Poised to ease California's mandatory drought rules after rebounding rain and snow levels this winter, state water officials on Monday made it clear that -- even where reservoirs are 100 percent full -- no community is likely to get an entirely free pass from conservation targets this summer.
"One average year does not mean that we can forget about saving water," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. "We don't want to let our guard down."
California's urban residents cut water use 23.9 percent from June through February, compared with the same period in 2013, the state board announced Monday. That's just shy of Gov. Jerry Brown's request for 25 percent savings last April when he ordered the water board to impose California's first-ever mandatory statewide drought rules, with fines for cities failing to meet assigned water-saving targets.
California might have hit Brown's 25 percent goal, if not for low levels of water savings in Los Angeles and San Diego in February. The South Coast region of the state, as the water board defines it, cut water use only 6.9 percent in February, compared with the same month in 2013. By comparison, the Bay Area cut use by 18.3 percent and the Sacramento region by 20.7 percent. Statewide, all Californians averaged 12 percent savings in February -- the lowest savings since Brown imposed mandatory restrictions.
Weather is to blame, experts said. It was hotter and drier in Southern California all winter than in the north, as El Niño storms mostly hit the northern part of the state and left the Southland with sunshine, low reservoirs and rainfall at barely half its historic average.
"There was a miserable February," Marcus said. "It was hot, and folks couldn't bear to see everything die so they turned the sprinklers on.
"I definitely would have liked more" savings, she added. "Southern California, because of its sheer size, can drive the percentages."
Nevertheless, California residents saved 1.2 million acre-feet of water during the nine-month period from June to February. That's enough for 6 million people's needs for a year, and it helped reduce the impact of the historic drought as it entered its fourth year.
Most Northern California cities, however, received 90 to 100 percent of their historic average rainfall this past winter. The state's two largest reservoirs, Shasta, near Redding, and Oroville, in Butte County, were 89 percent and 87 percent full on Monday. And the Sierra Nevada snowpack was at 81 percent of its historic average, the best in five years.
Marcus said the state water board will relax mandatory conservation targets on cities, water districts and water companies, with the biggest reductions coming in the north, where it rained and snowed most.
The board's original rules gave water providers targets, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent, depending on how much water they were using per capita. Places like Santa Cruz and Hayward, which has among the lowest per-capita use in California, were given 8 percent targets, while communities like Bakersfield and Beverly Hills, with high per-capita use, were given 36 percent.
Those numbers were eased slightly last month, when the board allowed water providers to reduce targets by up to 8 percent if they had unusually hot weather, high rates of population growth or robust supplies of water from desalination and recycling.
Following a public hearing April 20, the water board will impose softer rules in May, Marcus said.
"Our emergency authority is something we should use judiciously," she said. "We certainly are open to adjusting those tiers for people."
But even areas that have received deluges of water this winter won't get their targets reduced to zero, she said, hinting that 4 percent might be the lowest level of conservation required. An example is the Marin Municipal Water District, where all seven reservoirs are 100 percent full.
"We may have a baseline conservation number that we ask everybody to do to keep the 'We're all in this together' attitude," Marcus said.
That was fine with many Bay Area agencies Monday.
"Our groundwater levels haven't recovered significantly for us to call it all off," said Colleen Valles, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose. The district asked every city and water company in Santa Clara County to cut water use 30 percent last year. That target will be reduced -- although how much is not yet known, Valles said -- when the agency's board makes a final call in late April or early May. It might also allow lawn watering to increase from two days a week to three, she added.
At the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where the largest reservoir, Pardee, is 99 percent full, officials are on a similar schedule and expect to relax the rules, said spokeswoman Andrea Pook. That could include boosting watering days and easing or eliminating drought surcharges and excessive use fines. The district's state target is 16 percent, and from June to February, it achieved 23.6 percent.
"You can't just let go of all this conservation at the drop of a hat," Pook said. "We do need to continue to be mindful of the situation in the context of what happens next year. We need to be prudent."
Even in Marin, where customers were asked to cut 20 percent and met that goal -- an achievement that cost the Marin Municipal Water District $4.4 million in lost water sales last year -- some conservation is expected for this summer, said Libby Pischel, a spokeswoman for the district.
"We have a two-year supply, even when our reservoirs are full," she said. "So we always promote conservation."
At Bay Area garden centers, some people are behaving differently.
"People are talking about the drought less, for sure," said Marlon Nehls, manager of Encinal Nursery in Alameda. "They are buying a little more grass now. But people are still buying a lot of cactus and succulents."
He laughed and added, "A couple more shots of April rain would be nice."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN