By Kurtis Alexander
Californians missed their state-ordered water savings target for the first time, regulators reported Tuesday, and there's a counterintuitive twist: The cooler, wetter weather may be to blame.
While many people found it easy to cut back on outdoor watering during the hot and dry summer -- dutifully changing wasteful habits of the past -- they've struggled to make similar gains during the fall, when indoor use is more the focus, officials said.
Cities and towns collectively reduced water use 22 percent in October, compared with the same month in 2013, falling short of the 25 percent mandate that Gov. Jerry Brown set in June.
Most Bay Area communities met their specific targets, which were assigned by the state in the bid to achieve the overall conservation goal. Of the region's six largest suppliers, only the Marin Municipal Water District didn't meet its mark.
State officials said the seasonal drop-off didn't minimize California's generally strong conservation record during this tough year, citing a cumulative reduction since the emergency regulations took effect of 27 percent. And it's clear not everyone is resigned to losing ground during the winter and fall.
Case in point: the rain barrel.
Residents in San Francisco and elsewhere appear to be increasingly turning to rainwater tubs, with names like Rain Wizard and Planter Urn, to take advantage of the wet season and take pressure off the water company.
"There's definitely an uptick in interest," said Jeff Parker, director of marketing for the Urban Farmer Store, which sells rain-catchment supplies at its three Bay Area locations.
"People are trying to get as many barrels as they can before the rains come," he said. "We're calling this the El Niño giveaway."
In San Francisco, where per-capita water use is relatively low, rain barrels are part of the city's formula for success. Water officials have given away nearly 500 free barrels to promote conservation. And there's just a few more left to hand out.
"We're all trying to capitalize on this water because of the drought and the rain that's anticipated," said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "The small savings adds up to larger savings when everyone does it."
A perk that may be more significant, Jue said, is the ability of the catchment devices to reduce the burden on the city's storm-water system, which tends to back up during heavy rainfall.
Up until a few years ago, there was some doubt about the legality of the rain barrel in California. Some expressed concern that collecting rain could interfere with the water rights of those entitled to the runoff. A 2012 law, however, cleared up the uncertainty and legitimized the practice.
Colleen Mullins, who lives in San Francisco's Inner Richmond neighborhood, recently bought a 50-gallon rain barrel at Home Depot to irrigate her vegetable garden.
The water collects on her roof, trickles into the downspout and runs into the storage tub in her yard. From there, Mullins uses a hose or watering pot to hydrate her plants.
"We had an hour of rain at the most and the thing was full," she said of a recent storm.
Rain barrels are part of a broader effort to capture ever-precious water that falls from the sky.
Peter Brostrom, water use efficiency manager for the California Department of Water Resources, said larger-scale catchment systems are being installed in homes to provide not just irrigation water but water for plumbing. More importantly, he said, gardens and farms are collecting rainfall and allowing it to infiltrate the soil to recharge groundwater supplies.
"What is really effective is a rain garden," he said. "In many places, we have ample storage in the aquifers. I would definitely encourage people, if possible, to look at a rain garden."
Water experts like Brostrom say savings from rain barrels may be relatively small, but that the extra effort is appreciated during months when cutting back is most difficult.
In October, Californians failed to meet the governor's requisite cutback because of a combination of weather that was warmer than October 2013, particularly in Southern California, and the inevitable drop in consumption that downplays savings, state officials said.
"We anticipated a dip in the conservation rate for October, but it is not because people are losing interest," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. "It's harder to keep the percentages up in the fall and winter when little outdoor watering takes place."
The Marin Municipal Water District didn't meet its 20 percent target, cutting just 17 percent in October. Still, the water agency's overall reduction since June is 21 percent.
San Francisco reduced its water use 15 percent in October, exceeding its 8 percent goal. The East Bay Municipal Utility District trimmed 21 percent, going above its 16 percent target. The San Jose Water Co. cut 28 percent, besting its 20 percent target.
This time, no fines were issued for overages. After the release of September's water figures, the state water board announced $61,000 penalties for four agencies that have repeatedly come up short: the cities of Beverly Hills, Indio (Riverside County) and Redlands (San Bernardino County) and the Coachella Valley Water District.
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