Officials: Complacency Drives Hike in Water Use

Some Southern California water districts became so good at saving water and building their own water storage facilities in recent decades that residents are not feeling the effects of the worst drought to hit the state in a generation.

That's a problem.

Thinking plenty of water was available at the start of summer, residents along a coastal area doused their lawns and filled their pools, while elsewhere in the state farmers fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres.

The coastal region was cited along with the northeast corner of the state in a study released Tuesday as areas that saw significant increases in water use, even as Gov. Jerry Brown called for Californians to cut use by 20 percent.

The same day, state regulators moved to jolt residents into saving water by authorizing fines up to $500 for wasting water on lawns or letting hoses run while they're washing vehicles.

"They're basically reaching out and grabbing urban California by the lapels and saying you have to take this drought seriously," Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said Wednesday.

The urgency has grown after the report by the State Water Resources Control Board showed that overall statewide water consumption increased by 1 percent in May over previous years.

The increase was driven mainly by the heavily populated Southern California coastal communities that increased water use by 8 percent in May and the rural northeastern area of the state where use jumped 5 percent.

Officials say those areas are not seeing the effects of the drought, partly because of efforts made by districts to conserve and build water storage in recent decades.

The drought "doesn't seem as big of a deal," Andrew Rossignol said Wednesday as he washed his car in the driveway of his Santa Ana home.

The 32-year-old musician recalls being taught to conserve water as a youngster. And though he still saves water, now the drought is something he hears mentioned in radio news reports or sees in fleeting public service messages on freeway signs.

Anaheim resident Sandra Tran is frustrated because state and local water managers are sending conflicting messages. While the state threatens $500-a-day fines, last week she received a $200 citation from Orange County for her brown lawn, instructing her to maintain her vegetation in a healthy green condition.

"It's almost crazy because one agency is telling you one thing and another is forcing you to do the opposite," said Tran, 47, who said she now spends 30 minutes a day watering her lawn to avoid future citations.

Orange County code enforcement manager Hadi Tabatabaee said that while residents are responsible for watering their grass, they are encouraged to switch to drought-resistant landscaping — a change that can cost thousands of dollars.

Unlike the southern coastal area, communities that draw from the Sacramento River reduced their consumption the most, by 13 percent, while those along the North Coast used 12 percent less. San Francisco Bay Area cities and Southern California cities that draw from the Colorado River decreased use by 5 percent.

Agriculture is by far the state's greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of consumption. Cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state's water, with about half going outdoors.

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