California water use rises amid crippling drought

AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezEighi Hiastake

AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezEighi Hiastake

Californians increased water consumption this year during the 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 State Water Resources Control Board released the updated results from a water-use survey that said overall consumption had risen 1 percent, even as Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a 20 percent cutback.

The report 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 of up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, fountains, washing vehicles and other outdoor uses.

Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the new usage figures underscore the need for action.

“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 increase noted in the new report is attributable to two regions of the state: Southern California coastal communities and the far northeastern slice of the state.

The updated number was based on surveys taken from water districts throughout California and was based on consumption from May compared to the same month in previous years.

Marcus said the board will consider other steps if the $500-a-day fines being considered Tuesday don't work. Those could include 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.

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 cities and Southern California cities that draw from the Colorado River decreased water use by 5 percent.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that 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 farmers could see their wells run dry next year unless the state sees a wet winter. California is the only western state that does not measure groundwater use.

The outdoor water rules 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 along with washing vehicles without a shut-off nozzle.

Violations would be infractions punishable by the fines, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and increases for repeat violations.

It estimates that the proposed restrictions could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.

Officials in some cities, including San Francisco, 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 even as it takes other steps to conserve water.

Marcus, the chairwoman, said the board will try to adjust its regulation to allow for the judicious use of power-washing, after industry representatives said it is efficient and necessary for everything from erasing graffiti to preparing homes for repainting.

“Our intention in this first round was to do what was reasonable and easier to do,” she said.

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