Drought-stricken California ponders future of conservation

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(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,file)

Taking a regional approach to saving water in California's drought, state regulators suggest relaxing or dropping conservation orders for El Nino-soaked Northern Californians, while keeping in place strict rules for residents of drier Southern California.

Officials on Monday will launch a discussion about the best approach to saving water as California's drought modestly improves, but clearly hasn't ended as it stretches into a fifth year.

"We're willing to listen to everybody's best ideas," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. "We have to be thoughtful about it."

Strict conservation requirements started last year when Gov. Jerry Brown ordered residents statewide to use 25 percent less water compared to 2013, the year before he declared a drought emergency. To comply, many residents have let their lawns turn brown, flushed toilets less often and taken other measures aimed at saving water.

That mandate was changed later. Californians are now required to use at least 20 percent less water.

Key reservoirs in Northern California are brimming, yet the El Nino storms didn't treat all parts of the state the same. Southern California saw relatively little precipitation, leaving most of its reservoirs low.

By April 1 — typically the end of California's rain and snow season — the state was left with a nearly-average snowpack and few hopes of more significant storms.

Regulators on Monday also plan to release figures showing how well Californians conserved water in February, the ninth and final month of reporting under the governor's 25 percent mandate. Marcus said she couldn't release them ahead of the formal announcement.

"Californians did pretty darn well," she said. "We're grateful for it. We need people to keep saving."