Water & Drought

Brown says California’s drought is over. But some restrictions will remain.

Watch five years of April’s Sierra snowpack from space

Entering April 2017, the Sierra snowpack is 164 percent of normal. That’s a big difference from a few years ago – the snowpack was 6 percent of normal in on March 29, 2015. This series of satellite images shows the snow accumulation from space at
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Entering April 2017, the Sierra snowpack is 164 percent of normal. That’s a big difference from a few years ago – the snowpack was 6 percent of normal in on March 29, 2015. This series of satellite images shows the snow accumulation from space at

The drought officially ended in most of California on Friday, but state officials vowed to clamp down on wasteful water use and impose a long-term conservation program that could create friction with urban water users.

Following a deluge of wet weather that left reservoirs brimming and the Sierra snowpack bulging, Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to a drought that brought California some of the driest periods in recorded history.

But the governor warned the state’s groundwater supplies remain perilously low in some areas, and the state will continue to forbid Californians from hosing off sidewalks, watering their lawns during or immediately after rainfalls, and other wasteful practices. Municipalities will have to keep reporting their monthly water usage. With climate change threatening to make future droughts worse, Brown and others called on Californians to remain cautious about water usage.

“The next drought could be around the corner,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

Dry weather began in earnest in early 2012. It wasn’t until January 2014, with conditions worsening, that Brown declared a state of emergency and the drought officially began. Friday’s decision rescinds that declaration, as well as most drought-related executive orders he issued when the drought reached its zenith in 2015.

Brown lifted the drought order in every county except Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne, where the governor said emergency drinking water projects will continue to help communities where wells have gone dry. The state will also continue fighting the bark beetle outbreak that has killed millions of trees weakened by drought.

In practical terms, the lifting of the drought order will have little effect on most Californians. After imposing mandatory cutbacks of an average of 25 percent in 2015, the state went to a more relaxed system last spring that imposed no restrictions on urban water agencies that could show they had at least three years’ worth of water in reserve. The vast majority of urban agencies passed that test.

Local officials had pushed Brown to end the restrictions altogether, saying it was getting increasingly difficult to preach conservation as the rains pounded. Brown held off for months, however, and state officials said they were heartened that Californians by and large kept conserving water over the past year, even with the stiff mandatory curbs out of the way.

“We … have learned how much less we can use,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Even with Friday’s decision, California isn’t getting out of the conservation business. In response to an earlier order from Brown, five state agencies unveiled a long-range plan to rein in water use, called “Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life.” Among other things, the plan will require all 410 urban agencies to meet new targets, based on their local climates, land-use characteristics and other factors. The urban agencies would set the targets themselves, based on parameters set by the state.

State officials called it a more nuanced, flexible approach than the mandatory regime that took effect in 2015, which brought howls of protests from greater Sacramento and other inland communities where the summers are hottest and water usage is highest. Many Sacramento-area water agencies had to cut water usage by 36 percent, well above the state average, while those regulations were in place.

Although details haven’t been worked out, the new rules will avoid “tough time emergency” cutbacks in favor of “reasonable targets,” Marcus said. “I wouldn’t call any of it onerous. It’s going to be sensible.” The municipal agencies will have until 2025 to comply with the new targets, and will have considerable leeway on how to meet them, she said.

Some local officials were quick to criticize the new system. John Woodling of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, which represents the city of Sacramento and 20 other agencies, said the plan will give the state “permanent, unchecked control over local water management decisions.”

Woodling said he fears the state will seek to “drive that (consumption) numbers downward” in a way that will hurt the economy and residents’ quality of life.

Brown’s declaration was widely anticipated. Precipitation in the northern Sierra is twice the historical average and on the brink of setting a record. The Sierra snowpack is 61 percent above average, with more rain and snow coming over the next few days. Major reservoirs such as Shasta Lake are nearly full. San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, which was so empty last summer that algae blooms showed up in Silicon Valley’s water supply, is 98 percent full.

“It’s been pretty clear to anybody looking out the window the last few months that at least the emergency, if not the drought, has been over,” Woodling said.

But significant problems remain, notably the diminished groundwater aquifers in portions of the Central Valley. Farmers pumped groundwater relentlessly during the worst of the drought, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, even as they idled hundreds of thousands of acres because of water shortages. The Legislature in 2014 approved the state’s first-ever law regulating groundwater pumping, but it doesn’t begin to take effect until 2020.

“Our groundwater supplies have been decimated during the drought and we know it will take several years, if not longer, to replenish what we’ve lost,” said Tracy Quinn of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In some places we know we’ve lost the (storage) capacity of some of those aquifers, we’ve lost it for good.”

Still, Quinn said there was no question that California’s water situation has improved with the rainy winter.

“Clearly our surface supplies are in a much better place than they have been in the last five years,” she said. “We need to be cautious going forward, and not roll back on the achievements we’ve made in reducing our water use.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler