Environment & Science

With drought a fading memory, water use rises

Jurupa Community Service District's Alison Lokeh in the district's van. Lokeh said she could get as many as 100 calls a day during California's drought. But those calls have become less frequent, and water use has risen here and elsewhere.
Jurupa Community Service District's Alison Lokeh in the district's van. Lokeh said she could get as many as 100 calls a day during California's drought. But those calls have become less frequent, and water use has risen here and elsewhere.
Aaron Mendelson/KPCC

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In the months after Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California's five-year drought, water use in the state has risen, though not as much as it was before the dry spell took hold. But as California emerges from a second straight summer of increased water use, experts say those savings — no longer mandated by the state — are fragile. And keeping them up will be critical to preparing for the next dry spell.

This summer, the first since the state's record winter rains, posed a test for communities: Now that the pressure's off, can they keep saving water? The answer depends on where you ask the question.

At the Jurupa Community Service District in Riverside County, many water-saving programs remain in place: customers can get a rebate for buying an efficient washer, attend a water efficiency seminar, or claim up to 25 low-spray sprinkler nozzles for free.

The district's most visible weapon for fighting water waste is a van painted with cartoon water droplets and a drought-friendly landscape. During the drought, Alison Lokeh would hop in the van to preach conservation. Those were busy days: Lokeh could get 100 calls in a day from residents.

"It was a real wild ride for that couple of years," Lokeh said. "It was tough, but we got through it. And the residents really responded." During the stretch of mandatory water saving, between June 2015 and May 2016, the district cut water use by over 20 percent, compared to the same months in 2013.

Communities in dry, inland areas of Southern California are some of the biggest per capita water users in the state. So the savings in places like Jurupa Valley and Eastvale — the two cities the Jurupa Valley Community Services District serves — were significant.

But lately, water use has been headed in the other direction.

Jurupa Community Service District: per capita daily residential water use (gallons)

According to state figures, in August this year residents used an average of 190 gallons each day, the second-highest figure the district has posted in 39 months of reporting. The only month water use was higher? July 2017, when it was 207 gallons per person.

"So, do I think water savings could be better? Yeah." Lokeh said.

She contends that a growing population has inflated the per capita numbers, and she points to the fact that the district relies on groundwater, not imported water. The district has no control over lawns in front of many homes, some of which resemble the Wizard of Oz's Emerald City.

Cutting back on watering outdoor landscapes was "a considerable sacrifice for residents. And now I think you're seeing the result of that," Lokeh said.

For Max Gomberg, a scientist with the State Water Resources Control Board, seeing water use climb is a red flag. "Simply saying, 'Well, we're a couple percent below where we were' is definitely not adequate," he said.

Statewide, gains in water conservation were the silver lining to a devastating drought. In 2015, for the first time ever, California required urban water districts to slash their consumption. Those requirements were relaxed as the water supply improved. And while some regulations remain on the books, many districts haven't been required to save water since May 2016.

Lately, Californians have fallen into a pattern: they're using more water than in 2015 and 2016, the crunch time of the drought. But they're are staying below water use in 2013 and 2014.

Statewide: per capita daily residential water use (gallons)

Residents in the vast majority of water districts in the South Coast region, which covers much of Southern California, used less water than they did before restrictions kicked in. KPCC reviewed the daily per capita water use in 161 districts during June, July and August this year and in 2014. It found that residents in 70 percent of those districts have cut per capita use by ten percent or more.

The Jurupa Valley Community Services District is an exception, as is nearby Riverside.

In general, Gomberg said he's encouraged by what he's seen this summer. "Coming out of the drought, it's perfectly reasonable for people to relax a little bit on some of their practices, so long as we're not going back to inefficient use of water," he told KPCC.

In coastal Santa Monica, state-mandated targets are a thing of the past. But here, city officials are racing to meet an ambitious, self-imposed goal: become water self-sufficient by 2020. "It's going to do nothing but get drier down here," said Dean Kubani, who heads up conservation efforts in the city. "And we're trying to change our infrastructure and change the way we live here in Santa Monica, to foresee those weather changes."

In Santa Monica, gains in conservation are sticking. Water use is down from three years ago. This summer, residents used about 20 fewer gallons per day each day compared to 2014.

The city points to successes in recent years: a homeowner's association that ripped out a lawn and slashed water use by a third; a new library branch that resembles a spaceship, harvesting and re-using 60,000 gallons a year.

State officials like Gomberg hope that places with greater resources like Santa Monica can run up greater savings.

Santa Monica: per capita daily residential water use (gallons)

Kubani says the city needs to explore every avenue for getting to its self-sufficiency benchmark: get water from local sources, help residents and businesses conserve, and recycle water. "It's kind of a heavy lift."

An important piece of that will be sending out the right messages to residents. The ferris wheel on Santa Monica's famous pier glowed with a water conservation-themed light show on Saturdays this summer, part of a campaign by the Metropolitan Water District.

Experts said conservation is simply a tougher sell after a rainy winter. Conservation feels less urgent and competes with countless other advertisements, news stories and distractions. But that messaging can't go on and off with the weather, says Stephanie Pincetl, a professor of sustainability at UCLA.

"We live in a dry climate where there are periods of time where it's even more dry," she said. All the solutions proposed in recent years are as urgent as ever: cutting outdoor water use, becoming more efficient with existing supplies, preaching conservation. She doesn't stop there.

"We're pretty alienated from the location we live in, because we don't get any messages about where we live. People say, 'Oh well, Southern California, you can't tell that there are any seasons.' Well, you can't tell that there are any seasons because we haven't planted plants that reflect the seasons, right? We don't like dry in the summer."

But dry in the summer is the reality. And Pincetl argues that letting water saving evaporate now would be a mistake, because the next drought is right around the corner.

Data for charts comes from Water Board's monthly conservation reporting, shows per capita residential water use by month in urban water districts