Water & Drought

With standards relaxed, water use on the rise throughout California

Low-water landscape guru Roberta Walker, author of numerous books on drought-proof gardens, transformed this Land Park resident into a water-wise oasis on Wednesday, July 27, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif.
Low-water landscape guru Roberta Walker, author of numerous books on drought-proof gardens, transformed this Land Park resident into a water-wise oasis on Wednesday, July 27, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

Californians continued to backslide on water conservation during the hottest summer on record, worrying regulators and frustrating environmentalists critical of a new policy enacted this spring that allows most urban water districts to avoid mandatory cuts in water use.

On Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that conservation in urban California in August was still below the baseline year of 2013 – but by a far smaller percentage than in August 2015. In August 2015, Californians saved 27 percent compared with 2013. This year, that savings rate fell to less than 18 percent.

Put another way, statewide water consumption rose by about 10 percent in August compared with 2015. It was the third straight month that water usage increased compared with a year earlier.

In total, California’s water use this summer rose by 11 percent from 2015 during the three hottest months of the year, when water use is traditionally highest. All 23 large water agencies in the Sacramento region saw water use increase by even greater amounts.

Water board chair Felicia Marcus said the results are reason for concern as the state enters what could well be a sixth year of drought. But she said it’s not clear that the state’s relaxed conservation standards have backfired.

“It’s a mixed picture,” she said. “We wanted to be candid about the fact that we’re concerned, and we want to know what this means. Still, nearly 18 percent is a lot of water being saved. … You could say, ‘Well done. You’re still saving.’ 

In May, the water board retreated from the mandatory statewide urban conservation program it had adopted in 2015 by order of Gov. Jerry Brown. Last year, more than 400 urban water suppliers were ordered to cut usage by an average of 25 percent compared with 2013.

After a relatively wet spring in Northern California – and months of water districts complaining that the one-size-fits-all approach was unfair and cutting into their revenue – the water board said districts didn’t have to set any conservation standards if they could certify they have enough water to last three dry years. The vast majority of the state’s urban water districts said they could meet that threshold.

Environmentalists say they aren’t surprised by the conservation backslide, given the looser standards. They argue that the water board should have learned its lesson in 2014, when the governor asked for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use and districts were unable to hit the target.

“We know that voluntary (conservation) doesn’t work,” said Tracy Quinn of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said the uptick in use does not mean districts have abandoned conservation efforts.

“It reflects a change in the overall approach and the fact that local communities are emphasizing water supply reliability and efficiency as a way of life, which is different from emergency conservation,” he said in a written statement. “The goals of drought preparedness and efficiency are more important – and more meaningful in the long run – than one-size-fits-all monthly targets set by the state.”

Several cities in the Sacramento region saw large spikes in water use. The city of Folsom increased water use by 32 percent this summer compared to 2015. The Sacramento County Water Agency increased use by 36 percent. The San Juan Water District, which includes Granite Bay and nearby communities, increased use by 48 percent.

Nine of the 25 water districts that saw the largest increases in water use across California are in the Sacramento region: San Juan, the Sacramento County Water Agency, Folsom, Lincoln, Roseville, Citrus Heights, West Sacramento, Elk Grove and the Fair Oaks Water District.

San Juan, Folsom, Fair Oaks and Citrus Heights were also among the 25 districts statewide that used the most water per person in August.

San Juan district General Manager Shauna Lorance said she nonetheless was pleased with the results, noting that customers met a voluntary 10 percent reduction that the board of directors asked for earlier this summer.

“Our customers are still doing what they should be doing,” she said.

Folsom’s water resources director, Marcus Yasutake, said the city isn’t worried that conservation slipped to 7 percent in August, from 31 percent a year earlier. The city turned in strong savings while under the state mandate, he said. But he noted that the rules have changed, permitting cities to use more water if they can prove they have access to adequate supplies.

Forecasters say it’s not yet clear whether the coming winter will ease California’s drought. They say there’s nearly as much chance that California will experience average precipitation as there is for another dry winter akin to 2015 when Brown stood on a patch of bare grass where several feet of Sierra snow should have been and declared a drought emergency.

Marcus, the water board chair, said that in January, once the board has a better sense of the water-supply picture, regulators will revisit the possibility of mandatory rationing.

“We’re prepared to come back if we need to,” she said. “It’s too early to say.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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