Californians increased water use 18% in April

Californians increased water use 18% in April

California water conservation efforts continued to lag in April despite the deepening drought, according to new state figures released Tuesday.

The Golden State’s urban residents used 17.6% more water in April compared with the same month in 2020, the year the current drought began and the baseline against which conservation efforts are measured.

The South Coast hydrologic region — an area that includes Los Angeles and more than half the state’s population — remained among the worst offenders, using 25.6% more water in April than in April 2020. It was second only to the Colorado River hydrologic region, which increased usage by about 41%.

Officials said the dismal report marked the second straight month of substantially higher water consumption in the state. April’s use was only marginally less than that of March, when Californians used about 19% more water than the baseline.

“The rain is usually finished by the end of April, and as of today, almost 60% of the state is in the two highest drought categories,” Marielle Rhodeiro, a research data specialist with the State Water Resources Control Board, said during Tuesday’s meeting of the board. “As the summer progresses, that number is likely to increase.”

The cumulative savings from last July — when Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Californians to voluntarily cut water use by 15% — to the end of April were just 2%, she said.

The numbers arrived even as state water officials pleaded with residents to do more to conserve. January, February and March marked California’s driest-ever recorded start to the year, and the state now sits in a perilous position as it heads into the hot, dry months of summer.

In fact, the latest U.S. Drought Monitor update, published Thursday, shows about 12% of the state under “exceptional” drought, the worst possible category, up from 0% just three months ago.

Those conditions are “unlikely to improve,” deputy director Eric Ekdahl told the board.

“Expect things to intensify over the next couple of months,” Ekdahl said, noting that almost all of the year’s snow has melted and reservoirs probably won’t receive any more precipitation until at least the start of the next water year in October.

What’s more, the latest temperature outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows above-normal temperatures in California for the next month, Ekdahl said. Much of the state is bracing for a heat wave this week, with Sacramento forecast to hit 105 degrees on Friday.

But the outlook wasn’t all grim. A spot of rain in April helped break the state’s dry streak and “somewhat mediate residential use,” Rhodeiro said.

Two Northern California areas, the North Coast and North Lahontan hydrologic regions, posted gains in April, saving about 14% and 10% respectively, while the San Francisco Bay Area reported no change.

Water board chair Joaquin Esquivel also underscored that 2020, the comparison year, had some of the lowest-ever recorded water usage. When compared to 2021, residents in April used about 7 gallons less per person per day, he said.

“Having that year-over-year reduction from last year is at least heartening,” he said.

What’s more, April’s numbers don’t account for the massive call for conservation ordered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at the end of that month.

Dozens of water agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Water Power, reduced residents to one- or two-day-a-week outdoor watering in response to the MWD’s order beginning June 1. At least one agency, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in western L.A. County, began installing flow restriction devices at the homes of repeat offenders.

Though it’s been less than a week since the MWD’s order kicked in, Las Virgenes general manager David Pedersen told the board there have already been signs of improvement.

“We are fortunately beginning to see some real savings,” Pedersen said. “I know we have looked at the numbers statewide and within our region, and I know at times they’ve been unimpressive, and I’m happy to see that in even the last few weeks, we are seeing water demand significantly decrease in our district, to the tune of about 30, 40%.”

The state water board last month also took the step of banning irrigation of “nonfunctional grass,” or grass that is purely decorative, at businesses and in common areas of subdivisions and property controlled by homeowner associations. And regional water agencies are continuing to push rebate programs for lawn replacement and high-efficiency appliance upgrades.

“Given the increased aridity that we know we face … this isn’t just about this drought,” Esquivel said. “It is really about continuing to shift our landscapes to be reflective of the reality of the climate we live in now, let alone what we’ll be facing in the next decade.”

Indeed, many of the state’s residents will face a long, challenging season, particularly as local and regional reservoirs continue to dip toward record lows. Lake Oroville — the largest reservoir in the State Water Project — was at 53% capacity on Tuesday.

During the meeting, officials said the dry conditions will likely trigger additional curtailments of water rights in the San Joaquin watershed and Russian River, among other tributaries in the state. Drought program response manager Eric Zúñiga also sounded the alarm about “a steady entry of new dry wells reported on an ongoing basis.”

“Even though the rate hasn’t necessarily increased, it’s a really steady drumbeat of continual dry wells reporting, indicating that status quo is is not necessarily a good status, either” he said.

Edward Ortiz, a spokesman for the water board, noted that the state’s exceptional dryness has also compelled many people to water more, not less, than they did in 2020.

“Transitioning to more efficiently irrigated, California-friendly landscapes would dramatically reduce this need,” he said.

Officials hoped the combination of efforts would add up to some savings, with Rhodeiro noting that “one or two storms is not enough to erase an overall deficit over the course of the water year. “

“If it’s as dry or drier than last summer, then water conservation and efficiency is going to be even more critical,” she said.

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