After lagging during the first part of the year, water conservation in California improved significantly in April following Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic order requiring big cuts in water use amid the worsening drought.
Water use in April dropped 13.5%, compared with the same month in 2013, a sign that residents and urban water suppliers were taking Brown’s dire conservation calls seriously.
Despite the improvement, the state has a long way to go to meet the 25% cut Brown ordered on April 1. Over the last 11 months, Californians cut water use cumulatively by only 9%.
Mark Gold, acting director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the reduction in April was impressive, especially after what he called “absolutely embarrassing” conservation efforts earlier this year. Californians cut water use by only 2.6% in February and 3.9% in March versus the same months in 2013.
“This is a significant move in the right direction,” Gold said. “People are listening.”
Because April was relatively warm and dry, Gold said, much of the water savings likely resulted from reduced use in response to Brown’s order, new conservation regulations from the water board and more media attention to the drought, rather than favorable weather.
State officials said the improvement shows that residents, businesses and water suppliers are responding to Gov. Brown’s mandate. The board spent much of April developing a plan to implement Brown’s water-saving order and boost conservation.
“Local communities are stepping up in a way they weren’t before, and I’m hoping that that’s why we’re starting to see the uptick,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which reported the conservation data Tuesday.
The decline in water use comes as officials across the state are scrambling to implement watering restrictions ahead of the hot, dry summer months.
The water board’s plan, approved last month, assigns conservation targets to each of the state’s water suppliers and requires cuts in consumption ranging from 8% to 36% compared with 2013 levels. The targets, based on residential per capita use in July, August and September of 2014, require cities and water districts with the lowest consumption during that period to cut the least. Heavy users must cut the most.
The State Water Board can issue cease-and-desist orders to water suppliers for failure to meet conservation targets. Water agencies that violate those orders are subject to fines of up to $10,000 a day.
Progress so far has been uneven.
Southern California’s conservation efforts lagged behind the rest of the state. In April, Southland water users cut their consumption by 8.7% versus the same month in 2013 — the poorest showing among the state’s hydrologic regions. Locally, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power cut its water consumption by about 10%.
And even as many communities cut back, some of the state’s biggest water users have reported increases.
Residents of an affluent pocket of northern San Diego County used about 426 gallons per capita per day in April – more than five times what Los Angeles residents used. The Santa Fe Irrigation District, which often has been among the state’s heaviest water users, serves many customers with large homes and landscapes. Its water use increased 9%.
Jessica Parks, a spokeswoman for the district, said the water use grew because warm, dry weather left many customers “feeling the need to make sure their irrigation was on.”
The district is implementing new watering restrictions this month, and “we are actively reaching out to our community to reduce water use now,” the district said in a statement.
Other Southland cities and towns also struggled with conservation in April. Chino Hills and Norwalk increased water consumption by 10% and 21%, respectively, state data showed.
A few Southern California cities, though, conserved a lot. Glendora reduced consumption by 26% in April. Whittier cut its use by 22%.
State water board officials said the 13.5% cut in April was good, but not enough.
“People who weren’t doing everything they could are now getting the message: Last year wasn’t good enough; this is serious; this is the time for action,” said Max Gomberg, the water board’s senior scientist.
The board also released its first full month of data on how often local regulators cite and fine water wasters.
Board officials said 43 water suppliers across the state issued 838 penalties to water wasters in April. More than 22,000 water-waste complaints were submitted to suppliers, and about the same number of warnings were issued.
Gold said the number of penalties water agencies issued in April “demonstrates that the vast majority of the water districts aren’t taking their enforcement responsibilities as seriously as they have to.”
“When the water agencies working with local governments get to the point of issuing tickets for wasting water the same way they issue parking tickets, I’ll know we’re taking conservation as seriously as we need to,” he said.
But the 22,000 complaints are encouraging, said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance, which advocates for clean water, because the numbers suggest heightened public awareness.
Still, she said she was not impressed by Tuesday’s water conservation figures.
“I’m really concerned about the bad actors,” Aminzadeh said. “I don’t see a lot changing with them. I’d like to see the board take a more aggressive and proactive approach to enforcement.”
Many water suppliers have been relying on education and outreach to help eliminate water waste.
Others are getting more aggressive. Some agencies have hired more water “cops,” installed smart meters and taken other action to enforce water rules.
In Sacramento, city officials said they achieved a higher-than-average 23% cut in water usage, in part, by stepping up enforcement to seven days a week, starting in April. The city received 3,100 complaints, issued 1,710 warnings and assessed 191 penalties in April. Those penalties were among the highest in the state, according to the water board’s data.
The city’s water conservation numbers for May are expected to be even better, said Bill Busath, director of the city of Sacramento Department of Utilities. “We’re moving in the right direction.”