California water use rises amid crippling drought
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Californians increased water consumption this year during the state’s severe drought, despite pleas from the governor to conserve, fallowed farm fields and reservoirs that are quickly draining, according to a report released Tuesday.
The new figures surfaced as state water regulators prepared to vote later in the day on fines up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, fountains, washing vehicles and other outdoor uses.
The numbers underscore the need for action, State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said.
“Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is … and how bad it could be,” she said. “There are communities in danger of running out of water all over the state.”
The report says overall consumption jumped 1 percent, even as Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a 20 percent cutback. It corrected survey results released just a month ago that said use statewide had declined by 5 percent.
The earlier survey prompted the water board to consider the most drastic response yet to California’s drought — imposing fines on water wasters.
If fines don’t work, Marcus said the board would consider other steps, such as requiring water districts to stop leaks in their pipes, which account for an estimated 10 percent of water use, stricter landscape restrictions and encouraging water agencies to boost rates for consumers who use more than their share of water.
The increased usage noted in the report is attributable to two regions of the state: Southern California coastal communities and the far northeastern slice of the state. It was not immediately clear why consumption had increased in those areas.
The report was based on consumption from May compared to the same month in previous years.
No region of California met Brown’s request for a 20 percent reduction, but some came closer than others. Communities that draw from the Sacramento River reduced consumption the most, by 13 percent, while those along the North Coast reduced consumption by 12 percent.
San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California cities that draw from the Colorado River decreased water use by 5 percent.
Cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state’s water, with about half going outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of consumption in the state.
California farmers are just as guilty of using too much water as their urban neighbors, according to a separate report released Tuesday. The study by the University of California, Davis found that some farmers could see their wells run dry next year unless the state sees a wet winter.
The proposal being considered Tuesday by the state board would prohibit the watering of landscaping to the point that runoff spills onto sidewalks or streets. Hosing down sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces would be banned in most cases, along with washing vehicles without a shut-off nozzle.
Violations would be infractions punishable by fines, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and increases for repeat violations.
The report estimates that the proposed restrictions could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.
At the ongoing hearing Tuesday, some water managers told the board the fines would unnecessarily punish customers that already have reduced consumption.
Mark Madison, general manager of the Elk Grove Water District south of Sacramento, said residents in his district have cut water use by more than 18 percent since last year.
“What you’re asking me to do right now is to thank them with a sledgehammer,” he told the board.
In some cities, including San Francisco, officials worry about the prohibition on washing streets and sidewalks. Public Works Department spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said that could interfere with the frequent cleaning of alleys to wash away human waste where there are high concentrations of homeless people.
During the past 12 months, she said the city responded to about 8,000 calls to steam clean streets of such waste.
The proposed state regulations already provide exceptions when health or safety is at risk, but Gordon said San Francisco wants to make sure it doesn’t run afoul of the rules.
Marcus said the board will try to adjust its regulations to allow for the judicious use of power-washing.
“Our intention in this first round was to do what was reasonable and easier to do,” she said.
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