Environment & Science

Californians slashed water use, but we still use more than the US average

Sprinklers water the lawns of a new housing development July 28, 2005 in Hesperia, California. Half of all the water used by inland homeowners goes to irrigating yards compared to one third or less in the cooler coastal regions.
Sprinklers water the lawns of a new housing development July 28, 2005 in Hesperia, California. Half of all the water used by inland homeowners goes to irrigating yards compared to one third or less in the cooler coastal regions.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Californians slashed their water use during the drought. But a new study finds we still used more than the national average.

Between 2015 and 2010, Californians slashed their water use by seventeen percent, according to the US Geological Survey report. During that time, the state was gripped by the worst drought in modern times, and Governor Brown declared the first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

But despite the savings, Californians still use more water than residents of many East Coast states. As of September 2017, Californians use 110 gallons per person per day for outdoor and indoor consumption. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, residents needed just 35 gallons of water per person per day in 2015 – less than half the national average of 82 gallons per person per day.

Per capita water use in the West, shown on the left side of the graph, is higher than in the East, on the right side.
Per capita water use in the West, shown on the left side of the graph, is higher than in the East, on the right side.
USGS

Much of the difference in water use has to do with size. In the East, people live in denser cities, in smaller homes, on smaller lots, with smaller yards. In the West, meanwhile, everything is bigger: lawns, houses, extravagant landscaping.  

“We are using more water because of that,” said Newsha Ajami, the Director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University’s Center for Water in the West. “A lot of it is driven by this lot size and outdoor space in the West.”

Another factor is climate. In the East, people don’t have to water their lawns as much, because it rains more and humidity is higher. In much of the West, the only reliable water outdoor landscaping receives comes out the end of a garden hose or a sprinkler.

The West, however, isn’t uniform. While Californians cut their water use over the past five years, consumption rose in states like Utah, Colorado and Idaho (which has the nation’s highest per capita water use, at 184 gallons per person per day).

“If there’s no drought, and people are using water, nobody is going to stop them,” Ajami explained.

That’s exactly what’s starting to happen in California now that the state's emergency drought restrictions have been lifted. Governor Brown declared an end to the drought in April 2017. Californians used fourteen gallons more, per person, in September 2017 than they did two years ago, during the worst year of the drought.