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California Is Still in a Drought, But These Residents Say It's Time to Water the Gardens Again

After four years of devastating drought, some California reservoirs are back to normal, but conservationists warn that it would be a mistake to lift water restrictions.

by Elaisha Stokes
Mar 22 2016, 6:45pm

Cyclist ride along Folsom Lake, when it was at 17 percent of capacity in January, 2014. (Photo by John G. Mabanglo/EPA)

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When Carol Cramer, a retired schoolteacher in Auburn, California, looks out into her backyard, she sees dead brown shrubs. Two years ago her garden flourished with a lush green lawn and the thick foliage of several trees. But conservation measures, mandated by the state last year, meant she had to cut back. She stopped watering the garden. So did her neighbors. Now, when she walks around the neighborhood, all she sees is dead brown lawns.

The city estimates that more than 20 million dollars worth of trees and shrubs have died.

"We're all in the same sandbox," Cramer lamented.

California has been gripped by a four-year-long drought that scientists say is the worst in over a millennium. Despite robust rain and snow amounts this winter, nearly the entire state remains under some level of drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

Governor Jerry Brown responded last year by implementing mandatory conservation measures that went into effect last June. The goal is to reduce the state's water consumption by 25 percent based on 2013 levels of consumption. Reduction targets have been consistently met since the measures were implemented and have been extended through October.

December and January were rainy, and March has brought more precipitation. Some of the state's water reservoirs are now overflowing. Many Californians, who look out their windows and see rain pouring down, are wondering why the conservation measures are still in effect. Some municipalities are now asking the State Water Resources Control Board, which determines water conservation requirements, to relax the measures.

Auburn lies about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento and the seat of Placer County. Between the two cities sits the Folsom Lake — one of the state's 36 large reservoirs. The four-year-long drought left it severely depleted, but heavy rainfall in December raised water levels nearly 29 feet. Today Folsom Lake is at 108 percent of its historic average.

Auburn's mayor Bill Kirby said his town has "plenty of water right now."

"Our restrictions should be released," he said. "It won't impact anyone downstream."

The northern part of California receives substantially more precipitation than the often bone-dry — and heavily populated — southern part.

"The state has a water supply problem, but it's not because of the drought," said Einar Maisch, the general manager of the Placer County Water Agency.

More rain has left residents in some municipalities questioning why overflowing reservoirs haven't brought about an easing of water conservation measures. Maisch said Placer County maintained an ample water supply even during the worst of the drought.

"[O]ur position is that we don't have a drought, and we should not be required to continue to conserve," Maisch said.

Water utilities in the 411 urban water districts across the state are charged with implementing the conservation measures that vary from 8 to 36 percent reductions. Violations include watering driveways or washing automobiles. Most municipalities issue warnings and allow residents to correct their actions before issuing fines. Homeowners who fail to comply can be charged $500 per violation per day. Water agencies that fail to impose the conservation measures can be fined $10,000 a day.

Related: California's Governor Faces Criticism Over Drought-Relief Policies

Peter Gleick, a climate scientist at the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank, said that a single season of rain does not guarantee the drought is over, and argued that the conservation measures are still critical.

"Right now, it's relatively wet only in the sense that the last four years has been incredible dry," he said.

While some of the reservoirs, like Folsom Lake, are indeed above average, water levels across the state remain 20 percent below normal.

"It's been wonderful to see snow on the mountains and water filling reservoirs," Gleik said, "but it's not enough to end the drought. And I don't think people quite appreciate that yet."

Climate change is placing additional stress on California's environment, he said. The last four years have been the driest on record, but they've also been some of the hottest, increasing the rate of evaporation and exacerbating the impact of below-average precipitation.

Californians must fundamentally change their relationship to the resource, said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board.

"I think that the majority of Californians understand that the era of lush green lawns is over," he said.

Back in Auburn, Cramer now carries an umbrella with here on her daily walks around the neighborhood. Her strolls have increasingly coincided with heavy rain.

"It's the first time in a long time that the ground has stayed soggy," she said, adding that it might be time to replant her lawn. "Last year was tough, watching everything die. This year I want bright colors. We're all ready for a fresh start."

Related: We're Changing the Climate at an 'Unprecedented' Rate

Follow Elaisha Stokes on Twitter: @ElaishaStokes

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