Californians Using More Water as State Braces for Another Dry Year

Californians used 2.6% more water in January compared to before the drought emergency was declared, a sign that urban residents are ignoring the state’s pleas to take the drought seriously and cut back.

The increased water use in California’s cities and towns came during the second-driest January on record, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack continues to dwindle — and another dry summer looms.

The new data, which details urban water use statewide, shows that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated pleas for a 15% voluntary cutback in water use are failing to reach people in cities and towns. Yet Newsom has stopped short of issuing a mandatory order.

“With the voluntary call, some areas were doing okay, others not so well. The message gets pretty garbled. With a mandate, it’s a very clear message about the need,” said Heather Cooley, research director with the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank.

Newsom spokesperson Alex Stack declined to answer whether Newsom intends to set a mandatory conservation order.

In January, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted emergency regulations allowing water providers to bar certain wasteful water uses, such as hosing down sidewalks with drinking water.

But water use nevertheless ticked up statewide in January compared to January 2020. The biggest increase was 19% in the desert region that includes the Palm Springs area and the Imperial Valley. The South Lahontan region, spanning the Sierra Nevada, mountain communities of Southern California and Death Valley, had the second highest increase, at 9%. Residents of the Los Angeles basin and San Diego County used 1.8% more water, while those in most of the Central Valley used 6 to 7% more.

The only regions that slightly reduced water consumption were the San Francisco Bay Area, which used 1.4% less, and the southern San Joaquin Valley, which used 0.2% less.

Overall, Californians from July of last year through January conserved about 6.5% statewide compared to 2020, according to state data — falling far short of Newsom’s requested 15%.

Several years into the last devastating drought in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized state regulators to order reductions from water suppliers to conserve 25% more water across California.

Now, a year after Newsom declared a drought emergency in hard-hit northwest counties, some experts say a state mandate is critical to keeping enough water in storage to survive a drought that could last a number of years.

Newsha Ajami, a longtime water researcher, said the mandate should have happened months ago, when reservoirs were low and there was no precipitation in sight. “Having a mandatory water restriction is in everyone’s benefit,” said Ajami, who is the chief strategy and development officer for research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The new state data only includes water use from urban water districts, not rural irrigation districts that serve farms.

At a Sacramento press conference last week, California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot thanked residents for their efforts but reiterated a plea for voluntary cutbacks.

“I'm also here on behalf of Governor Newsom to ask all of us to do more,” Crowfoot said. “It's once again time for Sacramentans, residents of this region, Californians to step up and help us navigate through this drought.”

Under the statewide mandate issued during the last drought, water suppliers were required to conserve 25% statewide — with regions assigned a certain percentage of water depending on their existing use — or face escalating consequences that could result in fines.

Californians responded: They cut their water use by 23.9% between June 2015 and February 2016, compared to the same months in 2013, according to water board staff. Cities and towns still use less water daily than they did before the last drought began: about 17% less per person.

This time, however, many water suppliers have relied on ramping up outreach and rebates rather than imposing new restrictions or fines.

Ordering California’s water suppliers to cut back further is likely to be a controversial move.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Hanford, is skeptical that it would work.

“If we’re still not even over the (COVID-19) vaccine mandate and the testing mandate, and now you're going to ask people to cut down on water consumption? That you should take less showers and you can’t get a new pool or whatever it may be?” she said. “Yeah, no, that's going to make people really angry.”

Hurtado called for structural and technological changes — like developing more drought-resistant crops and fixing canals damaged by subsidence — over behavioral ones. Those, however, take time.

Water providers caution against reading too much into the low January conservation numbers:  It’s harder for Californians to squeeze out additional savings during the winter, when many already cut back on watering their yards.

In December, which had record-setting storms, Californians used 15.6% less water compared to the previous year, with the greatest savings in southern parts of the state. It was the first time Californians statewide crossed the 15% water conservation target that Newsom urged residents to meet last July.

Since July, the greatest savings came from the hard-hit North Coast and the San Francisco Bay Area. The least, from the inland mountains and deserts of central and southeast California.

Water systems on the North Coast “were the canary in the coal mine,” said Marielle Rhodeiro, research data specialist with the water board’s conservation program. “They were the first to start running out of water. I think there's a little bit more awareness up north, probably because we're closer to the immediate problem.”

