Report: California has a long way to go on water conservation

As California slips into summer amid the worst drought in a generation, state residents, as a whole, have done relatively little to cut their water use, falling well short of the 20 percent target set in Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency drought declaration in January.

Between January and May of this year, California as a whole cut its water use 5 percent compared to the same period over the preceding three years, according to data released Tuesday during a meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board. The figures were drawn from a survey of water agencies across the state conducted by water board staff. The survey was sent to 443 water agencies but completed by only 270, representing about 25 million retail water customers.

Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist for the board, said water use actually increased statewide in January, a month that is normally the state’s wettest but instead proved to be extraordinarily dry. During February through April – months immediately following the governor’s drought declaration – there was no significant conservation. Water use statewide was essentially the same in those months as the prior three years.

Only in May did conservation seemingly take hold, with water agencies in aggregate reporting a water savings of 25 percent. That seems encouraging, but it was before the hot months of summer when water demand typically peaks.

“Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign that the May usage went down,” Gomberg said.

The state water board met Tuesday to begin discussing whether more statewide conservation measures are needed. They invited a number of local water agency officials to provide input. Those officials said it’s difficult to impose blanket conservation goals because each region of the state is different, with different water needs. Nevertheless, they all said they are striving to meet the 20 percent target.

The state’s data showed that the best conservation progress occurred among water agencies in the Sacramento Valley region, which reported a 10 percent savings from January through May. The worst was along the Central Coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which reported zero and 2 percent conservation, respectively.

“The customers have stepped up, is really what it comes down to,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority. “If you drive around this region, the lawns are brown and yellow. The lawns aren’t lush and green like they used to be.”

Other water agencies told the board that progress may appear small because they have been working hard for years to reduce water consumption as a general practice to manage water resources for the long term.

The Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, for example, has achieved a 25 percent reduction in water use over the past decade, largely by urging customers to convert lawns to landscaping that can more naturally thrive in a region with little rainfall. The district also has moved aggressively to make use of recycled water. Such measures have saved the district $10.9 million per year in water costs and $2.7 million in energy costs.

“I think we’ve seen a very substantial reduction overall,” said Paul Jones, the district’s general manager. “We’re really going for a structural change where we’re trying to get people to change their landscaping.”

Beau Goldie, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said he hopes to see more progress in the months ahead, because many water agencies adopted conservation measures this year that take time to yield results, such as customer incentives to install low-flow toilets and efficient washing machines.

“It will take a while before we realize these conservation actions, which we hope will be just in time for this summer,” Goldie said.

The water board has a legal mandate to prevent “waste and unreasonable use” of the state’s water supplies, and has been given specific emergency powers this year to deal with the drought.

In recent weeks, for example, the board has acted to curtail 4,200 junior water rights in the Central Valley, requiring those water users to cease their diversions from hundreds of streams, the first such mandate since the drought of 1976-77. The goal is to preserve available water supplies for people who hold senior water rights, or those issued by the state prior to 1914. The board also is obligated to protect water supplies for important wildlife and habitat resources.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the board, said it must prepare for a worst-case scenario, which would involve planning for drought next year as well.

“We know this year is going to have the worst impact of any drought in modern times ... so we want your advice on what to do,” she said. “I say we have to assume 2015 is going to be a nightmare, and if it’s not, we can have a party.”

The board heard from several water agency representatives who said uniform conservation targets would not be useful given climate variations across the huge state.

“What might be reasonable in one place might not be reasonable in another,” said Brian Poulsen, deputy general counsel at El Dorado Irrigation District. “California, though it may be one state, is not one climate.”

Others said the board needs to move aggressively. Among other things, it needs better data, said Johanna Dyer, an attorney with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. She was critical of the low response rate to the state’s survey of water agencies. Only about 60 percent bothered to complete the survey. Even among those who did the survey, 42 agencies representing 4 million California water customers declined to submit complete water use data.

She said the board should require all California water agencies to fully report their water production and consumption data every month, at least for the duration of the drought.

“The continued absence of this critical data is sure to obstruct the board’s effort to monitor the status of available supplies,” Dyer said, “and will impede your understanding of whether successful conservation measures are being undertaken.”

The board deferred a decision on new conservation requirements to a future meeting. But most board members seemed to feel more actions are needed.

“I personally think we need to be bold,” said board member Dorene D’Adamo. “If we overstep, what’s the harm? I do think we need to be prepared.”

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