Water & Drought

California slips on water conservation


California’s commitment to water conservation in the face of epic drought appears to have waned with the end of summer: Statewide, water use was down 6.7 percent in October compared with the same month in 2013.

That’s well off the double-digit percentage savings state residents registered in the heat of summer – and some areas of the state actually increased usage over the prior year.

Motivated by public service campaigns and financial incentives, residents and businesses statewide reduced water consumption 11.6 percent in August and 10.3 percent in September compared with prior years. Although those months were better, the state as a whole has not come close to reaching the 20 percent target set by Gov. Jerry Brown in his emergency drought declaration in January.

The data were presented Tuesday in Sacramento at a meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water rights and usage. The board in July began requiring water agencies to report usage information to track progress in responding to the severe drought, now entering a fourth year.

“It’s a very perplexing picture,” said board chairwoman Felicia Marcus. “It raises more questions than it answers.”

The South Coast hydrologic region, which encompasses the vast Los Angeles-San Diego metropolitan areas, reduced water consumption only 1.4 percent in October compared with 2013. There’s a lot of variation within that regional average. For example, the city of Los Angeles reduced water use 2.4 percent, but the city of San Diego increased by 2.6 percent.

The result was essentially a flat performance for the South Coast region. This is significant because it accounts for about 56 percent of California’s total urban water demand. Excluding this result, the rest of the state used about 10 percent less water than in October 2013.

“We don’t really have the data to know exactly why we’ve seen a decline,” said Eric Oppenheimer, of the water board’s office of planning, research and performance. “Over time, perhaps the message is getting blurred a little bit and people are just kind of falling back into old ways and not being as diligent with their water conservation as they were during the summer.”

Other regions held steady or continued to make progress. The Sacramento River hydrologic region, for instance, cut water use 18.6 percent in October – the state’s second-best performer. A major contributor was the city of Sacramento, which saw a 20 percent decline. The city of Davis reduced water use 23 percent.

The best-performing region was the North Coast, which reduced water consumption by 22 percent. The San Francisco Bay Area was down 15.5 percent.

Although Southern California cities did not achieve as much conservation in October, most are already well ahead of other areas of the state in reducing total water demand. For example, per capita water consumption in the South Coast region is about 107 gallons per day, vs. 136 in the Sacramento River region.

Part of the issue in Southern California was that there was no rainfall in October, unlike last year, and temperatures were unusually warm. The temperature in San Diego averaged 71.8 degrees for the month, nearly 6 degrees warmer than last year and 5.5 degrees warmer than normal.

Brent Eidson, a spokesman for the city of San Diego, said the heat and lack of rainfall in October were a factor in the increased water demand. In response to the drought, he said, the city on Nov. 1 adopted “drought alert” rules that further restrict landscape watering, including limits on how long sprinklers could operate.

He said, in total, San Diego has cut its water use 20 percent in the past five years. It also recently approved an ambitious project to recycle sewage, designed to serve one-third of the city’s total water demand by 2035.

“The city has been a leader in our region by having adopted permanent water-use restrictions designed to make water-use efficiency a way of life,” Eidson said.

The water board plans to hold a workshop in Los Angeles on Dec. 17 to discuss what more can be done to encourage conservation. One option could be to require more uniform limits on outdoor landscape watering, which accounts for the more than half of urban water use in most communities.

Even with the onset of California’s rainy season, pressure to conserve will continue. DWR officials estimate it will take about 150 percent of average precipitation for California to recover from the drought.

On Monday, the California Department of Water Resources estimated it will be able to deliver just 10 percent of the water called for in contracts held by members of the State Water Project. These members include water agencies in parts of the Bay Area as well as the San Diego and Los Angeles metro areas. The State Water Project, which includes Oroville Reservoir on the Feather River and the California Aqueduct, provides water to about 25 million Californians.

The 10 percent forecast marks an increase over the 5 percent that was delivered this year. But that number could go up or down, as it is merely a forecast and the first one of the season. Rainfall in the coming months will tell the tale. On average, half of California’s precipitation occurs in December through February

The forecast does not directly affect water agencies in the Sacramento metro area, which are served either by their own water rights or by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The latter agency has yet to make its first delivery forecast of the season.

Mark Cowin, DWR director, acknowledged the 10 percent forecast is a hopeful one, given the storms that are finally bringing significant rain and snow to the state this week.

“We will still need to conserve even when we see storms develop,” Cowin said in a statement. “It will take more than a normal winter to make up for three consecutive dry years, and using less water in our homes will keep more in our critically low reservoirs.”

Storms this week have already started to reverse the decline in reservoir storage across the state. But it will take a lot more to fill them up because they are so severely depleted.

Oroville reservoir, for example, holds just 26 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity and, in recent days, nearly reached a new all-time low. Shasta Reservoir, the largest in the state, is at 23 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity. Folsom Reservoir in the Sacramento region is at 29 percent of its 977,000 acre-foot capacity.

“We are still rolling from one brutally dry year to the next,” said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, which represents agencies that rely on the State Water Project. “If the drought doesn’t feel real to you yet, it will in 2015 unless we get a wet winter.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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