Some water suppliers crack down, others coax

For some local water agencies, voluntary calls for conservation have come close to meeting their own goals, though not the state’s 15% target.

In the Bay Area, the East Bay Municipal Utility District upped its rates to fund improvements  and asked residents to voluntarily cut water use by 10%.

The district ramped up rebates for replacing turf in yards and street medians, and launched an advertising campaign on streaming audio platforms and social media recommending five-minute songs for people to listen to while they showered.

It worked, to a certain extent: Water use decreased by more than 10% from July through December compared to last year, the district reported to the state. But now the savings are slipping; water use increased in February, according to water conservation manager Alice Towey.

“Clearly, it’s becoming difficult (to conserve) this time of year, when nature is normally watering our East Bay gardens,” Towey said. February was California’s second driest on record.

Farther south in San Jose, insufficient voluntary conservation prompted the local water company  to institute surcharges for those who exceed mandatory limits based on 15% cuts to water used above a minimum threshold in 2019. In November, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the district’s mandate, which took effect in December.

Residents saved 20% more water in November compared to 2019 levels. With little outdoor irrigation to cut back in winter months, however, the savings evaporated in December and January.

The area lost about half of its above-ground water storage capacity due to earthquake retrofits for the region’s largest reservoir.

For Liann Walborsky, San Jose Water’s director of corporate communications, a statewide mandate would reinforce their efforts and drive home the message that conservation is critical. “I think it would just help validate all the work we've been doing since June,” she said.

In the aerospace hub of Palmdale in the Mojave Desert, after the area received less than two inches of rain, local water officials faced the possibility of mandatory cuts last summer. Then they bolstered their supplies enough to make it through the dry months.

The district called for 15% voluntary cutbacks to reverse increasing water use as residents weathered the COVID-19 pandemic at home, stepping up outreach and advertising for its rebate program to replace thirsty landscapes. Rebates increased by almost 70% from around $53,000 in 2020 to more than $89,000 in 2021.

In the first half of 2021, residents used about 11% more than in 2020. But the latter half ended up about 5% lower.

Still, the water district’s director of resources and analytics Peter Thompson is torn about whether it’s time for a statewide mandate.

“The momentum of having the state come out with a mandate makes our jobs easier,” Thompson said. “But California is huge. And it's diverse in terms of the different water agencies and their available water supplies. So it makes a lot more sense to make that an individual choice for each agency.”

Mandates may not be enough

For some water systems, even mandatory calls for conservation haven’t been enough to weather water shortages.

By May 2021, in the small coastal hamlet of Mendocino, residents and businesses were required to use 40% less water than their allocations. Wells still went dry, water trucked from other districts climbed in cost when it was available, and restaurants in a town reliant on tourism were forced to weigh whether staying open was worth the expense of washing the dishes.

Ryan Rhoades, supervisor for the Mendocino City Community Services District, said he filled buckets of creek water to keep relatives’ toilets flushing. He said most residents managed to stay below the mandatory target, but estimates that about 5% didn’t.

The county and state stepped in to help, subsidizing trucks to haul water 60 miles from Ukiah to a reservoir in nearby Fort Bragg to bolster the coastal towns’ supplies. And though the conservation mandate was lifted after early winter rains, replaced by a call to voluntarily reduce use by 15% of each well owner’s allotment, the city is bracing for another dry summer — and hoping to prevent more shortages ahead.

Rhoades said he’s awaiting word from the state on possible funding to tie into the local school district’s water supply, drill more wells and increase storage. The wait, he said, is “frustrating and challenging, because people are aware that we have a problem, and we need help.”

The state budget last year included $5.2 billion for drought response and water resiliency. Since the drought began, the Department of Water Resources has awarded more than $195 million to projects aimed at addressing shortages and bolstering emergency and longer-term supplies, including those supporting disadvantaged communities and tribes with well repairs, securing hauled water, and other efforts.

The State Water Resources Control Board tallies $9.75 billion in loans and grants for drinking water, wastewater, groundwater cleanup and stormwater capture since 2014, board chair Joaquin Esquivel said at a press conference last week.

Legislation enacted after the last drought called for urban water providers to develop water budgets based on a number of factors, including indoor and outdoor water efficiency standards. Calculating water budgets is expected to take through the end of 2023, but could pave the way for more sophisticated, targeted mandates going forward, said the Pacific Institute’s Cooley.

