Californians fall a bit short of Brown's call for 25% cut in water use after 9 months of conservation

After nine months of fervent conservation, drought-fatigued Californians narrowly missed meeting the water-savings target set by Gov. Jerry Brown a year ago. 

Urban dwellers reduced their consumption by 23.9% between June and February, state regulators said Monday, just short of the 25% cut required under Brown's executive order.

Still, the conservation efforts saved about 368 billion gallons of water, or enough to supply nearly 6 million Californians for a year.

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Officials have said it is unlikely that the state as a whole would face any consequences for missing Brown’s standard by such a small margin, but individual water suppliers could still face penalties. 

“We were hoping we’d get a miracle March -- we got a modest March, which definitely beats the horrendous conditions we’ve had,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“We’re nowhere near having a ‘drought’s over party,’ ” she said, adding that a “subdued … its-way-better-than-the-last-few-years party” would be more appropriate.

California’s cumulative water savings dipped below 25% in recent months as the weather turned colder and people began using less water. In February, residents and businesses cut their usage by only 12% compared with the same month in 2013, officials said. By comparison, they saved 31.4% in July.

It was the lowest monthly reduction in terms of percentage since Brown's mandate took effect in June.  Southern Californians dragged down the state’s savings, cutting back only 6.9%.  

Water officials blamed the lower February savings partly on warm and dry conditions that Marcus called "just horrid."  They urged Californians to keep conserving and harped on an increasingly common refrain.

"The drought is not over," said Max Gomberg, the water board's climate and conservation manager. "Conservation habits are still important heading into this summer."

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Monday’s report provides a bookend, though, to the historic executive order Brown issued from Phillips Station a year ago. In November, he issued another order that added flexibility to some of the conservation requirements while also extending the rules through October.

The state’s urban water providers were told to cut their water consumption by varying percentages last spring, and have had to meet those standards each month since June. Some suppliers were told to slash their use by as much as 36% versus 2013, others as little as 4%.

Some missed their targets month after month, drawing warnings and even a few financial penalties from regulators. Four suppliers were fined $61,000 for non-compliance last fall.

Beverly Hills paid its penalty. On Monday, a state enforcement official said the Indio Water Authority and the Coachella Valley Water District have tentatively agreed to implement “environmental projects” that will curb water usage in their districts. The board is still negotiating with the city of Redlands, the official said.

“I wouldn’t say potential fines for past behavior are off the table,” said Cris Carrigan, chief of the board’s enforcement office.

Under California's latest regulations, some struggling water districts got more wiggle room beginning in March. Credits and adjustments approved by the water board allow many water providers to decrease their savings goals by as much as eight percentage points.

Regulators have said that they would consider ways to further modify or even phase out the drought rules after staff members evaluate the state’s hydrology.

Last week’s snowpack survey showed that conditions had improved significantly since 2015, but the water content contained within the snow was still below average. A workshop to discuss changes is set for April 20. The water board is expected to consider proposed revisions in May, and those changes could take effect in June, Gomberg said. 

Snowpack is important because when it melts, it fills the state’s reservoirs, which subsequently send water to farmers and urban areas such as Los Angeles. Some of the state’s largest and most important reservoirs have gotten a boost from storms that soaked Northern California in March.

The improved conditions at Folsom Lake have already prompted at least one water supplier to ease up on restrictions.

But Marcus warned that the March storms “may be all we’ve got.”

They will “ease a lot of things,” she said, “but I’m still not sleeping through the night -- just sleeping better.”  

For more on the California drought and water, follow me on Twitter @ByMattStevens 

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UPDATE

3:04 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reporting and editing.

This article was first posted at 12:43 p.m.

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