By Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow

Californians are letting their lawns turn brown. They are driving dusty cars and using buckets to collect shower water. They are saving billions of gallons of water every day.

The extent of this commitment was evident Thursday as the state released new figures showing that urban water use statewide dropped by 31 percent in July compared with 2013.

The numbers reflect broad conservation success at a crucial time. Last year, Californians used more water in July than any other month, mostly because of lawn watering in the summer heat. This year's urban conservation efforts resulted in a savings of more than 74 billion gallons in July compared with 2013, more than double the amount of water that the entire city of Sacramento will use in a year.

"That's a tremendous achievement," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water regulation in California. "During a hot summer month, that is most welcome."

Californians are under orders to reduce water use, on average, at least 25 percent between June and February compared with the same months in 2013 to help the state weather the ongoing drought. July was the second month in which conservation numbers count toward that broad target. In June, Californians cut water use by 27 percent.

The new figures do not reflect agricultural use. Crop irrigation accounts for about 80 percent of the "developed" water in California, meaning water that people put to use. The remaining 20 percent goes to urban areas. Farms have drastically cut surface water use during the state's four-year drought but have greatly increased their groundwater pumping.

Cities and urban water agencies throughout the state have been ordered to cut usage by varying amounts, with heavier users subject to far larger cuts. Sacramento-area water agencies -- typically among the state's heaviest per-capita users in summer -- are under orders to reduce consumption 28 percent to 36 percent over 2013.

The Sacramento region as a whole achieved the largest water-use savings -- about 38 percent -- in the state during July. The South Coast -- where many communities already used less water per capita than Sacramento and other inland cities -- saw the smallest declines. About 4 in 5 of California's roughly 420 water districts reported water-use cuts of at least 25 percent in July. Those districts serve more than 25 million people.

Most big cities in California, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, hit or surpassed their conservation targets. Only four of the state's water districts missed their targets by more than 15 percentage points: the small towns of Livingston, Blythe, Redlands and Hanford. The city of Redlands in Southern California used about 245 gallons of water per person per day -- almost double the statewide average.

The state will issue "conservation orders" to nine water districts that have struggled to hit targets so far this summer, officials said. Those orders will outline concrete steps the districts must take to save water but will not yet include fines. None of the nine districts are in the four-county Sacramento region.

California American Water Co.-Sacramento, which serves Antelope and other Sacramento suburbs, and the city of Woodland posted the largest water savings in the region during July. Both reduced use by 45 percent compared with 2013.

Rob Sanders, Woodland's public works deputy director, credited his city's success to "a lot of public outreach and everybody in the city pitching in."

Evan Jacobs, a spokesman for California American Water, said his district has benefited from long-standing rebate programs for toilets, washing machines and turf. Since 2005, the utility also has spent $40 million to install 47,000 water meters.

"We were one of the first agencies in the region to become completely metered," Jacobs said. "That investment in water meters gives customers better access to information to know how much they're using."

While applauding their customers' efforts, Sanders and Jacobs said the conservation gains pose challenges for their utilities. Annual costs remain fixed for upkeep and operations of water delivery systems even as revenue from customer use decline. Jacobs said rate increases could be necessary to make up the difference.

"There will be some savings in there, but customers will probably be paying about the same for using less at the end of the day," he said. "I think you're going to be seeing that all across the region."

State officials expressed concern Thursday that the much-discussed forecast of an El Niño weather pattern -- and the increased rainfall an El Niño could bring this winter -- would dampen enthusiasm for water conservation. Over the last few months, they have downplayed the possibility that El Niño would rescue the state from drought.

"There is no guarantee we will see the amount of precipitation we need in the right places," Marcus said. "We need to hope for as much rain as we can safely handle, but it may not save us."

Whether the state will extend or amend conservation targets next year depends largely on how much rain the winter brings and where, and whether the mountain snowpack that serves as the state's primary freshwater bank is replenished.

"Really, that's the information we need to evaluate whether to continue these regulations or modify them in some way," said Max Gomberg, the water board's climate and conservation program manager. "I think if, heaven forbid, we have another winter like the one we just had, certainly I could see the regulations being extended, but whether the percentage would go up, I don't know. It's really speculative."

(c)2015 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)