Are California Cities Retaining Enough Water?

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As California’s latest rapid drought accelerated earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called on residents to participate in a voluntary 15% reduction in water consumption in July. Sadly, Californians have yet to realize the savings he asked for. In September, for example, statewide water use in towns and villages has fallen by only 3.9% compared to the same month last year, and the overall savings between July and October were only 5.6%. Some recent encouraging news showed the start of a shift, with water savings in October reaching 13%.

Still, some fear residents may be backing down on water conservation, especially in the last major drought, when average savings finally hit nearly 25%. But the data shows a more nuanced picture, which it may be useful to take a closer look at as California faces a possible third year of drought.

Not our first drought rodeo

During the 2012-2016 drought, then Governor Brown also called for voluntary savings, and water use declined 11% statewide between June 2014 and May 2015, compared to the same months in 2013. But as drought conditions progressed, he ordered a statewide conservation mandate – and the State Water Board established mandatory savings requirements for all. urban water suppliers.

So far, the Newsom administration has taken a more responsive approach, allowing the water agencies themselves to assess the ability of their supplies to meet demand and take action based on their local conditions. . And what the data shows is that agencies that reported facing poor conditions have already conserved a lot of water since last year, in some cases exceeding the 15% reduction requested by the governor. These agencies are located in the regions that have been hardest hit by the current drought: the North Coast and the Bay Area (Figure 1). A similar pattern emerged during the voluntary conservation phase of the last drought, when agencies facing worse conditions pushed for more aggressive economies.

There are also compelling reasons why water agencies may have struggled to realize the savings they made during the last drought. On the one hand, there is the issue of attracting the public’s attention. In a year that has seen a plethora of major reporting, the drought has simply not been recorded in public consciousness in the same way as the previous drought.

Following Governor Brown’s declaration of drought emergency in January 2014, water and drought quickly gained traction in public consciousness. announced mandatory retention in April 2015 (Figure 2). In 2021 – when drought conditions were similar to 2014 – drought did not even reach the top five concerns. The ongoing global pandemic, coupled with problems with housing, wildfires and the economy, seems to have left little room for drought in people’s minds.

figure - Californians were more concerned about water during the last great drought

Second, most water agencies are starting from a very different water use base than they were at the start of the last drought. Water use declined dramatically at the end of 2015, and for most communities, many of these savings remained in place (Figure 3). More than a third of state agencies use at least 15% less water than in 2013, and 71% of agencies use at least 10% less. This has made it more difficult for some agencies to achieve water savings during the current drought, as per capita use is already low and many of the easier water-saving adjustments have already been made. .

figure - Conservation has remained strong since the last drought, and many urban agencies are starting from a lower baseline

It is also important to note that the summer of 2021 was hottest ever. This has affected agencies with more outdoor use, especially indoor agencies, where temperature changes and demand impacts are greatest.

Finding the right approach if drought persists

As a third year of drought looms, we are already seeing signs of change: two of the state’s largest urban water wholesalers, Metropolitan water district and San Francisco, announced drought-related emergencies last month. The state is also adopt more stringent conservation measures, such as the proposed ban on certain unnecessary uses of water outdoors, and signaling the potential for conservation mandates if this winter’s rains do not materialize.

While we don’t yet know what the winter skies will bring, it’s clear the state and local agencies will need to work together to manage a third year of severe drought. Now is the time to continue monitoring, while preparing to take quick action in early spring. Aligned national and local action and messages could help reduce the noise of increasingly crowded information cycles.

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