Environment & Science

Californians cut water use by 28 percent in May

File photo taken March 29, 2015 shows a field being watered in Kern County, the nation's number 2 crop county, near Bakersfield.
File photo taken March 29, 2015 shows a field being watered in Kern County, the nation's number 2 crop county, near Bakersfield.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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In the final month of mandatory water restrictions in California, residents exceeded Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of cutting water use statewide by 25 percent. Californians used 28 percent less water than they did in May 2013, the baseline year.

“I think 28 is pretty awesome. It’s great,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, at the board’s monthly meeting Wednesday.

Starting in June, municipal water agencies are now on their own to set mandatory conservation goals if they decide they are necessary. The water board has asked all water districts to undertake "stress tests" on their water supply. If they can prove they have enough supply to meet customer demand during three more dry years, they can end mandatory cutbacks.

Water districts were scheduled to send the results of their stress tests to state water officials last month. The water board hasn't yet made them public, but many local agencies, like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, are saying they no longer need mandatory conservation targets.

In spring of last year, Brown ordered the mandatory cuts in an effort to get Californians to take water conservation seriously. A previous voluntary reduction of 20 percent had failed.

The mandatory cuts were mostly a success. For the 12 months ending in May, California just missed the governor's cumulative reduction target by a tenth of a percent compared to the same period in 2013. That delighted Marcus and the other water board members when they heard it Wednesday.

“I’m going to wait until we actually hit it, and then I’m going to have a drink, neat, without ice,” Marcus said, laughing. “It will not be water. I have something else in mind.”

RELATED: Look up water use over the past several months using KPCC's water use tool.

But beginning in June, the mandatory conservation measures are gone, and it’s unclear whether Californians will keep saving water with the same enthusiasm as in the past year.

After a wet winter filled reservoirs in Northern California and turned brown hillsides green, many water districts urged the State Water Resources Control Board to back off the mandatory cutbacks. In May, the board agreed. A new rule required local water districts to do a "stress test" on their water supplies. As part of the test, they had to prove they had enough water to make it through three more years of drought. If they didn’t have enough, they’d have to keep conserving. If they did have enough, they wouldn’t be required to.

Water districts were required to turn in their “stress tests” on June 22. The agency won’t publicly release the stress tests until officials have followed up with a number of agencies that had incomplete or unclear results. Max Gomberg, the water board’s climate and conservation manager, said there is still a lot of work to do before agency staff release the results.

However, some environmentalists are concerned that water districts that have already struggled to meet the mandatory conservation standards are going to be let off the hook as long as they can prove they have enough water, said board member Fran Spivy-Weber. Eleven agencies, most in Southern California, have had such serious problems cutting their water use that the water board placed them under a customized “conservation order” that requires them do specific things to cut water use. Those range from imposing a drought surcharge on water users to overhauling rate structures. 

Southern California Water Agencies With Conservation Orders

Water agency State-imposed water conservation standard*(%) Missed conservation standard by** (%)
California City 28% 16.80%
City of Blythe 28% 12.70%
Indian Wells Valley Water District 32% 8%
Mission Springs Water District 24% 4.90%
Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District 24% 3.40%
City of Adelanto 16% 1.50%
City of Hemet 14% - 6% (negative means exceeded standard)

(*revised March 2016; **From the period of June 2015 – May 2016 | Source: State Water Resources Control Board)

Gomberg said the board has the power to keep the conservation orders in place in the future. He said his agency will closely monitor water the rest of 2016 and decide whether to go back to mandatory cuts next year.

Allowing water agencies to assess the severity of the drought and then set their own conservation targets is “a different approach from the top down approach we used last year,” Gomberg said. “It doesn’t mean that if conservation levels don’t stay high we won’t go back to something closer to what we had in place over the last year.”