By Ellen Knickmeyer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California will consider lifting a mandatory statewide water conservation order for cities and towns after a rainy, snowy winter eased the state's five-year drought, water officials said Monday.
Members of the state Water Resources Control Board - czars of the state's drought emergency program - will decide May 18 whether to remove the 11-month-old statewide order.
The conservation effort required at least 20 percent water conservation overall by most of the water districts serving California's nearly 40 million people.
Cities and water agencies that can prove they have enough water to get by if the wet winter proves a blip, and drought continues another three years, would be able to get out from under the mandatory conservation.
"This is not a time to start using water like it's 1999 ... this year could simply be a punctuation mark in a mega-drought," warned Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.
Californians had achieved a nearly 25 percent overall cut in water use, saving an amount of water that would supply 17 percent of the state's population for a year. Water districts paid families to rip out water-thirsty lawns and tried name-and-shame techniques for celebrities and others who failed to conserve.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who ordered the conservation in April 2015 at the worst of California's driest four-year stretch in history, made clear Monday that conservation must continue even if the statewide target is lifted.
With climate change, "we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life," Brown said in a statement.
Brown issued an executive order Monday that would make permanent some of the measures adopted to deal with the current drought.
The state's roughly 400 water districts would be required to keep reporting their monthly water use, a requirement laid down last summer.
Water-wasting measures such as letting lawn sprinklers send water streaming into the street, or washing cars in the driveway without a shut-off nozzle on the hose, would be banned permanently, for example.
Brown's order also requires more intensive drought planning by both urban water districts and by farms, and directs state water officials to prepare new water restrictions in case the drought carries into 2017.
Agriculture was exempted from the statewide mandatory cutback order but many rural water districts serving farms saw their water allotments cut.
A strong El Nino brought Northern California winter storms that have filled water reservoirs in that part of the state higher than in most years, and laid down Sierra Nevada snowpack that is vital to the state's year-round water supply.
But nearly 90 percent of California remains in moderate drought or worse. Southern California overall is heading deeper into, not out of, the fifth year of drought, the government's U.S. Drought Monitor said last week.
"We got a reprieve" thanks to El Nino, Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said Monday. With climate change already making California hotter and drier long-term, "We need to use this moment wisely to prepare for the years ahead."