AMIDST a statewide weary drought, California officials announced that residential water use had dropped 29 percent in May—the first real indication that the state might meet unprecedented conservation reductions imposed by Governor Jerry Brown.
The cut in water usage also suggests the aggressive campaign to get residents to change their lifestyle—such as taking shorter showers, replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping, and buying water-efficient appliances—is undergoing with a successful drive.
“My first response is almost disbelief,” said Mark Gold of UCLA’s Institute of 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 by 28.9 percent, when compared with May 2013—a significant improvement over the 13.6 percent reduction reported for April.
In April, Gov. Brown issued a sweeping executive order combating water waste by 25 percent (or 1.5 million acre-feet), implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board. It was 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 percent of all residential water use. With slogans such as “Let it go” and “Turn it off,” state officials are urging residents to let their lawn landscaping fade to “gold” in a bid to meet the governor’s mandatory 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 percent cut; Serrano Water District in Orange County (43 percent reduction); and Riverside County’s Lake Hemet Municipal Water District (49 percent savings).
Water officials and environmentalists acknowledged that in May, more frequent rainfall may have slightly improved the figures. Gold and others also noted that the real challenge in the battle against drought would come as the mercury began to climb over the summer.
“It’s only going to get harder,” said Gold. “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 suppliers are required to cut overall water use by as little as 4 percent, while others must slash their consumption by as much as 36 percent.
Among those Southern California water districts singled out for recognition Wednesday was the Santa Margarita Water District, water had been averaging just 3 percent savings over the last 11 months. In May, the district cut its use by 18 percent.
“We’re doing everything we can think of to keep this in the public eye,” said Jonathan Volzke, spokesman for the Orange County district, who attributed the water cuts to a massive outreach campaign. “We’re relying strictly on communicating with our customers, to ensure they understand the severity of the situation, and they are responding appropriately.”
Volzke’s district campaign includes living room dialogues, TV commercials, and large aluminum signs that show the district’s progress toward hitting its 24 percent reduction target.
Although June figures have yet to be released, Volzke said the district cut its usage 28 percent last month, accompanied thanks to 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,” he said.
South Pasadena also cut its water use 31 percent in May, the same month the city’s restricted lawn watering to just two days a week to help comply with Brown’s executive order. The city also cut consumption by 22 percent in April.
Debby Figoni, who runs Pasadena environmental programs, said the reduction shows that outreach efforts are working. In addition to mailers, ads in the newspaper and informational 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 percent by fixing a leak and reducing the number of days he waters outdoors.
“We have really caring, concerned residents,” Figoni said, while still cautioning about the expected high use of water this summer.
Wealthier communities, which are often criticized for high water use, also showed improvements in May. Beverly Hills reported a 17 percent reduction; Newport Beach cut its use by 22 percent, and the Santa Fe Irrigation District saved 42 percent.
In addition to the usage figures, the water board reported a significant increase in the number of complaints received by water agencies, as well as the number of formal warnings and penalties assessed.
“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 a report on July 1, 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. (With reports from Los Angeles Times)