Water & Drought

Californians using more water as drought controls ease

Freed from stringent statewide drought controls, Californians have begun using more water.

Urban consumption grew by 8 percent in June compared to a year earlier, according to figures released Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board. June was the first month in which California was operating under significantly relaxed drought regulations, and state regulators said they will monitor conservation going forward. If necessary, they said drought mandates could be reinstated.

Californians still managed to reduce water use by 21.5 percent in June, compared with the 2013 baseline established by the state. But the savings rate was lower than the 27.5 percent reported in June 2015. The state water board said it was particularly concerned with communities where water usage “has risen dramatically.”

The June savings were “not as much as we hoped for, but not as low as we feared,” said board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus.

Consumption in the San Juan Water District in Granite Bay grew 56 percent compared to a year ago, the highest of any of the 410 urban water agencies in the state. The district was one of the most vocal advocates for relaxing the standards, and earlier this year vowed to ignore the state mandates. District officials were unavailable for comment.

Elsewhere, water officials said the rainy winter, prompted many customers to resume irrigating their lawns as in the pre-drought days.

“The media ... projects this image that the drought is over, and people just presume that they can go back to their usual consumption pattern,” said Tim Shaw, general manager of the Olivehurst Public Utility District. Consumption jumped 23 percent from a year ago, although Olivehurst is still saving at a 20 percent rate compared to the 2013 baseline.

The standards put in place last year, following an executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown, called for a 25 percent reduction in urban water consumption. Water agencies with historically high per-capita consumption were ordered to cut usage by as much as 36 percent, with communities in greater Sacramento carrying some of the toughest conservation burdens.

This year, following a fairly rainy winter, agencies whose water supplies improved substantially pleaded for relief from last year’s mandates. The state board voted to allow water agencies to propose their own conservation standards, based on the health of their water supplies and projected demand. Many water agencies, including the 10 largest in the Sacramento area, told the state board they didn’t see any need to impose mandatory percentage-based cuts this year because of their plentiful supplies.

Max Gomberg, the water board’s climate and conservation manager, said officials will heavily scrutinize water districts that say they don’t need to save, and will put their supporting data to a “stress test.”

“It’s one thing to say ‘we passed our stress test,’” Gomberg said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘We are at zero, we are not required to conserve, so go ahead and water away.’ 

In a press release, the water board said it “is prepared to come back in early 2017 to reimpose new mandatory water restrictions if needed.”

About 50 of the state’s largest water districts saw water use increase by more than 20 percent from June 2015 to June 2016, according to a Sacramento Bee review of state figures. Almost half of those 50 districts were in the Sacramento River hydrological area.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler