After months of flagging water conservation, Californians rebounded in March, cutting their urban consumption by 24.3% compared to the same month in 2013.
The savings percentage, announced Tuesday, was more than double the state's effort in February and offered a strong signal that people in cities and towns remain cognizant of California's drought, despite a year of average rain that fell mostly in Northern California.
The data also appeared to demonstrate that Californians will continue their thrifty water ways even without a mandate to slash usage by 25%.
"This is the most welcome news we've had in a long time," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.
In April 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a historic executive order requiring a 25% statewide reduction in urban water usage to help combat the effects of a multi-year drought. To achieve that savings, the water board assigned hundreds of urban water suppliers "conservation standards," which they were told to meet on a monthly and cumulative basis.
After a strong start to the summer, though, water conservation began to slowly decline. By the fall, some urban water suppliers were struggling to meet their conservation targets and forecasters began predicting that a significant El Niño could bring heavy rain to the parched state.
State regulators subsequently revised the drought regulations, allowing some water suppliers to apply for credits and adjustments that would lower their targets. Those changes took effect for water conservation efforts beginning in March.
Last month, regulators announced that Californians had cumulatively cut their water use by about 23.9% between June and February — narrowly missing Brown's target for the period.
But the March numbers show that residents and businesses "get it," Marcus said Tuesday. The 24.3% savings put the brakes on a seven-month skid; each month from August to February, Californians saw their water-savings percentage decline.
Aided by the new conservation credits and cooler, wetter weather than in March 2013, 71% of suppliers met or came within one percentage point of meeting their conservation target — up from 55% of suppliers in February.
Now that state hydrologists have a better sense of California's rain and snow situation, water board staff members are working on further revisions to the drought rules. Their proposal could be released as early as this week and will be considered by the board on May 18.
"The real trick," Marcus said, "will be getting folks to hold the line."
For more on the California drought and water, follow me on Twitter @ByMattStevens