But urban water use is just a small part of California’s water supply problem.

Of all the water Californians use, about 20% flows through urban taps, hoses and sprinklers. Almost all of the rest is for agriculture, which pumps water from wells and also gets supplies from rivers as well as state and federal aqueducts.

During the last drought in 2015, Brown was criticized for not imposing conservation orders on agriculture.

“We should be doing more conservation in general, and particularly in drought years,” said Jay Lund, a University of California, Davis, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “But the quantities of water that we will save from this conservation will not be enough to take a tremendous amount of pressure off of farmers or off the environment.”

 

13 Comments

  1. A few comments:
    1) With 80% of the water going to agriculture, squeezing millions of homeowners to conserve isn’t going to make a significant long term impact. Well, it’ll certainly piss off a lot of residents.
    2) Do you really think that someone who owns a $2M plus house cares about a fine of $7 for each 748 gallons used above their “allocation”? When people are paying $500k more than asking for homes right now? It is the “cost of doing business” as some would say. The only folks this will hurt are the lower income folks. Way to go CA!
    3) Why is it that after 20 plus years of drought, California still has not built more above or underground storage, addressed desalinization, or looked at innovative ways to capture storm flows or recycle water? It is always conservation, conservation, conservation.
    4) How many new homes is CA supposed to build over the next decade to address the “affordable housing crisis”? Like 2.5M? With what water to support?
    This ain’t gonna end well.

  2. “Why is it that after 20 plus years of drought, California still has not built more above or underground storage, addressed desalinization, or looked at innovative ways to capture storm flows or recycle water? It is always conservation, conservation, conservation.”

    CYNTHIAR, that’s easy. California hates people and wants to drive them away through a miserable standard of living and extremely high cost of living. It seems to be working well. And now we have to worry about covid, drought, global warming, WW3 and so on. A state filled with eternal catastrophizers. With all the calamities it’s astonishing we can live our days as we always have except the government and everyone else in any minor position of authority wants to dictate what we can and cannot do, what we wear and what medical treatments we get. Next, Sarah Cody will likely mandate that we all put tape around our windows just in case Russia releases poison gas here. “We just don’t know. I might happen. We need to stay ahead of the curve. It’s possible that…” Lockdowns will follow along with a double cloth masking mandate. You really can’t allow people to travel around with all the risks we’re exposed to now.

  3. Joe,

    there you go again, don’t you realize that both the Dems and tth Reps had equal chances to deal with the problem?

    And since when does Dr. Cody have anything to do with this?

    But here is a reality, the state must build water desalination and purification resources. Dams will not capture enough water, and underground storage has issues with the California fault lines, making earth move enough to make it impossible. Now we could build huge tanks for water, but they need to be very good. Thermal expansion and contraction of the water can cause them to fail quickly.

    Face it, the water resources drying up due to permenant climate shift is making it impossible to be the same as we were in the 1980s to 2010s. In fact it may force agriculture out of the state, since it uses the most water.

  4. Dams may not capture ënough”water (whatever that means), but everyone would be far better off if the Auburn dam had been completed.

    If the Auburn dam had been completed in the 1980’s as planned, it would have provided an immense recreation area, with boating, fishing, and campsites. Wildlife in the surrounding area would have also benefited.

    Best of all, the Auburn dam would have doubled Northern California’s water storage capacity. But the enviro contingent scuttled the Auburn dam. Then they walked away, crowing about what they’d done.

    Now the Auburn dam is just a big, ugly hole in the ground; a testament to do-gooders who presume to know what’s best for everyone else.

    When the lawn turns brown and we can’t wash the dust off our cars I’ll remember how the enviro gang stuck it to everyone, then just walked away leaving the folks living in NorCal with a big ugly hole in the ground, with no water.

  5. Smokey,

    Auburn Dam would be just as empty as all the others. Doubling capacity doesn’t mean double resources. THe simple fact is it would be just like all the rest. This was just a false idea. In the end the continuing drying of CA is due to not building water desalination resources like we should have started in the 1980s.

    Remember proposals surfaced from time to time after the 1980s, the dam was never built for a number of reasons, including limited water storage capacity, geologic hazards, and potential harm to recreation and the local environment.

    You are misleading the readers here again aren’t you?

