Californians use more water as state scaffold to get through another dry year


Californians used 2.6% more water in January than before the drought emergency was declared, a sign that city dwellers are ignoring the state’s plea to take the drought seriously and reduce water usage.

The increase in water use in California cities came in the second driest January on record, as snowpack continued to dwindle in the Sierra Nevadas – another dry summer looms.

New data detailing urban water use across the state shows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated calls for a voluntary 15 percent reduction in water use have failed to reach urban dwellers. However, Newsom did not issue a mandatory order.

“With the voluntary calls, some regions are doing well, while others are not. The message has become very confusing. With the mandate, it’s a very clear message about needs,” said Hee, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. Sekuli said.

Newsom spokesman Alex Stack declined to answer whether Newsom intends to make a mandatory protective order.

In January, the National Water Control Board passed emergency regulations that allow water providers to ban certain wasted water, such as flushing sidewalks with potable water.

However, compared to January 2020, statewide water consumption still rose in January. The biggest increase was in the desert region, which includes the Palm Springs area and the Valley of the Kings, with a 19 percent increase. The South Lahontan region, which straddles the Sierra Nevada, Southern California mountain communities and Death Valley, had the second-highest increase at 9 percent. Residential water use in the Los Angeles Basin and San Diego County increased by 1.8 percent, while most of the Central Valley saw a 6 to 7 percent increase in residential water use.

The only areas that saw a slight decrease in water usage were the San Francisco Bay Area, which saw a 1.4 percent decrease, and the southern San Joaquin Valley, which saw a 0.2 percent decrease.

Overall, Californians saved about 6.5 percent statewide from July to January last year compared with 2020, well below the 15 percent required by Newsom, according to state data.

Several years after the last devastating drought in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized state regulators to order water providers to reduce water usage in order to save 25 percent more water in California.

Now, a year after Newsom declared a drought emergency in hard-hit Northwest counties, some experts say state mandates are critical to maintaining adequate water storage to weather a drought that could last for years.

Newsha Ajami, a longtime water researcher, said the task should have been completed a few months ago, when the reservoir was low enough to see no precipitation. “Mandatory water restrictions are good for everyone,” said Ajami, chief strategy and development officer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The new state data only includes water usage in urban water districts, not rural irrigation districts serving farms.

At a news conference in Sacramento last week, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crawford thanked residents for their efforts but repeated calls for voluntary spending cuts.

“I’m also here on behalf of Governor Newsom to ask all of us to do more,” Crawford said. “It’s time for Sacramentians, residents of the area, Californians to step up and help us through this drought.”

“With voluntary appeals, some areas are doing well, while others are not…with mandates, it’s a very clear message about need.”

Heather Cooley, Pacific College

Under a statewide mandate issued during the last drought, water providers must conserve 25 percent of their water statewide — districts allocating a percentage based on their existing use — or face escalating penalties that could result in fines. as a result of.

Californians responded: They reduced their water consumption by 23.9 percent between June 2015 and February 2016, compared with the same period in 2013, according to water agency staff. Compared to before the last drought began, towns still use less water per day: about 17% less per capita.

This time, however, many water providers are relying on expanded publicity and rebates rather than imposing new restrictions or fines.

Ordering California’s water suppliers to cut water usage further could be a controversial move.

Democratic state Sen. Melissa Hurtado from Hanford doubted it would work.

“If we’re still not over the (COVID-19) vaccine mandate and testing mandate, now you’re asking people to use less water? You should shower less, you can’t get a new swimming pool or whatever?” she said. “Yes, no, it would make people very angry.”

Hurtado called for structural and technological changes — such as developing more drought-resistant crops and repairing canals damaged by settlement — rather than behavioral changes. However, these take time.

Water providers caution against reading too much into January’s minimum water retention: Californians have a harder time squeezing out extra savings in the winter, as many have cut back on watering their yards.

A record storm last December saw Californians use 15.6 percent less water than the previous year, with the state’s southern regions seeing the most. This is the first time Californians have surpassed the 15 percent water conservation goal Newsom urged residents to achieve last July.

The biggest savings since July have come from the hard-hit North Coast and San Francisco Bay Area. Least, from the inland mountains and deserts of central and southeastern California.

The North Coast’s water system “is the canary in the coal mine,” said Marielle Rhodeiro, a research data specialist with the Water Authority’s conservation program. “They were the first to start running out of water. I think there’s more awareness in the north, probably because we’re closer to the problem at hand.”

Some water providers crack down, others coax

For some local water agencies, voluntary calls to protect water sources have come close to achieving their own goals, though not 15 percent of the state’s.

In the Bay Area, the East Bay Municipal Utility District raised rates to fund improvements and asked residents to voluntarily reduce water usage by 10 percent.

