Environment & Science

Water use in California is increasing. Should we care?

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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New data out Wednesday show Californians used 15 percent more water this July than the same time last year, continuing a trend that began in June when state officials backed away from mandatory water conservation targets. 

While state officials seem unfazed by the increase, others worry it means Californians aren’t taking the drought as seriously as before. 

In June, the State Water Resources Control Board ended nearly a year of unprecedented mandatory water conservation across the state. In spring 2015, Governor Jerry Brown asked for a statewide cut of 25 percent. To get there, every water agency would be given a percent reduction target to hit.

But after a wet winter filled reservoirs in Northern California, the board decided to lighten its grip on water agencies. Instead of telling them how much to cut back, the board made them prove they had enough water to make it through three more dry years and not run out of supply. If they could do that, they wouldn’t be required to continue saving water.

More than 80 percent of water agencies in California (343 out of 411) say they passed that test.

Since then, water use in California has been increasing. Californians used an average of 105 gallons per person per day in June 2016, the first month without mandatory conservation. In July, it rose to 114 gallons per person. 

Compare that to summer 2015, under mandatory conservation, when per capita use held steady in June and July at 98 gallons per person per day. 

See how every individual California water district did below

Despite the increase, Steven Moore, who sits on the State Water Resources Control Board, praised Californians for their continued conservation. He said there has been a culture change since summer 2013 when Californians were using upwards of 140 gallons per person per day. He said conservation is now a way of life, and residents are “still recognizing there’s a drought.”

There’s a big difference between having conservation be a way of life, and declaring a water emergency, said Ellen Hanak, director of water policy at the Public Policy Institute of California. When Gov. Brown declared statewide mandatory conservation in 2015, that was an emergency. Now Hanak said things are shifting to more of a permanent, long-term change in how much water we use.

“Last year there was probably some belt-tightening that was more of the emergency nature that we could ease up on some, and I think that’s what you’re seeing this summer,” Hanak said.

But Darron Poulsen wishes the belt-tightening would continue. He’s Pomona's director of water and wastewater operations, and his customers are using around 15 percent more water than they did last July – just like Californians as a whole.

“I don’t think that’s OK,” he said. “I would’ve like to see the number lower. There should be continued messaging on this. This is only the start of a new norm of what droughts are going to be like in the future.”

Still, Poulsen let Pomona residents go back to watering their lawn three days a week this summer, up from just one last year – just like many neighboring water agencies.

“I think Californians like their green grass, and like their green landscaping,” he said. “When the opportunity arises to not have be it as restrictive and not as mandatory, people fall back into old water habits.”