California drought: City dwellers only cut water use by 9 percent during unseasonably dry January

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During an unusually dry and warm January, residents of California cities only cut their water use by 9 percent. That’s according to a monthly report from the State Water Resources Control Board, which has been gathering city water use data since June. It compared current use to the same month from 2013, which is the baseline year established by the board.

Governor Jerry Brown asked the state to cut water use by 20 percent about a year ago. In December city dwellers met that goal for the first time, reducing their consumption by about 22 percent statewide.

Water board staffers speaking Tuesday connected the slippage in conservation to climatic conditions.

December was wet, while January was unseasonably dry and warm. California saw the fourth driest January on record, with a statewide average of just around two-thirds of an inch of rain. No rain fell in San Francisco at all that month, and there was scant precipitation in the Central Valley and Southern California. The state also recorded the second hottest temperatures ever.

“The drop in savings we see between December and January indicates that people were really great about turning off their sprinklers when it was raining in December, which is exactly what we wanted them to do,” said Kathryn Landau, an environmental scientists with the water board. “But once the rain stopped in January, people turned those sprinklers right back on.”

Water board chair Felicia Marcus wondered what the new data said about Californians’ ongoing awareness of and response to the drought, now in its fourth year.

“I chose to be optimistic in December,” said Marcus. “I’m not sure how to feel about January.”

Policy adviser Max Gomberg offered a mixed response. Water savings were encouraging, he said, adding “It is hard to overstate the severity of the drought we’re in. We have dismal snowpack, our reservoirs are low, our groundwater basins are depleted, communities are out of water, farmland is being fallowed, and people are out of work,” he said. “It is a really dismal situation.”

Some highlights of the water board’s report:

  • The City of Los Angeles saw just a 1.1 percent drop in use compared to 2013, the baseline year chosen for all cities statewide. LADWP officials counter that Angelenos are using 22 percent less water than in 2007, when the city first set mandatory restrictions. Still, says LADWP water chief Marty Adams, “the numbers show that we are still too quick to return to old watering habits as soon as the weather gets nice.”
  • Another large south coast city, San Diego, actually increased its water use 4 percent over the baseline year.
  • Regulators offered special kudos to Orange County’s Fountain Valley. That city of 59,227 people saved 31.9 percent of its water use over two years ago.
  • Big Bear is a land of extremes. The City of Big Bear Lake’s Department of Water and Power cut consumption by 21.9 percent over the previous year, while Big Bear Water District users were thirsty, using 10 percent more than they did in 2013. 

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