Big month for conservation: Californians cut water use by 31% in July

After Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 25% reduction in urban water use statewide, regulators spent much of the spring chastising water districts for not conserving enough during California's stubborn drought.

Data released Thursday suggest the message is getting through.

Californians cut back their urban water use last month by nearly a third compared with July 2013, aided by rare summer storms and stepped-up local enforcement. And the number of water districts deemed to be severely out of step with the state's demands — those falling 15 percentage points or more short of their conservation goal — dropped sharply.

The 31% statewide reduction is even better than the 27% recorded in June, the first month the targets were in effect. And so far state officials have not needed to carry out their threat of stiff fines to get the attention of local agencies.

“The news is quite good,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We're very happy to see that Californians are showing they have what it takes to meet our water-savings goals.”

But even with a drumbeat of El Niño forecasts suggesting a wet winter is ahead, the state board is not about to let up.

“Although an El Niño is forming, there is no guarantee that we'll receive the amount of precipitation that we'll need to beat the drought in the right places and of the right form,” Marcus said. “We need rain and snow in the Sierra, especially the Northern Sierra to make a dent in this drought.”

To attain the cuts Brown ordered in April, the state board assigned water districts individual targets requiring them to slash local consumption by as much as 36% compared with 2013 levels.

Last month's water savings were undoubtedly boosted by unusual summer rainfall in coastal Southern California, the state's population center. About a third of an inch of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles, breaking a record for July precipitation that had stood since 1886.

“It definitely had an effect,” said Max Gomberg, the board's conservation program manager.

Compared with two years ago, L.A. residents trimmed July water use 21%, easily
exceeding the 16% conservation target set by the state.

Statewide, the number of water suppliers that missed their water-savings goal by 15 or more percentage points dropped from 16 in June to four in July.

Of the more than 400 urban water suppliers in the state, the majority met or were within 1 percentage point of their assigned water-savings target.

“It really shows that the public gets it,” said Tim Quinn, executive director
of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. “So are public water agencies. They are doing an amazing array of creative outreach. They're using social media like they never had before. They're partnering with other entities in ways they never had before.”

The state board is sending violation notices to agencies that continue to fall short of their targets by more than 5 percentage points. Regulators are requesting information about local conservation measures.

Water districts with inadequate programs or those that continue to significantly miss their targets will receive board orders requiring them to take additional actions, which could include more public outreach, fixing water system leaks or imposing stricter limits on outdoor watering.

The board has yet to issue any fines, though it can penalize agencies $500 a
day for failure to comply and can issue a cease-and-desist order carrying a $10,000-a-day penalty for willful violations.

In some cases, “if we don't see a marked improvement, we may issue fines,” said Cris Carrigan, the board's enforcement chief.

The San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford was one of the four suppliers that performed the worst in July, according to the state board, missing their conservation target by 16%.

Lou Camara, Hanford's public works director, attributed the shortfall to several factors. In the last two years, the city has allowed four smaller water systems with water quality problems to tap into its local supply. Water consumption by the city's food processing plants could also be skewing the conservation data, he suggested.

Overall, Camara said, the city has taken a number of steps to save water, restricting outdoor residential sprinkling, letting local parks go brown and issuing more than 500 water-use violations so far this month.

The water district managed by the city of El Monte, which missed its conservation target by more than 22 percentage points in June, succeeded in hitting — and surpassing — its target in July.

City officials said the media and marketing campaigns from government agencies across the region made residents more aware of the need to conserve. The City Council also passed an emergency ordinance this month that further limits outdoor watering.

The restrictions went into effect immediately, so officials expect even greater savings next month. “I think we're doing a good job,” City Manager Jesus Gomez said.

Under growing pressure from the state board, agencies across California have stepped up enforcement and raised water rates to slash use. In July, local districts issued 15,845 financial penalties, nearly 80% more than in June, according to state board data.

Brown's April order was the first mandatory cut in urban water use in California history. It is transforming the look of yards across the state. Many lawns that had remained conspicuously green during the first three years of drought are now straw-colored — or gone altogether.

Enticed by generous turf-removal rebates, Southern Californians are ripping out more than 150 million square feet of grass and putting in drought-tolerant plants.

Cities, barred from using drinking water to irrigate grass on street medians, have erected signs explaining the reason for the dried-up turf.

“Part of this change is permanent. And needs to be,” Quinn said. “That's
one of the things we need to take out of this drought — a very different attitude about how to use water in California. … We can't count on El Niño.”

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6:01 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with more information on water savings in the state and officials' comments.

This article was originally posted at 10:50 a.m.