The drought might not be completely done with California, but the state’s residents are now free of the strictest water conservation measures put in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom nearly two years ago.

Standing at a podium in front of a storm-soaked agricultural field in Yolo County on Friday, Newsom stopped short of declaring the end of the punishing three-year drought but said that while he is not rescinding the statewide drought emergency order, he is eliminating many of its provisions.

Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles after signing an executive order rolling back many of the state’s drought restrictions during a news conference at a Yolo County farm on Friday, March 24, 2023. (Gavin Newsom via Bay City News)

“To answer the question ‘Are we out of the drought?’ Mostly but not completely,” Newsom said.

After three months of extremely wet weather that lashed the state with nearly 20 major storms, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is now roughly 228 percent of average and most reservoirs are at or above their historical averages for this time of year.

In response, Newsom signed an executive order eliminating more than 50 of the 81 drought emergency provisions that he enacted in April 2021, including the 15 percent statewide voluntary water conservation goal and the requirement that roughly 450 local water agencies enact their own drought emergency plans.

“We want to eliminate the stress and anxiety around meeting those voluntary mandates,” Newsom said.

While the 15 percent conservation goal was in place, Californians saved roughly 600,000 acre-feet of water, which is enough to supply water to 1.2 million households for a year.

‘Weather whiplash’

At the same time, the governor noted that the state’s climate is changing and “weather whiplash” is resulting in periods of extremely hot and dry conditions followed by periods of extremely wet conditions, which means water conservation is still key to ensuring reliable long-term water supplies.

Also, the Klamath River Basin in far Northern California and the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to millions of Southern California residents, remain mired in drought.

“The conditions have radically changed throughout the state, but not enough in places like Klamath and around the Colorado River Basin to call for the end of the drought in California,” Newsom said.

With that in mind, many of the drought rules will remain in effect, including a provision that requires large institutions and businesses to refrain from watering ornamental lawns, as well as a prohibition on using water to clean sidewalks and driveways.

“The conditions have radically changed throughout the state, but not enough in places like Klamath and around the Colorado River Basin to call for the end of the drought in California.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom

Also, the rules allowing California water managers to more easily release water from reservoirs for the purpose of recharging the state’s severely over-pumped and depleted groundwater basins were not eliminated.

“So this is a good news moment,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, who also attended Friday’s news conference.

“Those storms have brought record amounts of water into our state in the form of rain and snow and that means we are in much better condition with our water supply than we were in the fall,” Crowfoot said.

Crowfoot also announced that the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) on Friday increased the amount of water allocations coming out of the State Water Project from 35 percent of requested supplies — set in February — to 75 percent.

More water for everyone

The allocations will bring an additional 1.7 million acre feet to the 29 public water agencies that draw from the State Water Project to serve 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland in the Bay Area, Central Valley, Northern California and the Central Coast.

DWR will also release water from the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County to any water contractor that has the ability to store it, since that reservoir is now nearly entirely full.

“California continues to experience weather whiplash, going from extreme drought to at least 19 atmospheric rivers since late December,” DWR director Karla Nemeth said in a news release. “It really demonstrates that in times of plenty, we need to move as much water into storage as is feasible.”

In addition to the State Water Project allocation increases, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increased deliveries in February to 75 percent of historical usage, up from just 25 percent last year, from the Central Valley Project, the state’s other water storage and delivery backbone.

Kiley Russell, Bay City News

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.