State officials on Tuesday reported the largest monthly decline in water use this year as the severity of California's drought hits home, with community wells running dry, farm fields turning to dust and key reservoirs at a fraction of their capacity.
Water suppliers reported that consumption fell 11.5 percent in August compared with the year before. That was the first full month of mandatory restrictions and fines for water-wasters imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board in July.
“The trend here is very good,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the board. “It appears the audience is listening, and folks have shifted into gear since we took action.”
The data is self-reported by water agencies with 3,000 or more customers. Together, the reporting agencies serve 33.5 million Californians, or roughly 87 percent of the state's population.
Gov. Jerry Brown called on Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent when he declared a drought emergency in January. Californians could face further restrictions if the drought worsens and the coming winter fails to produce adequate snow and rainfall.
Marcus says the board is focused on pushing hesitant cities to conserve as much as they can for worse-case-scenarios, rather than achieving an across-the-board 20 percent cut in water use.
A similar voluntary survey showed water use actually increased by 1 percent in May. Since then, mandatory reporting shows monthly water use has declined — by 4.4 percent in June and 7.5 percent in July.
Of large suppliers serving 40,000 or more customers, the city of Tracy in Northern California had the largest percentage decrease in August water consumption, at 41 percent. Ten actually increased their water use.
The figures include residential and business users but do not show per-capita water use. As a result, it's easier for cities such as Sacramento and Fresno that have lacked meters and guzzled water to cut back compared with communities that have long conserved.
Take San Luis Obispo, which reported the largest jump in August water use, 26 percent. Ron Munds, the city utilities services manager, said years of conservation brought water use down from 180 gallons per day, per person to about 100 in the last two decades, which helped boost supplies to last seven years of drought.
“We haven't been pounding the water conservation message out there probably like other cities, but at the same time we are not in a panic situation,” he said.
Water agencies will start reporting per-capita consumption estimates this month.
“It allows us to identify those areas that maybe aren't doing as much as they could and leaving alone the folks already squeezing blood from turnip,” Marcus said.