In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom urged a 15% voluntary reduction of water use compared to 2020 levels, and as he recently expanded the state’s drought emergency to all 58 counties, he noted the state had achieved only a 5% reduction to date.
“As the Western U.S. faces a potential third year of drought, it’s critical that Californians across the state redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible,” Newsom said. “With historic investments and urgent action, the state is moving to protect our communities, businesses and ecosystems from the immediate impacts of the drought emergency while building long-term water resilience to help the state meet the challenge of climate change impacts making droughts more common and more severe.”
Data provided by the City of Brentwood shows that per capita water consumption during August and September was 4.1% lower than the same period in 2020. The city saw major reductions in water use in 2015 when usage rates dropped by approximately 40% compared to 2013. Since then, usage rebounded to some degree, but still settled well below 2013 levels. The challenge facing the city is where to go from here.
“Now, basically every house has low-flow toilets and low-flow showers,” said Casey Wichert, assistant director of public works for the City of Brentwood. “All the low-hanging fruit from a water conservation standpoint is in place. Really, the only tool we have left is, ‘Don’t water your yard.’ And that’s a little more difficult to do.”
“We don’t think there’s as much potential to decrease water use from a voluntary perspective. People just aren’t interested in taking out their yards unless you’re going to have a rebate program to pay them to do it, and we don’t have that anymore. We had that in 2015, and a lot of people took advantage of it. It would take some mandatory measure from the governor for us to find the funding to implement something like that again. That’s why we say it’s probably unlikely that voluntary reduction will ever get us to that 15% number.”
The Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) declared a Stage 1 water shortage level in early July. That declaration included a request for a 10% voluntary water-use reduction – short of the governor’s 15% reduction goal – from its 500,000 customers in east and central Contra Costa County.
“We have not changed our ask at this point,” said Jennifer Allen, CCWD director of public affairs. “The latest number we reported to the state was 9% savings. We thank customers for their conservation efforts.”
Newsom issued his first drought emergency declaration in April. It impacted the Russian River watershed including Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Throughout the spring and summer, more counties were included in the drought emergency. On Oct. 19, he added the last eight counties to the declaration, and at the same time he gave the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) the ability to ban wasteful water practices including the use of potable water for washing sidewalks and driveways.
Ailene Voisin, SWRCB public information officer, noted that the agency was not limited to the actions identified by the governor. But to date, the agency has not approved any statewide mandatory restriction on water use.
At the same time the governor was expanding the water board’s power to restrict water use, the SWRCB lifted a ban on pumping from the Delta that took effect on Aug. 20. The action was prompted by the heavy rain that was in the forecast. That rain did materialize over several days in late October.
“We are optimistic that the rainy pattern will continue,” said Dan Muelrath, general manager of the Diablo Water District. “Now that the first large storm of the season has saturated the ground, additional rain and snow will result in runoff to the state’s reservoirs. For now, we are maintaining that customers should always be efficient with their water use as we never know when this drought will end or the next one will start.”