California Tries to Measure Water Use as Drought Worsens

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Erik Schatzker and Stephanie Ruhle report on the extreme drought affecting 80% of California. They speak on “Market Makers.” (Source: Bloomberg)

State and local officials in California are struggling to track water use as Governor Jerry Brown calls for a 20 percent drop in consumption to alleviate a record drought.

The State Water Resources Control Board, for instance, reported usage in Santa Ana soared 63.6 percent in May from the average of corresponding months in 2011-2013, while the city said the increase was 7 percent. In Garden Grove, the public works director said use fell 14.4 percent in the month, contrary to the 31.5 percent increase attributed by the state agency.

“Despite our longstanding water problems, we don’t accurately report and measure water in any sector -- urban or agricultural,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for water conservation. “That makes it difficult to implement programs to conserve water and deal with this crisis.”

The historic drought has Brown and other officials searching for solutions as they levy penalties for over-watering lawns and using a hose without a shut-off valve when washing cars. Last year was the driest on record in California, and 80 percent of the most populous U.S. state is now experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website.

In the first six months of this year, downtown Los Angeles received 5.11 inches of rain, compared with an average of 8.59 inches for the period since 2000, according to the National Weather Service. Most of California’s reservoirs are below 50 percent of capacity.

Collecting Data

The control board began collecting data from cities and local water districts in May, in response to an executive order from Brown the previous month, calling for immediate action to curb use and better monitor reserves. Errors in the data came from communities and agencies that self-reported their consumption, said George Kostyrko, a control board spokesman.

Of the 440 urban water suppliers surveyed, 276 responded. Few were in San Diego County, the second most-populous in the state, where the countywide water agency objected to the study’s format, Kostyrko said. Beginning Aug. 15, cities and water agencies will be required to report data, and kinks in the information should be worked out, he said.

Such flaws notwithstanding, the agency reported July 15 that consumption statewide rose 1 percent in May, compared with the average of the corresponding months in the three prior years. The biggest increase, 8 percent, was in urban Southern California. Armed with that information, the board voted to authorize $500 penalties for defying conservation rules.

‘Substantial Response’

“We did get enough information to know that we did not get a substantial response to the governor’s call for voluntary conservation,” Kostyrko said.

In Santa Ana, the difference in state and city data was the result of a typographical error, Tanya Lyon, a city spokeswoman, said by e-mail. The gap in Garden Grove was due to different accounting over locally pumped groundwater and imported supplies, Bill Murray, the public works director, said by e-mail.

Brown asked for the 20 percent cutback in January as he declared a state of emergency, with snowpack at 20 percent of seasonal norms, record low levels in rivers and reservoirs and depleted groundwater supplies.

Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, called the new measures against water waste a necessary step, though he said “more aggressive action” may be needed. Westrup didn’t respond to an inquiry about the reliability of the control board’s figures.

Reducing Consumption

Flawed as the numbers were, they showed that Californians haven’t done enough to reduce consumption in the face of the drought, Gleick said.

The control board set fines of as much as $500 a day on residential and business property owners if they over-water lawns to the point that runoff flows onto streets or sidewalks. People washing cars without shut-off nozzles on hoses would also face penalties.

Some cities have imposed their own restrictions on outdoor water use, require residents to immediately fix leaks and forbid restaurants to serve water unless the customer asks, according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

Some of the cities and water districts said to have the largest increases in water use confirmed the state’s figures. San Juan Capistrano’s consumption went up 36.5 percent, partly because a golf course switched from its own wells to the city’s supply, said Francie Kennedy, the Orange County community’s water-conservation coordinator.

In La Verne, in eastern Los Angeles County, public works director Daniel Keesey attributed a 20.1 percent increase to residents watering their lawns and plants to prevent damage due to unusual May heat.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Nash in Los Angeles at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Jeffrey Taylor, Pete Young

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