It's Raining -- Will Californians Still Conserve Water?

Remnants of a storm over San Pablo Bay in late October. (Craig Miller)

Californians ended three months of backsliding in September, using 18.3 percent less water than in September of 2013, according to the state's monthly tally of local suppliers.

State regulators were relieved by the number after monthly urban conservation rates had tumbled steadily month-to-month, from 28.1 percent in May, to 17.5 percent in August. Conservation began to evaporate when the state dropped its system of mandatory savings quotas for local water suppliers.

“Mandatory was a good idea to get things going," said State Water Resources Control Board member Steven Moore, "and now things are going.”

Or, at least in September they were going. October numbers won't be available for about a month, but might show further improvement given the unusually wet month that much of California experienced. Rain often prompts homeowners to turn off their sprinklers, which is now required by state regulations. As part of the drought restrictions that Governor Jerry Brown made permanent last spring, outside irrigation is prohibited either while it's raining or for 48 hours after it stops.

But rain can also have the effect of signaling that the drought is "over," which officials hasten to point out is not the case.

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"I feel like I've spent my life saying, 'Well, we're still in a drought -- just not the drought we were in last year,"' a drought-weary chair Felicia Marcus groaned at Tuesday's meeting of the water board.

October's copious rains might signal otherwise. Many locations in the northern half of the state saw 200-to-400 percent of their normal October precipitation, or even more. Sacramento clocked in at more than 450 percent of average. Mount Shasta City, near Shasta Lake, the state's largest reservoir, registered five times the average for October.

Much of California remains in official drought. The red and dark-red areas indicate "extreme" and "exceptional" drought conditions, respectively.
Much of California remains in official drought. The red and dark-red areas indicate "extreme" and "exceptional" drought conditions, respectively. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Southern California remains stubbornly dry and more than 40 percent of the state is still categorized by federal climatologists as being in "extreme drought." But the extra precipitation up north was a boon to the entire state, if indirectly, as many of the key reservoirs that supply statewide water projects are located in the north.

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But October can be a cruel tease. History shows that a wet start notwithstanding, the "tap" can shut off at any time, and soggy Octobers have often led to disappointingly dry winters, overall.

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