Water & Drought

Californians cut water use 29 percent in May

Darren Van Dusen, a conservation technician with the San Juan Water District, checks a sprinkler at the home of Mike Singleman in Granite Bay on May 22. Sacramento-area residents reduced their water consumption in May by 40 percent compared to two years ago, the Regional Water Authority reported Wednesday.
Darren Van Dusen, a conservation technician with the San Juan Water District, checks a sprinkler at the home of Mike Singleman in Granite Bay on May 22. Sacramento-area residents reduced their water consumption in May by 40 percent compared to two years ago, the Regional Water Authority reported Wednesday. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Californians seem to be getting the hang of this water conservation thing.

In a rare bit of encouraging news in a state gripped by drought, regulators reported Wednesday that urban Californians reduced their water consumption by 28.9 percent in May from the same month two years ago. It was the final month of voluntary conservation before mandatory cuts kicked in June 1, and represented the steepest decline since Gov. Jerry Brown called on Californians to start saving water last summer.

By contrast, conservation hit just 14 percent in April and 3.6 percent in March, according to figures released by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Officials with the water board said the figures were likely aided by May’s relatively cool weather. Nonetheless, they were pleased to see Californians ramp up their conservation efforts.

“The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure,” said board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus in a prepared statement. “That said, we need all Californians to step up – and keep it up.”

May amounted to a final practice run for the mandatory 25 percent conservation standards that started last month. While results for June haven’t been officially released yet, preliminary estimates provided by some Sacramento-area water agencies suggested residents continued to be fairly stingy with their sprinklers and showers last month.

For instance, the city of Sacramento reduced water consumption by 35 percent in May and 36 percent in June. The Fair Oaks Water District reported savings of 46 percent in May and 42 percent in June. Folsom recorded 38 percent reductions in May and 34 percent in June.

All told, the Sacramento area averaged 40 percent savings in May, according to the Regional Water Authority. “May’s figures are outstanding,” said Amy Talbot, the Regional Water Authority’s manager for water efficiency, in a prepared statement. “However, we face our toughest test in June, July and August as temperatures reach 100-plus degrees and the temptation to ramp up sprinklers becomes ever more intense.”

Right on cue, the city of Sacramento issued a “Spare the Water” alert Wednesday because of the heat wave, urging residents to “cut back on their nonessential water use.”

The urban conservation numbers came after several weeks of almost unrelenting discouraging drought news. The state’s recent decision to curtail flows out of Lake Shasta, as part of a complicated plan to save endangered Chinook salmon, is depriving Central Valley farmers of millions of gallons of water during the most crucial months of the growing season. Several agricultural districts are suing the water board, challenging its authority to cut off water to scores of so-called senior rights holders. Customers of the State Water Project filed an administrative complaint accusing farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of using water that isn’t legally theirs.

Water engineers said the urban numbers show that months of publicity and enforcement efforts are beginning to sink in with the general public.

“The citizenry – they really get this is a serious problem,” said Bill Busath, the city of Sacramento’s utilities director.

The mandatory cutbacks, ordered in April by Brown, say urban Californians must cut consumption by a statewide average of 25 percent between June 1 and next February, compared to the same time period two years ago.

Meeting those targets could be difficult. The mandate for each individual water agency varies according to historical per-capita usage patterns, and hot inland areas such as greater Sacramento have been handed stricter guidelines. Most of the agencies in the region have to cut consumption by 28 percent to 36 percent.

If the voluntary figures achieved in May are any guide, the region seems capable of complying with the governor’s order. Of the 22 largest districts in the region, all but one hit its assigned conservation number.

The one agency that fell short was the Fruitridge Vista Water Co., a small district serving parts of south Sacramento. It cut its consumption by 24 percent in May. Under the governor’s mandate, it has to achieve 36 percent savings.

Officials with Fruitridge Vista couldn’t be reached for comment.

Elsewhere, water district managers said their public-outreach efforts paid big dividends.

“We went door-to-door to every single customer,” said Fair Oaks general manager Tom Gray. “People responded well to that.” He said the district hasn’t issued any fines to heavy water users and hopes education programs can do the trick.

In Folsom, 1,100 residents signed up for the city’s new “cash for grass” and appliance rebate programs within a month, said city spokeswoman Christine Brainerd.

“Just in the first day, we had 450 calls from people interested in the programs,” Brainerd said. “There’s clearly a demand.”

Folsom’s June conservation numbers, which yielded savings of 34 percent, “were encouraging because we saw above-average temperatures,” she said. “It gives us confidence that we’ll continue to reach those goals.”

Visual reminders of the drought’s impact are helping to drive the point home.

“We live right here by Folsom Lake and we see articles about the level dropping,” said Keith Durkin, assistant general manager of the San Juan Water District. “It’s having an effect.”

The San Juan district hit 45 percent conservation in June after 49 percent savings in May. “Even though we had kind of a hot streak (in June weather), people are kind of staying the course,” Durkin said.

The May results mean Californians have cut water consumption 11 percent since June 2014, a savings of 237 billion gallons. That’s enough to supply nearly 2.4 million Californians for a year, according to the state water board.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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