Environment & Science

How well are Southern Californians saving water without being told to?

Southern Californians used more water this June than last June. It was the first month without mandatory water restrictions.
Southern Californians used more water this June than last June. It was the first month without mandatory water restrictions.
Photo by Vinoth Chandar via Flickr Creative Commons

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How well are Southern Californians doing at saving water without being told to? The answer in most places is: not great.

In June, state officials ended a mandatory conservation program that had been in place for a year. Absent the program, the state as a whole used 14 billion gallons more this June than June 2015, which was the first month of state-imposed conservation targets. Here in the hottest, most populous part of the state, we used about 2 billion more gallons.

Of nearly 200 local agencies reporting, about 8 in 10 used more water.


According to the State Water Resources Control Board, the city of Paramount saw its rate of water consumption jump the most of any city in Southern California. In June 2015, the city was using 30 percent less water than it had at the same time in 2013. But a year later, it was only using 3 percent less.

Christopher Cash is director of public works in Paramount, a city of about 55,000 just east of Compton. He attributed the increase to residents’ “conservation fatigue.”

“They’ve been at it for quite a while now,” he said.

He said the relatively wet winter in Northern California, along with the relaxation of mandatory cutbacks, has signaled to customers conservation may not be as important as it once was. "There’s been a little bit of a let up," he said.  "And you’re seeing that in some of the numbers.”

He also said that in June 2015, Paramount saved an unusual amount of water, which could be skewing the data.

The Los Angeles County Public Works Waterworks District 40, which serves the Antelope Valley, also saw its water use rise considerably this June. Last year, it used 42 percent less water than at the same time in 2013. This June that figure dropped to 23 percent -- which is still a higher rate of savings than most other Southern California water districts.

Paul Maselbas, a principal engineer for the LA County Department of Public Works, said he thought his customers may have cut back a lot in June 2015 for fear of getting a huge water bill due to drought surcharges.

He also thinks customers are receiving conflicting messages: that the state is easing up on water restrictions, but also that there is still a need to conserve because of the ongoing drought.

“There was so much water in Northern California this winter, and so much water comes from there. People know that,” he said. “So many water companies are relaxing requirements and discontinuing drought surcharges. What has really hit home to folks is 'I can use a bit more.'”

On the plus side, about 40 local agencies either matched or surpassed their savings from last year. Some agencies chose not to roll back the state’s mandatory conservation targets in June, even though they could. That explains why the California Water Service Company saved even more water this year than last year. In its Antelope Valley district, CalWater saw water use in June 2015 decrease 42 percent compared to the same month in 2013. This June, it saved even more: 54.7 percent.

Other districts managed to keep saving even without mandatory conservation targets and after giving customers the option of using more water.

With over half a million customers, Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County is by far the largest water agency to use less water this year than last year. Kevin Pearson, a spokesman for EMWD, said in June the agency restored the size of customers’ water budgets to what they had been before mandatory conservation took effect. Water budgets give each customer a certain amount of water to use and penalize them for using more than their budget. Under mandatory conservation, EMWD shank the size of the budgets by 30 percent.

But water use didn’t rise even though customers could use more without being fined. Last June, the agency used 15 percent less water than in June 2013. This June it used 21.5 percent less.

Pearson said education played a huge rule in keeping water use down. EWMD reaches 60,000 students each year through field trips, classroom programs and contests like one for middle schoolers where they write water-themed books. The agency also has a conservation-minded board of directors, which recently passed a directive banning new homes in the service area from having lawns in their front yard.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power used slightly more water than last June as did Pasadena, with their water savings rates slipping 1.9 and 2.9 percentage points respectively between June 2015 and June 2016.

Long Beach, Anaheim and Riverside performed worse. Their water savings rates fell 3.6, 3.8 and 4.3 percentage points. San Bernardino’s fell five percentage points.

Coachella Valley saved more water this year than last year: its water savings rate increased by 2 percentage points over last June.