Calif. water board says February savings were worst yet

Fenit Nirappil
Associated Press

Sacramento, Calif. — California’s water board said Tuesday that February was the worst month for conservation since officials began tracking savings efforts nine months ago in response to the state’s historic drought.

Figures reported by local water departments showed statewide reductions of just 3 percent in February compared with baseline numbers, despite following the driest January on California record.

The dismal savings come as cities brace for mandatory water restrictions.

These are “obviously very sobering times and ones where everyone needs to step up,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Conservation varied widely across the state. The report showed water use increasing 2 percent along the south coastline, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego. San Francisco Bay Area communities, meanwhile, cut back by 8 percent.

The figures support Gov. Jerry Brown’s position that voluntary water cutbacks haven’t been enough as dry conditions worsen. Brown signed an order last week demanding a 25 percent drop in statewide urban water use compared to 2013, the year before he declared a drought emergency.

The State Water Resources Control Board also began discussing Tuesday how to enforce new mandatory reductions, fast-tracking regulations that will likely come up for a vote next month. The requirements are likely to include cutback targets based on how much water city residents use.

Brown called on residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 20 percent when he declared the drought emergency in January 2014.

But statewide conservation has only been about 10 percent, with some communities exceeding 30 percent. Places such as Newport Beach, which cut average monthly water use by 5.5 percent between July and January, face fines if they do not take steps to conserve.

Newport Beach already limits lawn watering to four times a week, which is more lenient than state recommendations, and it prohibits residents from refilling their pools more than 1 foot a week. Still, since July, Newport Beach residents used 124 gallons a day, compared with 100 gallons a day for other residents who live along the southern coastline.

After months spent informing residents about new water-use rules, Newport Beach officials are seeking new authority to issue fines and have sent out hundreds of warnings.

“We liked the friendly approach, and it seems to be working well, but we aren’t afraid to issue citations,” said George Murdoch, the city’s utilities general manager.

The water board has given local water departments discretion to come up with their own conservation rules, but it has established some statewide regulations, such as banning lawn watering 48 hours after rain and prohibiting restaurants from serving water unless customers ask.

The agency also plans to have municipalities penalize overconsumption through billing rates.

Up and down the coast, water use is expected to increase this summer as tourists and seasonal residents flood into beach homes. Those guests and visitors haven’t been exposed to the same conservation outreach as Californians, presenting an extra challenge.

Meanwhile, Southern California’s giant Metropolitan Water District will vote next week on a plan to ration water deliveries to the 26 agencies and cities it supplies, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

The cuts, which would take effect July 1, were proposed before the governor imposed the mandatory restrictions and are expected to drive agencies to curb demand and help meet the conservation goals.

Metropolitan last rationed deliveries in 2009 and 2010, during the previous drought.