Amid Ongoing Drought, Californians Are Actually Using More Water. Are Mandatory Cutbacks in the Pipeline?

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A grey-colored buoy sits on the floor of a lake. The buoy sits on wet sand as there is barely any water. Only a puddle is visible behind the buoy.
 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Californians used 2.6% more water this January than they did two years ago, in January 2020, before the state declared a drought emergency, suggesting urban residents are failing to take the warning seriously.

The increased water use in California’s cities and towns came during the second-driest January on record, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack continues to dwindle — and another dry summer looms.

The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the only regions that slightly reduced water consumption in January, using 1.4% less than in January two years ago.

The new state Department of Water Resources data, which details urban water use statewide, shows that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated pleas since last summer for a 15% voluntary cutback in water use compared to 2020 levels are failing to reach many residents, particularly in Southern California. Yet, Newsom has so far stopped short of issuing a mandatory order.

“With the voluntary call, some areas were doing OK, others not so well,” said Heather Cooley, research director with the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank.

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Newsom spokesperson Alex Stack declined to answer whether the governor intends to set a mandatory conservation order.

In January, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted emergency regulations allowing water providers to bar certain wasteful water uses, such as hosing down sidewalks with tap water.

But water use nevertheless ticked up statewide, compared to January two years ago. The biggest increase was in the desert region that includes the Palm Springs area and the Imperial Valley, where water use increased 19% over January 2020 levels. The South Lahontan region, spanning the Sierra Nevada mountain communities of Southern California and Death Valley, had the second highest increase, at 9%. Residents of the Los Angeles basin and San Diego County used 1.8% more water, while those in most of the Central Valley used 6% to 7% more.

There is, however, some progress to report: Statewide, residents used nearly 6.5% less water between July 2021 and January 2022, as compared to that same period two years earlier. But that reduction still fell far short of Newsom’s requested 15%.


Now, a year after Newsom declared a drought emergency in hard-hit northwest counties, some experts say a state mandate is critical to keeping enough water in storage to survive a drought that could last for years.

“The message gets pretty garbled,” Cooley said, of the state's voluntary request. “With a mandate, it’s a very clear message about the need.”

Newsha Ajami, a longtime water researcher, said the mandate should have happened months ago, when reservoirs were low and there was no precipitation in sight. “Having a mandatory water restriction is in everyone’s benefit,” said Ajami, who is a chief strategy and development officer for research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The new state data only includes water use from urban water districts, not rural irrigation districts that serve farms.

At a press conference last week in Sacramento, California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot thanked residents for their water-reduction efforts but reiterated a plea for voluntary cutbacks.

“I'm also here on behalf of Gov. Newsom to ask all of us to do more,” Crowfoot said. “It's once again time for Sacramentans, residents of this region, Californians to step up and help us navigate through this drought.”

Several years into the last devastating drought, in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized state regulators to order reductions from water suppliers in an effort to conserve 25% more water across the state. Regions were assigned a certain percentage of water depending on their existing use — and could face escalating consequences and fines if they exceeded those thresholds.

Californians responded: They cut their water use by 23.9% between June 2015 and February 2016, compared to the same months in 2013, according to water board staff. Cities and towns still use less water daily than they did before the last drought began: about 17% less per person.

This time, however, many water suppliers have relied on ramping up outreach and rebates rather than imposing new restrictions or fines.

Ordering California’s water suppliers to cut back further would likely prove controversial.

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State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Hanford, is skeptical that it would work.

“We’re still not even over the [COVID-19] vaccine mandate and the testing mandate, and now you're going to ask people to cut down on water consumption? That you should take less showers and you can’t get a new pool or whatever it may be?” she said. “Yeah, no, that's going to make people really angry.”

Hurtado called for structural and technological changes — like developing more drought-resistant crops and fixing canals damaged by subsidence — over behavioral ones. Those, however, take time.

Water providers caution against reading too much into the low January conservation numbers: It’s harder for Californians to make a dent in their water use during the winter, when many already cut back on watering their yards.

In December, which had record-setting storms, Californians used 15.6% less water compared to the previous year, with the greatest savings in southern parts of the state. It was the first time Californians statewide crossed the 15% water conservation target that Newsom urged residents to meet last summer.

