Californians cut water use by 7.5 percent in July

Following a spike in statewide water use in spring, Californians have begun to conserve more water as the worst drought in a generation continues.

The State Water Resources Control Board reported Tuesday that urban water consumption declined 7.5 percent statewide in July and 4.4 percent in June, compared with the same months in 2013. Both are significant improvements compared with May, when overall urban water use actually increased 1.5 percent.

But the state remains a long way from the 20 percent target set by Gov. Jerry Brown in the drought emergency proclamation he signed in January.

“We’re going in the right direction, but we still want more, of course,” Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the board, said during the water board meeting in Sacramento. “I’m optimistic that August is going to show us better numbers.”

In an effort to better monitor statewide conservation efforts, the water board in July ordered all urban water providers with more than 3,000 customers to report monthly water consumption during the drought. Failing to do so could result in fines.

The 7.5 percent reduction in July means Californians saved about 17 billion gallons of water. That’s about 52,000 acre-feet, or enough water to serve 100,000 average homes for a year.

“There are a lot of agencies and residents who have really stepped up and made conservation during this drought central to the way they live their lives and operate their businesses,” said Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist at the water board.

The response to the data request improved significantly after the water board made the reporting mandatory. In July, only 276 out of 415 water agencies responded by providing data on their May water consumption. Many flatly refused to participate, saying they objected to the survey methods.

This time, 362 agencies provided data, representing 33 million Californians, or about 86 percent of the state’s population. About 55 agencies have not responded.

“We’re working with them,” said Rafael Maestu, an economist at the water board. “The overall trend is positive.”

As before, the greatest improvement was demonstrated by water agencies in the Sacramento Valley, which cut collective water use 19.5 percent in July. The Bay Area was second at 13 percent.

Southern California communities turned in the weakest performance. The South Coast region, which includes major urban areas in the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolis, collectively reduced water use by 1.7 percent in July. But that was an improvement compared with May, when water use increased by 8 percent.

Ken Weinberg, water resources director at the San Diego County Water Authority, said smaller savings in some areas may be a result of “demand hardening,” a phenomenon that occurs once a community already has adopted many common conservation measures. In short, another big cut in water use requires even more effort.

“I would say it’s going to be difficult to see similar savings across the state, because we’re at different starting points,” Weinberg said. “As demand hardens, it becomes harder for the consumer to figure out, well, what can I do to save water?”

Over the past decade, Southern California has moved more aggressively to conserve water than many other regions. Much of the region’s water is imported from elsewhere and, therefore, is more expensive. For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has offered a cash incentive to remove residential lawns for several years, while other areas began doing so only during the current drought.

Gomberg said the water board has received “hundreds and hundreds” of calls, emails and letters from the public about the drought. Many people want to know how to report water waste they have observed. That can be difficult, because residents often don’t know what water agency serves the address where the waste is occurring. In many cases, water agency boundaries are different from city limits.

As a result, he said the water board is working to develop a website so people can enter an address in order to locate the relevant water agency and report a violation.

“People are paying attention and wanting to get results,” Gomberg said. “When they are doing their best and see their neighbor down the street is watering the sidewalk, they want something to be done about that. And they want to make sure businesses and institutions are held accountable, too.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee