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How Close Did California Get to 15% Reduced Water Use?

Gov. Gavin Newsom asked state residents in July 2021 to reduce water usage by 15 percent during the height of the state’s driest years on record. But statewide water savings only reached 7 percent, fewer than 9 gallons per person per day.

A person cleans the sidewalk and waters the lawn in the front yard of his house
A person cleans the sidewalk and waters the lawn in the front yard of his house in Alameda, California on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.
(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
The results are in: As California endured its three driest years on record, urban water users made a significant effort to conserve, but fell far short of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to reduce water use by 15 percent.

Between July 2021, when Newsom first called on water users to voluntarily cut back, and March of this year, when he rescinded that request amid a very wet winter, statewide savings were 7 percent, or about half of what was requested. That amounts to about 9 fewer gallons per person per day, a Los Angeles Times analysis has found.

The findings varied considerably by region and by water district, with the North Coast and San Francisco Bay areas saving the most water — 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively — against the baseline year of 2020. The inland Tulare Lake and Colorado River regions saved the least, 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively. (The analysis did not include agricultural water use.)

State officials say the numbers belie the long-term conservation efforts Californians have made in recent decades, including significant savings during the 2012-16 drought, which ended only a few years before Newsom’s request.

But they also acknowledged that there is considerable room for improvement. Residential statewide use was, on average, about 85 gallons per person per day. For comparison, Californians would have used 79 gallons per day if they had cut their use by 15 percent.

“Absolutely we can do better than that,” said Charlotte Ely, conservation supervisor with the State Water Resources Control Board.

In July 2021, California was about two years into what was quickly becoming one of its most devastating droughts. Fifty counties were under a drought state of emergency when Newsom stood in front of a dwindling Lopez Lake in San Luis Obispo County and called on residents to reduce their water use by 15 percent.

Newsom rescinded the call on March 24 of this year after back-to-back atmospheric rivers refilled reservoirs and dropped record and near-record snowpack in the Sierra, significantly easing drought conditions statewide.

But many experts were critical of Newsom’s voluntary stance throughout the drought, arguing that he should have made cuts mandatory, like his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who ordered a 25 percent reduction during the 2012-16 drought. Residents reached just shy of that goal, reducing water use by 24.5 percent.

The Newsom administration said it was more focused on targeted drought responses based on local conditions, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach that cannot account for past investments in conservation or major water use drivers such as climate.

“Seven percent is still an impressive number given that it happened in less than two years, and that it’s on top of the water savings that the state has maintained since the last drought,” Ely said. “And so I think what we see over the last decade is really a conservation success story.”

But some experts say the results are evidence that more could have been done.

“The numbers are disappointing, given they’re just under half of what was asked for,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank.

A 2022 report from the institute found that Californians could reduce their water use by 30 percent to 48 percent by adopting a host of existing technologies, efficiency standards and low-water use landscaping. Indoor use could be as low as 25 to 35 gallons per person per day, Cooley said.

She attributed the state’s overall lackluster response to the governor’s voluntary call, and said the messaging was inconsistent and often opaque about the severity of the situation.

“I think that it was potentially a recipe for disaster,” Cooley said. “If it had been another dry winter, we would have really wished we had gone to mandatory [restrictions] last year, because it would help us conserve the limited water that we had, and would make it stretch that much further.”

Still, the effort appeared to work better in some areas than others. The South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles and half the state’s population, cut water use by 6 percent, or about 7 fewer gallons per person per day, the analysis found.

In June 2022, as the drought deepened, the region’s massive water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, ordered unprecedented restrictions for areas dependent on the State Water Project, a vast network of canals and pipelines that delivers water from Northern California to farmlands and cities to the south.

The order was largely a response to slashed allocations from the state, and included a 35 percent reduction in water use for nearly 7 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

The communities were able to “cut their water use enough to stretch the available water supplies for nine months, until restrictions were lifted in March,” said Brad Coffey, manager of MWD’s Water Resource Management group.

