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You’re not saving enough water, Southern California

Shame on you Colton and El Segundo, Torrance and Brea, Big Bear Lake and Coachella! Tsk, tsk, Desert Water Agency, Laguna Beach County Water District and Irvine Ranch!

All told, 33 water agencies – of the Southland’s 144 reporting – used more water in May 2022 than they did in May 2020, according to the most recent state data.

The governor, you may recall, has asked us to cut back 15% to deal with historic drought.


But kudos, fireworks and parades may be in order for the biggest water-savers in the Southland, who far surpassed the governor’s goal.

While the October storms that pounded northern California helped the state's drought a bit, Lake Oroville -- seen above in August -- and other major reservoirs remain well below usual levels and federal forecasters say the drought is likely to continue after this winter. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope, File)
Lake Oroville and other major reservoirs remain well below usual levels. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope, File)

They include the cities of Perris and Orange; the El Toro, Mesa and Las Virgenes water districts; and the Lincoln Avenue and Sunny Slope water companies, all of which saved more than 19% (and some as much as 47%!), when comparing one May to the other.

Statewide, water use was 3.1% lower in May than it was two years earlier, said a spokesman for the California Water Boards.

Los Angeles County agencies eclipsed that, saving 5.3%; while Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino county agencies fell short (saving just 2%, 2.3% and 2.7% respectively).

Filling up a glass with water from a kitchen tap. (Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Filling up a glass with water from a kitchen tap. (Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“This increase in conservation reverses the trend we saw in March and April, when water use spiked at the conclusion of what was the driest January, February and March on record dating back over 100 years,” the water board said in its data summary.

“While the state is heading in the right direction, every Californian and business needs to do more to conserve water.”

There are hopeful signs. Early data from June – covering just 30% of the state’s population – show water savings of 7.7% over June 2020.

“So far, weather and precipitation have been determining California’s water use instead of our collective drive to conserve,” the department said. “Many Californians turned on irrigation systems earlier this year in response to historically hot and dry conditions, increasing water use. We must continue to make up lost ground from past months to meet the 15% goal; doing so will require more aggressive conservation actions on everyone’s part.”

Going up

The Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs landed way high on the water users list, but spokeswoman Ashley Metzger said that’s largely due to the way it reported data back in 2020 and how it’s required to report now.

By the district’s calculations, the increase wasn’t really the startling 44.2% shown by the data, but more like 15.5%.

Why, exactly? The old data tracks only water sold, while the new data tracks water sold and system losses, Metzger said. Desert will update the state database so the comparison is apples to apples, she said.

But, mea culpa. “We are still a high-use area,” she said. “We’re in Palm Springs. It’s very hot here!”

It was 108 degrees on Friday, what’s expected to be the coolest day for the next week; the area is a playground for tourists, which makes the 2020 pandemic comparison a bit problematic, as business is bustling again; and the region has become home to telecommuters who’ve fled pricier digs near the coast, she said.

“All of this said, the bottom line is that we can do better,” she said by email. “We are working with our customers on carrots to incentivize investments in water efficiency and we are also using sticks with water waste enforcement, patrol and penalties. We just increased our grass removal incentive to $3 per square foot. We also just trained our staff to do more comprehensive water audits to help large customers save water. We are actively pursuing grants to expand conservation.”

The detail locals need to understand is that they are not at risk of running out of water, despite the historic drought. 

Unlike so many other Southland cities and water districts that must rely on expensive imported water, Desert is perched atop an abundant aquifer and can stick its straw into the groundwater without worry. Several other high-use cities/districts are in the same lucky spot.

So reducing use in Desert won’t help folks in, say, Orange County, but it will help ensure there’s water for Desert’s future generations.

“Fortunately, there are a lot of people who want to do the right thing anyway,” she said.

Flow restrictors, fines

It’s not easy.

The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Calabasas is one of the state’s thirstiest water users on a per-capita basis — historically averaging more than 200 gallons a day, or more than twice the state average — because it serves primarily residential housing on large lots.

It saw the writing on the wall in June 2021 and adopted a “Water Shortage Contingency Plan” and began escalating its drought messaging, but with limited success.

A worker Scott Brothers Dairy near San Jacinto, monitors a pivot line irrigation system in an alfalfa field that uses recycled water, on Wednesday, July 5, 2015. Climate change is expected to hurt Riverside County's economy by making it more difficult to grow crops, among other factors.
A worker Scott Brothers Dairy near San Jacinto, monitors a pivot line irrigation system that uses recycled water, (File photo)

“It wasn’t until we modified our penalty structure in November of 2021, and after we started installing flow-restriction devices, that we started seeing substantial water conservation,” said Joe McDermott, director of engineering, by email.

Those flow-restriction devices started going in on June 1. At the same time, the district began one-day-per-week watering, and increased enforcement efforts via water patrols.

“While we have seen some substantial reductions in water consumption, we still have much work to do,” he said. “Our goal is to achieve at least a 35% conservation level overall each month compared to the same month in 2020. For those customers that are still exceeding their water budget, they are facing the prospect of financial penalties as high as $10 for every unit (748) gallons of water that is above and beyond what is needed and a flow-restriction device.  More outreach efforts and escalating enforcement efforts may also be required to achieve this target.”

Going down

Those that have done a bang-up job cutting back their water use share some characteristics. Consider Mesa Water, which reduced its usage by 28.6%.

SOURCE: California Water Boards
SOURCE: California Water Boards

“Mesa Water’s customers have voluntarily made water use efficiency a way of life – which has prepared us for weather extremes – with ‘WaterSmart’ plants, irrigation technologies and habits that not only save money but also create vibrant yards, reduce energy use and protect natural resources,” spokeswoman Stacy Lynne Taylor said by email.

“Along with Mesa Water’s uniform volumetric water rate structure that provides a very strong price signal to conserve, our district has made significant investments in water-saving incentives and education to encourage our customers to ‘Be Mesa Water Wise,’ especially outdoors where customers use the most water.”

Mesa, and other water-thrifty agencies, encourage people to plant California-friendly trees and plants, adjust sprinkler heads and fix leaks, invest in smart sprinkler timers (that can help save up to 13,500 gallons annually) and pool covers. Mesa also encourages customers to take advantage of rebates for turf removal and drip irrigation installation.

“Mesa Water has a 100% local supply of water due to long-term investments in water sources and infrastructure. Our customers always have several years’ supply of local, reliable, clean, safe, groundwater in storage,” she said.

If more cities and districts don’t follow suit and take more aggressive actions, the state might be forced to enact mandatory restrictions, officials said.

“In Southern California and elsewhere, we’ve seen growing local response to the drought; many suppliers have implemented restrictions on outdoor irrigation,” the state water board said in a statement. “Thirsty lawns and plants account for a significant amount of our water use, especially during summer months. Cutting down on outdoor irrigation — which can account for up to 80% of urban water use and is higher in the summer — is critical to reaching our conservation goals.”

Final urban water data for June will be parsed at the State Water Board’s Aug. 2 meeting, when officials may ponder more severe conservation measures.

“As California’s climate becomes more and more similar to what we’d see in Mediterranean parts of the world, it’s time to shift our perspective on what beautiful landscaping looks like,” officials said.

Source: Orange County Register

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