  6. Steven: You are the one misleading the readers. If you double dam capacity, you can store double the amount of water in the big rain years, which we seem to have about every 3 or 4 years. That would increase the amount of water available during drought years. If you increase storage, you reduce the impact of droughts — this isn’t hard math.

  7. @HB, best to ignore him, he just needs to post his half-reality nonsense on every post. He normally has no idea of the topic – just a need to say something.

    Spring 2017 ended as the wettest year on record.
    “Apr 13, 2017. Northern California Just Surpassed the Wettest Year on Record. Atmospheric rivers, a key focus of Scripps research center, responsible for record-breaking rain.”

    and this season started out as a top 10 wettest on record.

    “Fall 2021 Climate & Drought Summary Water Year Precipitation (October – November)
    Water Year precipitation totals through November 2021 remained Well Above Normal (Image 1).
    Most locations ranged from 150% to 200%+ of normal precipitation.
    In addition, the October 1st – November 30th period ranked among the Top 10 wettest on record for some locations including Downtown Sacramento, Fairfield, Stockton and Blue Canyon (Image 2). “

  8. HB,

    Lets just see if your argument would work. The LA records shows there was only one really good year of rain in the last 20 years it was 2004 where we had 22.58 inches plus average. there were only 7 years of good rain meaning above avereage and that avereage was 2.7″ above normal. But the rest we saw a lack of rain averaging 6 inches less than average. in the last 10 years we saw only and 4 above avereage years avereage of +3.55 inches versus 6 years averaging -7.45 inches More than double the dry spell impact.

    BUT yearly we see 65″ of rainfall evaporate in the state. Which means since 2005 we have run short of rain, whatever water that was in such a plan would have been dried up. You never demostrated the actual capacity of the project, nor have any evidence to prove it would have achieved what you claim

    CA PAtriot, you know better than that, you using only at most a 3 month window of rain production. In fact this years rain is VERY low, given that we have seen only sparse showers and in this area maybe lucky to get .1 to .25 inches of rain per storm my last count was 6. Even CalMatter recognizes that you are trying to cherry pick your information. THey reported a record drought in Feb, 2022.

    By the way intersting that Babylon Bee’s twitter acount is locked until they pull down a post the wrote.

    So many people using misinformation here.

  9. Work90,

    This is a failure on both parties because in 1970 we knew that our water supply was going to be less than the need. And both parties messed up, they should have buolt water desalination systems starting in 1970.

    Dams will not solve the problem if the current trend continues. Simply put we use more than we get.

    All dams are reporting levels so low that many thae generate electricity can’t anymore.

    Here is a report for your consideration (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?pdfurl=https%3A%2F%2Fcdec.water.ca.gov%2Fcgi-progs%2Fproducts%2Frescond.pdf)

    Most look only half full, and this is BEFORE summer. If we do not get much more rain, these dams will in effect be more than 75% dry by summer.

  10. Lol,
    No extra credit for the overly ‘verbose & rambling’ nature of SG posts,
    – but looks like BZ is squashing him today, with 19 posts on the 8am new article,
    while SG still is repetitive posting on a 10 day old article.

    To each his own…but it was another awesome day to be outside enjoying the weather.

  11. CA Patriot,

    To each his own except for when the water dries up. You can go ahead and deny that the water crisis was brewing for 40 years easily and that EVERYONE was under the impression that it water was an infinte resource. Current reality has proven that wrong. And simply put I put the blame on everyone who could have figured it out in CA, Carl Sagan told everyone in the 1970s about climate change and no one listened. Now we are in it, and we may find out how it is to have a toxic atmosphere in the world in about 70 years. No one will be able to breath outside at that time because CO2 will be too high. What is likley is that we will get hot until we create another ice age when the north atlantic current stops due to desalinization of the water, and the destruction of coral and plant life.. When that happens the earth will see the 6th great dying.

  12. We were supposed to get a good rain on Sunday, but it is not going to help.

    San Jose normally gets 2.2″ of rain in March, But we have gotten on .01″ and maybe .5″ with this rain coming. that would mean San Jose has gotten only 25% of its rainfall

    The Central Valley is much worse, has had only 1.04″ of rain This storm might give it 2.5″, but the avereage is 9.2″ So it may get to 33% of rainfall. Which means it will need mopre water this year from other resources, and it consumes about 80% of the total water supply.

    THe facts are the fire eason is likely to be VERY bad as well, we already have 3 fires, one is till burning.

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