These water districts are way short of their conservation targets

Over the last four months, the residents and businesses of the Indian Wells Valley Water District have cut their water consumption by about 25%, and General Manager Don Zdeba thinks that's "pretty darn good."

The problem for Zdeba and his Kern County customers is that the state expects the district to slash its water usage by even more — 36% as compared with 2013.

So Zdeba admits he is concerned.

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"Resigned," he said, "to the fact I don't think we're going to do it."

As state regulators prepare to release monthly water conservation numbers, Zdeba and dozens of his counterparts are getting worried about the bigger picture.

Water use tends to be lower in the winter than in the summer because people use less outdoors when it rains and temperatures cool. With less water being used, there is less to cut, so officials say it will be even harder for their districts to achieve big savings.

That's bad news for laggard water suppliers that now face an almost insurmountable climb to reach their conservation targets by the end of February. Some that have already been put on notice by state regulators — such as Indian Wells Valley — could face fines if they fail to turn things around.

It will be extremely challenging for water districts to "make up for lost ground," said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board. There are some, he added, that are unlikely to meet their state-mandated targets.

In order to attain the 25% reduction in urban water use ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown, the water board assigned conservation standards to each of the state's 411 urban suppliers earlier this year.

Suppliers with a history of high per-capita water use were ordered to cut as much as 36% off 2013 totals. Suppliers with a history of lower consumption were told to cut as little as 8% or, in rare cases, even 4%.

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Statewide, Californians have managed to eclipse Brown's savings goal each month since the regulations took effect in June. Regulators are expected to announce that the state succeeded again in September when they release the latest numbers Friday.

But some individual water districts have struggled mightily to meet their targets. In August, for example, six suppliers missed their mark by more than 15 percentage points. An additional 54 suppliers were off by between five and 15 percentage points.

Regulators met over the summer with some struggling districts and later issued conservation orders to eight of them. The orders demand that the districts take specific steps to save more water.

About 100 suppliers have received so-called information orders requiring them to send more information about the conservation measures they have undertaken, Gomberg said.

Redlands received an information order in August, spokesman Carl Baker said. That same month, the city hired two part-time water waste investigators and reached out to the 10% of its customers who used the most water.

Officials say those efforts helped nudge up the city's savings from 22% in August to 30% in September. But that's still short of the 36% target the state requires them to reach.

"This is a really aggressive goal," Baker said. "If the state has other things we haven't tried that we weren't aware of, we'd be open to that."

Under the drought regulations, water districts that violate a conservation or information order can be fined up to $500 per day. The water board can also send violators a cease-and-desist order, which carries a stiffer penalty: up to $10,000 for each day of noncompliance.

To determine whether to issue a fine, water board regulators will consider how far off a local district is from meeting its target and other factors such as the level of effort, Gomberg said. "What steps did a supplier take to try and close the gap?"

No fines have been issued yet, Gomberg added.

In Los Angeles, residents and businesses have had little trouble meeting their 16% target. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power saved 21.8% in September compared with the same month in 2013, a spokeswoman said. Cumulatively, the city has saved about 19% since the regulations took effect in June.

Long Beach saved 18.6% in September, surpassing its 16% target for the fourth month in a row, officials said.

But some affluent areas of the county have had a more difficult time conserving. According to the most recent state data, Malibu and Beverly Hills are cumulatively about 12 percentage points from meeting their targets.

In a statement, Beverly Hills spokeswoman Therese Kosterman said the city has put together a "comprehensive" conservation program that includes penalty surcharges, "which are just now taking effect."

"As we draw closer to the end of the year, we are naturally very concerned about not meeting the 32% goal," she added. "However, we are committed to continuing the outreach."

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Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability at UCLA, said there is hope for cities and towns that have fallen behind.

Although water use does tend to drop in the winter, an El Niño year filled with rain could reduce outdoor watering even more than normal, Gold said.

"But if you're way behind," he added, "it's going to be tough to catch up."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByMattStevens

Times staff writer Taylor Goldenstein contributed to this report.

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