Water & Drought

Sacramento region cut water use by 25 percent in 2016, despite eased state restrictions

Water districts in the Sacramento region cut water use by 25 percent in 2016 compared with 2013 – despite the state’s decision to back away from strict mandatory conservation targets.

“The savings that were actually achieved were pretty astounding,” Amy Talbot, the Sacramento Regional Water Authority’s water efficiency program manager, said Monday.

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

RELATED: After years of drought, Sacramento confronts an old foe: Flood risk

Under Brown’s original order, hot, dry regions such as Sacramento that had a history of high water use had to hit more stringent conservation targets. Most Sacramento water districts were ordered to cut use by more than 30 percent. Many of the districts bristled at the restrictions, saying their water supplies were healthy despite the prolonged drought, because they’d spent decades beefing up planning and infrastructure.

When the state water board relaxed the rules in May, it allowed districts to set conservation targets based on projected shortages. About 80 percent of the state’s urban districts, including every one in the Sacramento region, said their supplies were in good shape and that they could operate without mandatory restrictions. Most local districts issued voluntary conservation targets, and some maintained lawn-watering restrictions.

Last summer, several cities in the Sacramento region saw large spikes in water use. Folsom increased water use by 32 percent 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.

While acknowledging water use spiked in Sacramento compared to the previous summer, Talbot said the region still used far less water than in 2013 – the original benchmark for Brown’s drought order.

With the rules lifted in May, “there’s no way that we would expect to have that same level of savings” compared to 2015, she said.

Water usage in the region grew by 6.7 percent last year compared with 2015, according to data supplied by the authority.

Monday’s announcement from area districts comes as the state water board debates whether to keep the relaxed drought regulations in place as much of the state experiences above-average precipitation for the first time in years. Last week, the board said it was likely to keep the rules for at least a few more months. Despite the promising start to the winter, they said conditions could turn dry again.

The rules adopted last year are scheduled to expire at the end of February. The board is likely to vote Feb. 7.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow