When Gov. Jerry Brown called for a statewide 25% cut in urban water use last April, drought-weary Californians snapped quickly into compliance.
They slashed consumption enough to easily exceed Brown’s order for four straight months, cheering state water regulators.
But as temperatures cooled and the calendar turned to fall, conservation slowed. And on Thursday, officials said the state’s cumulative water savings fell below 25% for the first time in eight months of reporting, to 24.8%.
Officials “always knew it would end up being down to the wire,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.
With one month left under the current emergency order, this unusually hot and dry February could cause California to come up just short of its savings goal.
“People in California have done something extraordinary,” Marcus said of the 374 billion gallons of water saved since June. “The disappointment is just, God, we’re so close — we want to get there.”
Even with the help of steady rains in January, people in cities and towns across the state reduced their water consumption by just 17.1% compared with January 2013. It was the fourth consecutive month in which Californians failed to cut use by 25%; it was also the smallest percentage reduction since the order took effect.
Officials emphasized Thursday that they expected savings percentages to be lower during the cooler and wetter winter months, when people typically use less water and there is less room to cut back. They commended the efforts of conservation-minded Californians while urging everyone to keep it up.
“Twenty-four out of 25 is a really good score,” said Max Gomberg, the water board’s climate and conservation manager. “An A grade in any classroom.”
Even if the state ends up short of 25%, he said, “I don’t think there is going to be any statewide consequence.”
Instead, Gomberg said, “the consequences are for the individual water suppliers — the ones who have not been meeting their standards.”
The water board assigned conservation standards to each of the state’s more than 400 urban suppliers last year. Suppliers with a history of high per-capita water use were ordered to cut as much as 36% compared with 2013 totals. Suppliers with a history of lower consumption were told to cut as little as 4%.
Some suppliers have struggled to meet their targets and a few have drawn fines for noncompliance. In January, only about 58% of water providers met or were within one percentage point of their conservation standard, the water board reported.
Water board staff members gave only a vague outline Thursday of how or when they might punish individual water suppliers for noncompliance.
“Moving forward, we will watch the numbers very closely,” said Matthew S. Buffleben, of the board’s enforcement office.
Earlier this month the water board approved a new emergency drought regulation that extends the conservation rules through October, with modest changes that could ease standards by as much as eight percentage points for some water providers. Those credits and adjustments are expected to drive the state’s overall savings below 25%.
Environmental advocacy groups and some experts have questioned whether lowering expectations is wise in the middle of an ongoing drought.
“If anything, we should be looking at ways to strengthen conservation regulations,” said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA. “Twenty-five percent might be the start, not the finish.”