California water conservation dips in October; savings could get tougher as cool season begins

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FRESNO, California — Californians posted a 22 percent savings in water use in October, marking the first month residents have missed the state's mandatory 25 percent conservation target since enforcement of the cutbacks began in June, officials said Tuesday in Sacramento.

Regulators anticipated the dip because temperatures during the month were seven degrees above the same period two years ago, driving up the watering of yards.

In the months ahead, options for saving water could be harder to find now that the state has entered cooler months when people don't water their yards as much.

Forecasters also predict the coming of an El Nino condition that could drench the state and perhaps make people feel strict conservation isn't necessary.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resource Control Board, warned that it's not time to ease conservation efforts.

"We can't know when the drought will end," she said. "We have to keep saving every drop we can."

Marcus stressed that California is meeting its long-term water conservation target. For the five months since the mandate cutbacks went into effect, residents have saved an average of 27 percent a month. In addition, California has already reached 76 percent of its conservation goal for the period set to end in February.

The water saved so far is enough to last 4.6 million residents — the combined population of San Diego and Sacramento counties — for a year, said Katheryn Landau, an environmental scientist for the state water board.

The mandate to conserve came as California experiences its driest four-year span on record. Gov. Jerry Brown called for the 25 percent reduction compared to the same period of 2013, the year before he declared a drought emergency.

In September, state officials for the first time fined four water suppliers for failing to meet their individual conservation targets. Beverly Hills, Indio, Redlands and the Coachella Valley Water District were each fined $61,000. Continued violations could lead to a cease-and-desist order with potential fines of $10,000 a day.

Brown, uncertain if drought-busting storms are coming this winter, recently extended his executive order preparing the state for a fifth year of drought. It allows emergency conservation to continue through October 2016 if dry conditions persist this January.

He took the action despite forecasters predicting the strong El Nino, an ocean-warming phenomenon that can change weather patterns globally and increase chances of heavy rain and snow pelting California.

So far, below-average rain and snowfall have fallen on the northern Sierra Nevada, while the central Sierra has received above average precipitation, said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

It is too early to know what the wet season will ultimately deliver, he said.

"Every El Nino can be a little different," Shoemaker said. "There is a long way to go in this season."

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