The district boosted rebates for replacing yards and lawns in the middle of the street, and launched an ad campaign on streaming audio platforms and social media to recommend five-minute songs for people to listen to in the shower.

And it worked to an extent: The district reported to the state that water consumption decreased by more than 10 percent from July to December compared with last year. But now savings are dwindling; water usage increased in February, according to water conservation manager Alice Towey.

“Obviously, it’s getting harder and harder this time of year (conservation) because nature usually waters our East Bay gardens,” Towey said. February was California’s second driest month on record.

Further south in San Jose, where voluntary protections are insufficient, local water companies have imposed surcharges on those who exceed mandatory limits based on a 15 percent reduction in water usage in 2019 that exceeded minimum thresholds. In November, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the district’s mandate, effective in December.

“Obviously, this time of year (conservation) is getting harder and harder because nature usually waters our East Bay gardens.”

Alice Toy, East Bay Municipal Utilities District

Residents’ water consumption increased by 20% in November compared to 2019 levels. However, the savings evaporated in December and January as there was little reduction in outdoor irrigation during the winter.

The region has lost about half of its above-ground water storage capacity due to the seismic renovation of the region’s largest reservoir.

For Linn Walborsky, director of corporate communications for San Jose Water, the statewide mandate will strengthen their efforts and bring home information that is vital to protecting. “I think this will help validate all the work we’ve done since June,” she said.

At Palmdale Air and Space Center in the Mojave Desert, local water officials faced the possibility of mandatory cuts last summer after less than two inches of rain fell in the area. Then they added enough supplies to get through the dry months.

The district is calling for a voluntary 15 percent cut in water usage to reverse the increase as residents weather the COVID-19 pandemic at home, stepping up publicity and publicity about its rebate program to replace thirsty landscapes. Rebates increased from around $53,000 in 2020 to more than $89,000 in 2021, an increase of nearly 70%.

In the first half of 2021, residents’ usage increased by about 11% compared to 2020. But the second half ended up being down about 5%.

Still, Peter Thompson, director of resources and analysis for the waters, remains confused about whether the mission should be mandated statewide.

“Having momentum empowered by the state makes our job easier,” Thompson said. “But California is big. It’s diverse in terms of different water agencies and the water supplies they have available. So for each agency It makes more sense to make a personal choice.”

Authorization may not be enough

For some water systems, even mandatory protection is not enough to deal with water scarcity.

In the small coastal village of Mendocino, residents and businesses must use 40 percent less water than allotted by May 2021. Wells is still dry, the cost of bringing in water from other areas climbs when it becomes available, and restaurants in a town that relies on tourism have been forced to weigh whether staying open is worth the cost of washing dishes.

Ryan Rhoades, director of the Mendocino 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 estimated that about 5% did not.

The county and state stepped in to help, subsidizing trucks to transport water from Ukiah to a reservoir near Fort Bragg, 60 miles away, to boost water supplies to coastal towns. Although conservation missions were scrapped after early winter rains and replaced by a voluntary 15% reduction in usage per well owner allotted, the city is bracing for another dry summer — and hopefully preventing more shortages in the future .

Rhoades said he is awaiting news from the state government on possible funding to connect the local school district’s water supply, drill more wells and increase water storage. Waiting, he said, was “frustrating and challenging because people knew we had a problem and we needed help.”

Last year’s state budget included $5.2 billion for drought resistance and water resilience. Since the drought began, the Department of Water Resources has allocated more than $195 million to programs aimed at addressing shortages and enhancing emergency and long-term supplies, including those that support vulnerable communities and tribes in well workovers, securing water for transportation, and other efforts .

Since 2014, the State Water Control Board has provided $9.75 billion in loans and grants for drinking water, wastewater, groundwater cleanup and stormwater harvesting, board chairman Joaquin Esquivel said in a news conference last week. .

Legislation enacted after the last drought required urban water suppliers to budget for water use based on a variety of factors, including indoor and outdoor water efficiency standards. The Pacific Institute’s Cooley said the calculation of the water budget is expected to continue until the end of 2023, but could pave the way for more complex and targeted missions in the future.

But city water is only a small part of California’s water supply problem.

About 20 percent of all water used by Californians goes through city faucets, hoses and sprinklers. The rest is almost entirely used for agriculture, pumping water from wells and taking supplies from rivers and state and federal aqueducts.

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

“In general, we should be doing more conservation work, especially in dry years,” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “But the amount of water we will save from this protection will not be enough to relieve the enormous pressure on farmers or the environment.”

CalMatters environmental coverage is supported by the 11th Hour Project and Len and Mary Anne Baker.

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