Drought-weary California received encouraging news Wednesday when officials announced that residential water use had dropped 29% during the month of May -- the first real indication that the state might meet unprecedented conservation reductions imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The cut in water usage suggests the aggressive campaign to get residents to change their lifestyle -- by taking shorter showers, replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping and buying water-efficient appliances -- is taking hold.
"My first response is almost disbelief," said Mark Gold of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. "These results are beyond encouraging; they're heartening. They make you realize that as a whole, people in urban areas are making the sacrifices necessary to get through this unprecedented drought."
According to figures released by the State Water Resources Control Board, urban residents cut water consumption 28.9%, when compared with May 2013 -- a significant improvement over the 13.6% reduction reported for April. Brown is requiring urban areas to cut water use 25%, the first mandatory water rationing in California history.
The news comes as California enters its thirsty summer season, a time when outdoor lawn irrigation makes up 80% of all residential water use. With slogans such as "Let it go" and "Turn it off," state officials are urging lawn-proud Californians to let their landscaping fade to "gold" in a bid to meet the governor's reductions.
The savings are based on data submitted by the more than 400 urban water suppliers, which must meet or exceed specified savings beginning in June or face potential fines. Among those water suppliers that showed significant improvements in the latest round of reporting were the California Water Service-Bakersfield, with a 37% cut; Orange County's Serrano Water District, with a 43% reduction; and Riverside County's Lake Hemet Municipal Water District, with a 49% savings.
Water officials and environmentalists acknowledged that May rainfall may have improved the figures somewhat. Gold and others also noted that the real challenge would come as the mercury began to climb over the summer.
"It's only going to get harder" Gold said. "Now we need to roll six months together to make a significant difference."
California water suppliers have been assigned conservation targets based on their previous efforts to conserve water. Because of this, some are required to cut overall water use by as little as 4%, while others must slash consumption by as much as 36%.
Among those Southern California water districts singled out for recognition Wednesday was the Santa Margarita Water District, which had been averaging only 3% savings over the last 11 months. In May, the district cut its use 18%.
Jonathan Volzke, spokesman for the Orange County district, attributed the cuts to a "massive outreach campaign" that has included living room dialogues, TV commercials and five-foot aluminum signs that show the district's progress toward hitting its 24% reduction target.
"We're doing everything we can think of to keep this in the public eye," Volzke said. "We're relying strictly on communicating with our customers, to ensure they understand the severity of the situation, and they are responding appropriately."
Although June figures have yet to be released, Volzke said the district cut its usage 28% last month -- a feat that was accompanied by public outreach efforts such as the Guess Your Gallons challenge. At local coffee and bagel shops, water district officials will buy customers a coffee or bagel if their guesses come within 10 gallons of their daily use, Volzke said. Most customers guess that they are using half the number of gallons they actually are, he added.
"There was no ramp-up time, so what you're finally seeing is that those efforts that we scrambled to get into place are finally in place -- and you're starting to see the impact."
San Diego was also commended by state regulators for cutting usage 26% in May -- roughly six times what it saved in April.
"While the numbers for May look promising, we should keep in mind that unexpected rainfall also contributed to the lower usage," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. "San Diegans continue to prove they are statewide leaders in water conservation and they must keep conserving water to meet the state mandate."
South Pasadena cut its water use 31% in May, the same month the city restricted watering to only two days a week to help comply with Brown's executive order. The city cut consumption 22% in April.
Debby Figoni, who runs the city's of environmental programs, said the reduction shows that outreach efforts are working. In addition to mailers, ads in the newspaper and landscaping workshops, more people have been reporting water waste to the city, and officials have been following up, she said. The city issued 35 warnings in May, according to state data.
Figoni said she recently contacted one high water user who slashed his consumption by more than 80% by fixing a leak and reducing the number of days he waters outdoors.
"We have really caring, concerned residents," Figoni said, though she also cautioned: "I'm sure [water use is] going to go up this summer. It has to."
In addition to the usage figures, May reporting by water suppliers also showed a significant increase in the number of complaints received by water agencies as well as the number of formal warnings and penalties assessed, according to the water board.
"Complaints are a very important tool for identifying leaks and over-watering that could go undetected for weeks resulting in millions of gallons of waste water," the board said in a news release.
According to Wednesday's report, a total of 28,555 complaints were issued statewide in May -- roughly two-and-a-half times the number reported in April. Of those complaints, 1,786 resulted in the assessment of penalties, officials said. However, the city of Fresno accounted for roughly 59% of all those penalties.