Environment & Science

Will California hit its goal of cutting water use by 25 percent?

Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project and the second-biggest in California after Lake Shasta, was at 50 percent of capacity on April 5, 2014.
Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project and the second-biggest in California after Lake Shasta, was at 50 percent of capacity on April 5, 2014.
Dan Brekke/KQED

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California saved 18 percent more water this past December than it did in 2013, which is good, but falls short of the overall 25 percent savings called for by the State Water Board.

Thanks to big reductions over the summer, the state was ahead of its goal on average for much of the past year, and it still is -- but just barely.

As of December the state's cumulative savings is 25.5 percent - to avoid falling behind by the end of February when the measure expires, California needs to save 22 percent, according to the Water Board's Max Gomberg.

Can we do it?

"My crystal ball is a little cloudy about that," joked Peter Gleick of the Oakland based Pacific Institute.

For the past three months the state has fallen short of its goal. Gleick says several factors are likely to blame, such as talk of a wet winter thanks to El Niño and general drought fatigue among the public.

Winter is also a harder time to gin up savings, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California .

"There is a very big difference between average residential water use in the winter and in the summer, and that big difference is outdoor irrigation," she said.

In the hot months we tend to water more, said Hanak. Simply letting lawns go brown can yield large water savings.

In the winter, most homeowners typically water little or not at all, meaning there is less usage to cut back on in the first place.

Still, the State Water Board has the authority to levy fines on water districts that fail to meet their goals, and has done so in the past.

To avoid that fate, Peter Gleick thinks water districts need to ramp up drought messaging and beef up rebates for those people who switch to water-efficient appliances in their homes.

He added that the weather could play a key role in California's efforts to hit its water target.

"If we get a lot more rain the incentive to conserve will drop. If it starts to dry up again I think there’s a better chance of meeting the goal," Gleick said.

Still, Gleick said the state should be proud of what it has accomplished so far.

Californians saved more than 350 billion gallons of water since the emergency drought regulations went into effect in May 2015.

"That's water that is still in our streams and in our reservoirs ... it really shows the power of conservation and efficiency," he said.