By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California on Tuesday moved to ease water conservation rules for farmers in the northern and central parts of the state, a sign that a wet fall may portend an easing of the state's five-year drought.
The decision to temporarily stop requiring mostly agricultural users from detailing how much they take from key watersheds comes as new data show that conservation among urban Californians was up slightly in September over August.
Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, said she welcomed rain that drenched cities throughout the state in October, but warned that the state's crushing drought was not yet over.
"We'll take every drop we can safely handle," Marcus said. "But just because we're ahead in the early innings doesn't mean that we've won the game."
Storms last month dumped 12 inches (30 cm) of rain on the northern part of the state, making it the second wettest October on record for the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, according to weather data firm Atmospherics Group International. The storms did not bring as much relief to the drier south.
On Tuesday, the state announced that farmers and others who hold rights to water in the massive but fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta and its watersheds will not be required to submit drought-related reports on how much they used in October.
In recent weeks the state has lifted similar orders in other areas, easing a requirement that many farmers felt was burdensome and intrusive.
Water board spokesman Timothy Moran said Tuesday's move affects about 1,000 users, mostly farmers.
Amid a wet winter earlier in 2016, the state had already loosened some conservation requirements for urban communities.
Data released Tuesday showed that residents and businesses conserved a bit more water in September than they had in August, but far less than they had the prior year.
Californians used 18.3 percent less water in September 2016 than the 2013 benchmark, more than the 17.5 percent they saved in August but less than the 26.2 percent conserved in September of 2015.
Most of California has experienced drought conditions since 2012, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a cooperative service involving the federal government and the University of Nebraska.
The water shortage has cost the state's economy billions and led farmers to fallow about a half-million acres in 2014 and 2015, the worst years.
The drought monitor's Oct. 27 report showed a slight easing, with 81 percent of the state in drought last week, compared with 97 percent a year earlier.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alan Crosby)