Gov. Jerry Brown declares California drought over, but urges conservation

James Black of Grants Pass, Oregon, left and Rhonda Santos take in a day of swimming with their dog Echo on the dry lakebed of Lake Mendocino in Ukiah, Wednesday Aug. 14, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013


Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California’s historic drought Friday, lifting emergency orders that forced residents to make dramatic efforts to reduce water consumption during the state’s driest four-year period on record.

But in an era of climate extremes and heightened awareness of water scarcity, bans on wasteful practices and mandatory urban water use reporting will remain permanently in place as California moves forward with plans to conserve water supplies and prepare for inevitable dry periods that test the state’s resilience.

“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” Brown said in a statement Friday. “Conservation must remain a way of life.”

Brown’s announcement came amid the most recent in a series of storms that brought record rainfall and repeated flooding to Sonoma County and made for a deep, moisture-rich snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies many of the state’s reservoirs.

The rain came so regularly and so early this season that most of the waterlogged North Bay and the North Coast, including Sonoma County, were declared drought-free by December. The rest of Northern California was out of the woods by the following month. But state officials say Californians must continue to embrace the principles that allowed them to meet conservation targets that were imposed for the first time in state history under Brown’s 2014 drought emergency declaration. So, while reservoirs around most of the state are brimming, bans against hosing down driveways and sidewalks, irrigating landscaping within 48 hours of rainfall and other water-waste prohibitions will remain in effect.

“No matter what, we’re living in a more volatile system then we have in recent years,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, “and that volatility means we can’t just ride Mother Nature’s record-breaking rains and then record-breaking droughts.”

The regulations against wasting water are contained in the conservation component of the state’s new Water Action Plan, which was ordered by Brown last year and is intended to build on recent successes. The governor’s May 2016 executive order outlined four key plan objectives: wiser water use, elimination of waste, stronger local drought resilience, and improved agricultural water efficiency and drought planning.

“This framework is about converting Californians’ response to the drought into an abiding ethic,” California Department of Water Resources Acting Director Bill Croyle said Friday. “Technically, the drought is over, but this framework extends and expands our dry-year habits. Careful, sparing use of water from backyards to businesses and farm fields will help us endure the next inevitable drought.”

Additionally, 410 urban water agencies around the state will be required to continue monthly reporting of water use and must, under state oversight, develop new indoor and outdoor efficiency standards by the year 2021, based on local climate, demographic and land-use characteristics, state water officials said. Local jurisdictions also will be required to create drought contingency plans that contain specific elements, according to Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager with the State Water Resources Control Board.

“We are going to hold all these local water agencies accountable for their planning and meeting these standards and targets,” Gomberg said, “but to do that is really a collective and collaborative effort.”

Gore, who as a county supervisor serves on the Sonoma County Water Agency board, said the focus for the future must include development, building and landscaping standards based on efficient water use, incentives for water catchment systems that allow for storage of rainfall in wet years, innovative solutions for recharging groundwater basins, and broader reuse of wastewater as a matter of course.

“We just have to understand that even when we have a year like this, where there’s plentiful water, it doesn’t mean that we go back to the old philosophy where we just waste,” he said.

Gore also called on residents to drink from the high-quality water supplied from the Russian River, not bottled water, which is “expensive, wasteful and imported from somewhere else.”

The drought strained native fish that migrate up rivers, killed millions of trees and forced farmers in the nation’s leading agricultural state to rely heavily on groundwater, with some tearing out orchards.

It also dried up wells, forcing hundreds of families in rural areas to drink bottled water and bathe from buckets.

Brown’s January 2014 emergency declaration came after nearly two years of exceptionally dry weather and asked residents to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

A mandatory 25 percent water-saving standard established the following year for urban water users was soon modified to account for pre-drought conservation efforts in different communities, creating tiered water use targets assigned to individuals towns and cities.

Last year, the state water board eliminated conservation benchmarks for water suppliers that could prove they had enough water for their constituents even if there were three more abnormally dry years.

Friday’s action eliminates that “stress test” approach even though the emergency declaration remains in place for Central California counties, including Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne, where depleted groundwater has forced some residents to turn to emergency drinking water supplies. The National Drought Mitigation Center, which operates the U.S. Drought Monitor, still shows moderate drought in four southern counties, including Imperial, some of which are listed as severe, though the emergency declaration has been lifted in those counties.

This story contains information from the Associated Press.