Recent storms put California drought emergency in question

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, holds the snowpack workbook from the third manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Calif. State surveyors found March 15 that a record-breaking warm, dry month of February ate away at what had been a well-above normal Sierra Nevada snowpack. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Recent storms that nearly filled Northern California's major reservoirs and created a deep snowpack in the Sierra Nevada have some water districts questioning whether a drought emergency still exists.

Meanwhile, regulators said Tuesday they will soon consider relaxing or even dropping strict conservation orders.

April signals the end to California's rainy season, and the State Water Resources Control Board will then take a look at the snowpack and reservoir levels to decide if it's time to change conservation mandates, said Felicia Marcus, the board's chair.

Until then, she urges residents to keep saving water.

"We want to make changes based on reality, rather than hope," Marcus said. "March is a key month for rainfall."

California is in its fifth year of drought, following the driest four-year period on record in the state.

Governor Jerry Brown last year mandated that residents and businesses cut their water use by 25% compared to 2013. The state water board extended a similar order through much of this year.

Winter started with an above-average snowpack in parts of the Sierra Nevada. In February, however, skies cleared and temperatures soared during a dry spell followed by a downpour in early March that pushed key reservoirs in Northern California above their historical average.

Water flowed over spillway gates on the Folsom Lake Dam near Sacramento for the first time since 2012.

The brimming reservoir and packed ski slopes will inevitably lead residents to grow weary of drought restrictions, said Robert Roscoe, general manager of Sacramento Suburban Water District. The emergency has been a useful tool, but he fears it could be abused.

"We need to save the emergency declaration stuff for the true water emergencies, like last year," Roscoe said. "If the public views the imposition of emergency actions well past when the emergency ended, we lose credibility with the public."

While key reservoirs in Northern California are reaching normal levels, those in Central and Southern California remain low. The statewide snowpack is at 92 percent of normal for this time of year, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Jack Hawks, executive director of the California Water Agency, which represents public utilities that provide 6 million residents with water, said the emergency regulations need to reflect the improving conditions, especially if another round of storms moves over California, as expected early next week.

"If that happens, then the March miracle that everybody was hoping for will have been realized," he said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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