After months of appeals to conserve water, Californians appear to be finally getting the message, making substantial cuts in water consumption in the face of the state's drought.
Some of the biggest savings have come in Southern California, which faced criticism earlier this year for increasing water use at a time when the rest of the state was cutting back, according to state records released Tuesday.
Southern California increased water use by 8% in May compared to the average during that period from 2011 to 2013. But over the summer, the region saw modest reductions, culminating in August with a 7.8% decline from August of the previous year, according to a report from the State Water Resources Control Board.
"We wish it had come earlier, but people are responding," said Max Gomberg, the board's senior environmental scientist. "Southern California has roughly half of the state's population. What happens in Southern California is critical to how things look at the statewide level."
Overall, California cut water use by 11.5% in August, compared to the same month in 2013, the equivalent of 27 billion gallons. It's the biggest drop of the year, yet still below Gov. Jerry Brown's goal of a 20% reduction.
Officials attributed the conservation in part to stricter local water laws that took effect in recent months, including restrictions on outdoor water use, hosing off driveways and residential car washing.
One question now is whether California can reach the 20% goal this year. Some water agencies said they are considering tightening water rules and raising rates for heavy users if the fall brings little rain.
State water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said it's encouraging that conservation rates have been improving throughout the summer.
"The increments are bigger in each jump; that's telling us that folks are kicking into gear," she said. "Can we get to an average 20%? Absolutely. But it won't happen in a nanosecond."
Ironically, one concern going forward is fall rains. Light showers would do little to improve the state's water shortage but could prompt residents to reduce their conservation efforts, officials said.
Residents must "maintain their conservation mindset," Gomberg said. "If it rains, turn off your sprinklers."
State officials described the August survey of water use as among the most accurate they've done. The May survey was voluntary, and only 63% of water agencies participated. About 95% provided data for the August survey.
In San Diego County, water use dropped 6% in August after being up slightly in both June and July, the water authority said. It marked a significant improvement from the first five months of the year when water use rose by 10% compared with the same period in 2013.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reported an 8.8% reduction in August.
"Seeing these savings in the middle of the summer during a drought is telling of L.A. residents' commitment to water conservation," DWP General Manager Marcie Edwards said in a statement.
San Diego and other Southern California cities have complained that earlier surveys did not accurately reflect their savings. Water board officials have since refined their analysis.
"The state board staff has a better understanding now of water use characteristics and the uniqueness by region that can occur," said Dana Friehauf, a water resources manager with the San Diego County Water Authority.
The state received data from 394 water agencies. Of urban water suppliers serving populations greater than 40,000, 10 increased their water use in August; nine are in Southern California, including Compton, Colton and Coachella.
More than 20 water suppliers cut their water use 20% or more in August. The City of Tracy led the way with a 41% reduction.
State officials on Tuesday held out special praise for Long Beach. The city has been aggressive about water conservation for years, but still managed a 6.8% reduction in August. The city is now recording its lowest water use since 1958, officials said.
"There's a snowballing effect as people see people taking action," said the water board's Marcus. "We can't relent."