Since July, the greatest savings came from the hard-hit North Coast and the San Francisco Bay Area, and the least from the inland mountains and deserts of central and southeast California.

Water systems on the North Coast “were the canary in the coal mine,” said Marielle Rhodeiro, research data specialist with the water board’s conservation program. “They were the first to start running out of water. I think there's a little bit more awareness up north, probably because we're closer to the immediate problem.”

Some water suppliers crack down, others coax

For some local water agencies, voluntary calls for conservation have been relatively successful, although reductions have fallen short of the state's 15% target.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, for instance, upped its rates to fund improvements and asked residents to voluntarily cut water use by 10%.

The district ramped up rebates for replacing turf in yards and street medians, and launched an advertising campaign on streaming audio platforms and social media recommending five-minute songs for people to listen to while they showered.

It worked, to a certain extent: From July through December, water use decreased by more than 10%, compared to the same period last year, the district reported to the state. But now the savings are slipping; water use increased in February, according to district water conservation manager Alice Towey.

“Clearly, it’s becoming difficult [to conserve] this time of year, when nature is normally watering our East Bay gardens,” she said. This February was California’s second-driest on record.

Farther south, in San José, insufficient voluntary conservation prompted the local water company to institute surcharges for those who exceeded mandatory limits. In November, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the district’s mandate, which took effect in December.

San José residents saved 20% more water in November compared to 2019 levels. But those savings evaporated in December and January.

The area also lost about half of its above-ground water storage capacity due to earthquake retrofits for the region’s largest reservoir.

Liann Walborsky, San José Water’s director of corporate communications, said her company supported a statewide mandate. “I think it would just help validate all the work we've been doing since June,” she said.

Mandates may not be enough

For some water systems, even mandatory calls for conservation haven’t been enough to weather water shortages.

By May 2021, in the small North Coast hamlet of Mendocino, residents and businesses were required to use 40% less water than their allocations. Wells still went dry, water trucked from other districts climbed in cost when it was available, and restaurants in a town reliant on tourism were forced to weigh whether staying open was worth the expense of washing the dishes.

Ryan Rhoades, supervisor for the Mendocino City Community Services District, said he filled buckets of creek water to keep relatives’ toilets flushing. He said most residents managed to stay below the mandatory target, but estimates that about 5% didn’t.

The county and state stepped in to help, subsidizing trucks to haul water 60 miles from Ukiah to a reservoir in nearby Fort Bragg to bolster the coastal towns’ supplies. The conservation mandate was lifted after early winter rains, and was replaced by a call to voluntarily reduce use by 15% of each well owner’s allotment. The city, however, is bracing for another dry summer — and hoping to prevent more shortages ahead.

Rhoades said he’s awaiting word from the state on possible funding to tie into the local school district’s water supply, drill more wells and increase storage. The wait, he said, is “frustrating and challenging, because people are aware that we have a problem, and we need help.”

The state budget last year included $5.2 billion for drought response and water resiliency. Since the drought began, the Department of Water Resources has awarded more than $195 million to projects aimed at addressing shortages and bolstering emergency and longer-term supplies, including those supporting underserved communities and tribes with well repairs and other efforts.

Legislation enacted after the last drought called for urban water providers to develop water budgets based on a number of factors, including indoor and outdoor water efficiency standards. Calculating water budgets is expected to take through the end of 2023, but could pave the way for more sophisticated, targeted mandates going forward, said Cooley, from the Pacific Institute.

But urban water use is just a small part of California’s water supply problem.

Of all the water Californians use, about 20% flows through urban taps, hoses and sprinklers. Almost all the rest is for agriculture, which pumps water from wells and also gets supplies from rivers as well as state and federal aqueducts.

During the last drought in 2015, Brown was criticized for not imposing conservation orders on that sector.

“We should be doing more conservation in general, and particularly in drought years,” said Jay Lund, a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering. “But the quantities of water that we will save from this conservation will not be enough to take a tremendous amount of pressure off of farmers or off the environment.”

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CalMatters environment coverage is supported by the 11th Hour Project and Len and Mary Anne Baker.