Urban water conservation across California dipped slightly during the second month that less stringent conservation requirements have been in place, state regulators said Wednesday.
More alarming to some, the 20% water-use reduction in July, compared with the same month in 2013, also marked a sharp decline from last summer, when residents and businesses saved more than 31% as concern about the drought reached a fever pitch.
The drop-off between July 2015 and July 2016 will do little to allay the concerns of environmentalists who have criticized the State Water Resources Control Board for largely lifting mandatory water conservation requirements, and, they argue, paving the water for some Californians to return to profligate consumption.
In July 2015, conservation increased to 31.3% from 27.5% the month before.
This year, water savings fell from 21.5% in June to 20% in July.
Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus acknowledged in a statement that "some areas may be easing up more than the improved conditions may warrant" and pledged to keep "looking closely at the monthly results" to determine if stricter standards are needed.
But at the board's meeting Wednesday, Marcus' colleagues were almost exclusively upbeat about the July numbers, arguing that they show Californians will conserve water whether they are required to or not.
"What we see now is, instead of saving one drop in four … we've saved one drop in five," board member Steven Moore said, referring to previous months when Californians met or exceeded a 25% savings requirement ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown.
"These are promising trends," he said.
Indeed, water board staff members pointed out that only two of the 398 suppliers that submitted data used more water in July 2016 than they did during the same month three years earlier.
Santa Barbara cut its water consumption by 38% in July, a slight improvement from the same month in 2015.
Beverly Hills, which the water board previously reprimanded for noncompliance, saved 21% in July, up from 20% in June.
But in general, Southern California dragged down the state's savings. Southland residents used about 13 more gallons of water each day in July than they did during the same month a year earlier.
Malibu, for example, cut its water use only 9.7% compared with July 2013. The city had reduced its consumption by 16.1% in the previous month and 27.1% in July 2015.
Anaheim's efforts also flagged. The city saved about 8.2% in July compared with 23.5% in June. It had cut consumption by more than 27% in July 2015.
"Having invested time and effort into conservation, many Californians and their communities continue to hit it out of the park," Marcus said. "Others are still very much in the game, while a few communities seem to be leaving the ballpark entirely."