California struggles to make goals on water conservation efforts

California has saved over 300 billion gallons of water since June, but the weather forecast makes further conservation measures likely through October.

Max Whittaker/Reuters/File
City of Sacramento water conservation representative Steven Upton walks back to his truck after delivering a citation to a Sacramento, California home where sprinklers are running on a mandatory "no watering" day, on Aug. 15, 2014. California may face similar conservation measures this summer.

The glass is half-full for Californians, but they will need to keep saving water if they want it to stay that way.

California's businesses, government, visitors, and homeowners conserved water at a rate of 17.1 percent in January 2016 compared to January 2013, according to a release from the California Water Resources Control Board. 

That's well below the state's target savings of 25 percent per month, and a far cry from the 31 percent savings in July 2015. This made January the least water-conscious month since Gov. Jerry Brown (D) set the water reduction goal in April.

The state's otherwise successful conservation measures mean it could still make the overall target, as the state has conserved 96 percent of its goal of 1.2 million acre-feet of water by the end of February, officials said. 

"Californians have risen to the occasion as never before," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in a news release. "But we have to stay the course. We have to keep it up.”

Ms. Marcus said the state has saved 1.1 million acre-feet of water since June. For the first few months of the water conservation push, the state saved above expectations, with 26.1 percent in September, 27 percent in June and August, and 31 percent in July, according to data from the California water board. Conservation slowed at the four-month mark, however, and as of Thursday, savings had reached a cumulative 24.8 percent.

El Niño rain and cooler winter weather may have driven the drought out of sight and mind, but this winter's rains will not end the long-term water shortage. The state's drought situation currently resembles that of one year ago, with about 40 percent of California experiencing "exceptional drought," according to the US Drought Monitor based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

The next month could help, as the entire West can expect rain in March. Meteorologists with the National Weather Service say the sunny skies of February will give way to storms bearing snow and rain, which may help ease the strain, but the drought itself is unlikely to budge. 

“We’re hoping for every raindrop and every snowflake we can handle," Ms. Marcus said in a media release for California's water board. "We’re hoping for a miracle March and an awesome April. But we can’t know what the next couple months will bring. And a warm and dry February has proved that we can’t count on El Niño to save us."

With that in mind, the California water board approved an extension of the state's water conservation measures through October, with some modifications. The emergency drought measures are morphing into long-term planning, and many Californians are changing their views on water conservation from a stop-gap measure to see them through the dry season, to a "new era," wrote Pete Spotts for The Christian Science Monitor. 

“As late as the early 1980s, which isn’t very long ago in the water world, the belief was that you would just go to the next river,” Jonas Minton, water-policy adviser to the Sacramento-based environmental group, Planning and Conservation League, told the Monitor. "Now we appreciate that there are not more rivers to go to ... So you have to better manage what you have.”

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