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California beats water conservation goal despite hottest June ever

Water use fell by 27% in June, passing the conservation target set by Gov. Jerry Brown during the drought, regulators said Thursday.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Water use fell by 27% in June, passing the conservation target set by Gov. Jerry Brown during the drought, regulators said Thursday.

Data released by the State Water Resources Control Board shows 265 out of 411 local agencies hit or nearly reached savings targets.

Brown previously ordered an overall 25% reduction in urban water use. His administration gave each community nine months to hit assigned conservation targets as high as 36%. Cities that fail to hit those marks could face state-ordered conservation measures and fines.

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California's largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, previously released figures for June showing strong water conservation. The agencies that met or came within 1% of their mandatory water conservation target serve 27 million Californians.

The savings came during the hottest June on record, which would normally lead to an uptick in water use.

June was the month conservation went from a polite request to a demand by the governor to let lawns go brown, take shorter showers and implement other measures. Programs in Southern California offering millions of dollars to residents who rip out lawns have been exhausted.

State regulators assigned conservation targets between 8% and 36%. Water savings are compared to 2013, the year before Brown declared a drought emergency.

Meteorologists say a wet California winter is increasingly likely as a strong El Nino condition builds in the Pacific Ocean, although it's unclear if it will be a drought-buster.

It will need to be a wet one to help California dig out of its drought.

A new NASA study published Thursday concluded that the state has accumulated a "debt" of about 20 inches of precipitation between 2012 and 2015 — the average amount expected to fall in the state in a single year. The deficit was driven primarily by a lack of air currents moving inland from the Pacific Ocean that are rich in water vapor, the study said.

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In an average year, 20% to 50% of California's precipitation comes from relatively few, but extreme events called atmospheric rivers that move from over the Pacific Ocean to the California coast.

"When they say that an atmospheric river makes landfall, it's almost like a hurricane, without the winds. They cause extreme precipitation," said study lead author Andrey Savtchenko at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Savtchenko and his colleagues examined data from 17 years of satellite observations and 36 years of combined observations and model data to understand how precipitation has varied in California since 1979. The results were published Thursday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.