But while the region succeeded in stretching scarce supplies, Coffey noted that operating under emergency restrictions is considered a last resort and “not a sign of success.”

“We have been working for years to prepare for a changed climate, but these changes are coming even sooner than predicted, and we must move fast to adapt,” he said.

The agency is working toward more sustained reductions in water use through investments in new infrastructure and local supplies, and is encouraging more water-efficient landscapes, irrigation systems and indoor plumbing and appliances, he said.

In response to the MWD’s order, one of its largest customers, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, opted to place its entire service area of about 4 million people under two-day-a-week watering limits in an effort to stay at or below a volumetric allocation during the drought.

The effort was successful, according to the DWP.

“LADWP, through the tireless efforts of our customers and staff, was able to stay below the MWD volumetric allocation every month it was in place from June 2022 through March 2023,” spokesperson Mia Rose-Wong said in an email.

However, the DWP did not come close to the 15 percent reduction requested by Newsom, with cumulative savings of 5 percent, or 5 gallons per person per day, the analysis found.

Rose-Wong said customers have made aggressive efforts toward efficiency over the last three decades, so “it is getting progressively harder for our customers to reduce” daily gallons per person.

“Yet, we’re proud of our customers’ response in diligently maintaining their water-efficient habits, as water use has dropped by over 30 percent in the past 15 years,” Rose-Wong said.

She added that the DWP uses a 12-month rolling average to track its savings in order to account for changes in population and weather throughout the year. L.A.’s 12-month rolling average for residential, commercial and industrial users went from 113 gallons per person per day in July 2021 to “below 105” gallons in March. For comparison, the same 12-month rolling average was 126 gallons statewide, she said.

Not all of the Los Angeles area was as successful, however.

El Segundo used 25 percent more water between July 2021 and March, more than any other district in the state. City officials said the high consumption was largely due to a massive sewage spill at the Hyperion sewage treatment plant in 2021. The spill resulted in the loss of production of recycled water, which had to be replaced with potable water for several months.

The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District in far Northern California was technically the top performing district in the state, reducing its water use by 41 percent. However general manager John Friedenbach said the numbers were somewhat skewed because its largest water user, an electricity plant, went offline in 2022. The rest of the district’s savings was “pretty average,” he said.

The next biggest saver in the state, the city of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, saw a 35 percent reduction. Healdsburg has long been touted as an example of efficient water savings, achieving significant reductions through household water use caps, a recycled water hauling program, a near-total ban on outdoor irrigation and other conservation efforts.

But while the wet winter offered California a much needed reprieve, experts and officials said now is not the time for residents to ease up. While bouts of extreme precipitation are becoming more frequent, the region will continue to grow hotter and drier overall because of climate change.

“People might be wondering why we should be worrying about saving when Tulare Lake has re-formed, and I think it’s really just being aware that we are facing these long-term challenges,” said Ely, of the state water board. She noted that hotter and drier conditions could diminish 10 percent of existing water supplies by 2040.

“And so all of the water-saving habits that we have cultivated over the last decade are going to continue to serve us in the face of long-term aridification,” she said.

The state is working to roll out its new “Making Conservation a California Way of Life” framework, Ely said, which will establish unique goals for its more than 400 urban water retail suppliers and help drive long-term savings across the state, among other efforts.

The state Legislature is also weighing two bills that could lead to more savings, including one prohibiting the use of potable water on some decorative grasses, and another that would require nonresidential projects to transition to low-water and local native plants.

But California is also facing significant cuts from one of its water lifelines, the shrinking Colorado River, in the years ahead.

Cooley, of the Pacific Institute, said those cuts, along with projections for more arid conditions, mean maintaining efficiency and an ethos of conservation are critically important for California and the West.

“We need to still be pushing toward efficiency so that we make the best use of the resources that we now have,” she said, “and to start preparing for the next drought, which could be just around the corner.”

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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