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California Water Use Fell 13.5 Percent In April Amid Drought

San Diego cut its water use by 3.5 percent, far from required 16 percent

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Associated Press

Glen Peterson, left, looks on as Dan Denning, a water conservationist for San Diego County Water Authority checks sprinkler flow on his lawn as part of the county's "Watersmart Checkup" in Carlsbad, May 6, 2015.

The 13.5 percent reduction is the second-best conservation achievement since state officials started closely tracking water use more than a year ago, but it falls short of the 25 percent in cuts Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered.

Ordered to use a fourth less water during this record drought, Californians managed to get about halfway to their goal in April, regulators announced Tuesday.

California residents reduced overall water usage by 13.5 percent compared to the same month in the benchmark year of 2013, water officials said.

That's the second-best conservation achievement since state officials started closely tracking water use more than a year ago, but it falls short of the 25 percent in cuts Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered. Those reductions became mandatory for cities and towns on Monday.

The city of San Diego cut its water use by 3.5 percent from April 2013 to April 2015, according to the state data. Beginning in June, the city has to cut its water use by 16 percent from the same month two years ago.

Rancho Santa Fe, the unincorporated area in San Diego County notorious for its high water use, increased its water use by 9 percent, as did Solana Beach.

Customers supplied by the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which includes Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch, used 426.6 gallons of water per capita each day, according to the data. Only one other district in the state came close to such high usage, the state figures showed.

By comparison, customers of urban and suburban cities and water districts used 100 to 150 gallons per capita each day. The state has ordered the Santa Fe Irrigation District to cut back its use by 36 percent from the 2013 totals.

Oceanside cut its use by 9 percent, Carlsbad by 10 percent, Poway by 13 percent and Escondido by 11 percent.

San Diego won a national contest for water conservation on Tuesday, but the award recognized the number of people who pledged to save water, not actual water use. On Monday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer touted the city's savings at a news conference but listed several water-saving rebate programs that have expired until July.

Faulconer also said the city's Parks and Recreation Department is cutting its water use.

"We’ve eliminated irrigation at off leash dog parks, cut back water at city golf courses and reduced the operation of fountains," he said.

But cutbacks at golf courses haven’t started yet and many fountains remain on.

Matt O'Malley, legal and policy director for the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper, said it's disappointing to see San Diego has not cut back its water use by much.

"All along we’ve questioned what the city’s plan for this will be, what’s the response plan, how they plan on implementing the 16 percent, and at this point I don’t think we have a good answer," he said. "So we’re really curious to see what the plan is because what’s been happening to date has definitely not been working. Everyone needs to step up their act, and that includes the city."

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, which compiles usage reports from more than 400 water agencies around California, said across the state many local communities "are stepping up in a way they weren't before, and I'm hoping that's why we are starting to see the uptick" in conservation.

"The real challenge is, we really have to step it up for the summer months," Marcus said. "If we miss the summer, we are toast."

April's still-lackluster achievement could set off more alarm bells about the severity of California's drought and the need for much more conservation.

This year's snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is dismal, with surveyors on April 1 finding the lowest-ever water level up in the mountains. Brown used that grim news as a backdrop when he announced sweeping and unprecedented conservation measures.

"When they saw the governor out on that dry meadow and saw what was in his executive order, and realized it was really time to step up, they really started to step up," said board scientist Max Gomberg, who is overseeing conservation.

And yet, many communities are still falling far short.

The Southern California coast, a region including Los Angeles and San Diego, cut just 9 percent in April, compared to a 20 percent reduction in the San Francisco Bay Area and 24 percent in the Sacramento area.

Water districts that fall short of mandated conservation targets face potential fines of up to $10,000 a day once the June numbers are in, although a far more likely outcome will be state-ordered changes in local regulations, like tougher limits on lawn-watering.

Each community was assigned a reduction target, with some ordered to cut back as much as 36 percent.

The board also is tracking water waste, and could penalize local agencies that don't crack down on it. Only about a tenth of water departments reported issuing any sort of penalties of their own for water waste.

While many water agencies have enough supplies to avoid the brunt of the drought, some rural communities have had wells run dry.

The shift to mandatory conservation followed lackluster savings through a voluntary effort, with water use slipping just 3 percent in February and 4 percent in March compared to levels in 2013.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rancha Santa Fe and Escondido's water use. City News Service contributed to this report.

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