went dry in places from Central Valley farming towns to mountain communities, and officials estimated that more than 100 million trees died during the drought because of stress and infestations from bark beetles.
State regulators imposed mandatory conservation targets for cities and water agencies in May 2015 and tracked their progress monthly. A year later, state officials amended the drought rules to drop the mandatory water-saving targets, giving water suppliers leeway in calculating their own goals.
This past winter brought torrents of water that swelled rivers, unleashed floods and turned parched hills and valleys bright green.
As of Friday, snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada measured California’s snowpack at 161% of average.
Since June 2015, Californians have responded to drought measures by reducing water use in cities and towns by 22.5% compared to 2013, which has been used as a baseline.
Marcus said Californians "hit it out of the park" with conservation during the drought and noted that water savings have continued even during the wet winter.
"I don’t think people are going to unlearn what they learned about their lawns," Marcus said. "Let’s see how it goes, but I think folks have shown so far this year that they’ll keep up a reasonable level."
Seeking to pivot to larger water challenges that transcend a single drought, state officials also released a plan focusing on long-term water conservation. The plan, titled Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life, was prepared in response to an executive order that Brown signed last year.
The plan calls for setting new community-specific conservation targets. It also includes a variety of goals such as improving water data, tracking businesses' water use, encouraging agencies to fix water leaks and requiring agricultural districts to submit more information about water use.
Water and climate scientists have voiced support for the plan. Environmental groups also have called for a continued focus on saving water and using water more efficiently.
Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, said she’s happy to see the governor and state agencies follow through on commitments to make continued conservation a priority.
“The drastic change we saw from deep drought to flooding underscores the importance of drought preparedness as a climate change resiliency strategy,” Aminzadeh said. “Moving forward, it will be important to ensure that conservation and efficiency measures are applied to all sources of water, including recycled water.”
Climate change is projected to lead to more severe droughts. In the coming decades, global warming is also projected to diminish the snowpack that has long served as a critical reservoir for the state.
Across the mountains of the West, measurements since the 1950s show the average snowpack has been decreasing in most areas as temperatures have risen. Precipitation that used to fall as snow increasingly is falling as rain. And stream gauges have shown earlier spring runoff from snowmelt than in the past.
"The extremes of severe drought followed by floods that we’ve experienced these last few years is what will happen more often as climate change accelerates," Marcus said. "To become more resilient to future droughts, we simply have to become more efficient in how we use water because efficiency savings are the cheapest water out there.”
Some savings are likely to be permanent: Many residents have ripped out their lawns and replaced the grass with desert landscaping.
Laura Feinstein, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., said state officials are doing the right thing by pairing the end-of-drought message with continued calls for conservation.
State officials have been tracking reports of households with dry wells and lack of water. About 2,400 families still have unresolved problems, many of them in the Central Valley.
Challenges remain in farming regions where heavy pumping from wells has been drawing down aquifers for decades.
We need "to keep all the conservation efforts that were put into place over the last five years active, to not lose sight of the bigger goal, which is to do more with the water that we have," Feinstein said.
Follow Ian James on Twitter: @TDSIanJames
The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun