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Drought weary California improves on lagging conservation

SAN FRANCISCO — Drought-ridden Californians have recovered a little of the ground they were losing in terms of water conservation, and water officials said they were pleased overall Tuesday with the latest statewide figures for water use.

The state Water Resources Control Board said urban Californians used 18 percent less water in September than they did for the same month in 2013. That was shortly before Gov. Jerry Brown declared the ongoing drought emergency amid the state's driest four-year stretch on record.

The state lifted mandatory conservation for cities and towns earlier this year, after near-normal rain and snow last season. While California remains under the drought emergency, residents have been backsliding on water conservation since then.

Continuing water savings — while not as big as during the conservation order — show the order served its purpose, water board member Steven Moore said Tuesday.

"It's really changed the culture of the state," Moore said. "Mandatory was a good idea to get things going. And now, things are going."

Tuesday's figures aren't as good as the 26 percent cut in water use for the same time in 2015 under mandatory conservation, which compelled urban Californians to cut their water use by one-fourth.

But the water-savings are better than last month's sagging conservation report, which showed water use shooting up by a third, compared to savings under mandatory conservation.

In all, Californians since summer 2015 have saved enough water to supply 10 million of the state's 39 million people for a year, the state said.

Amid a wet start to California's current rainy season, and some mending of Californians' backsliding ways on conservation, the advice of the state's drought czar: Relax and enjoy the rain. For now.

"Celebrate and be happy about it. These last few years ... I practically kiss each raindrop," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.

Northern California, the site of most main reservoirs, has logged an unusually wet October. San Francisco is ending the month with three times the normal rainfall for the period, and Sacramento, five times, the National Weather Service said.

Currently, just one-fifth of the state — in the south — remains in the most severe category of drought. That compares to nearly half the state at this time last year.

In January, the water board is due to take stock of the state of drought and Californians' conservation. Options then include re-imposing some statewide conservation requirement, if needed, Marcus said.

Many of the state's more than 400 water agencies are urging against a return to conservation orders. Environmental groups say the rising monthly water-use figures show such a return is necessary.

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