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Water usage in California drops 10% in July

SACRAMENTO — Californians stepped up their water conservation in July, using 10.4% less than two years ago as the state struggles with a years-long drought, state water officials said Wednesday.

July marks the first full month that new conservation rules like a ban on watering decorative grass were in effect, which state water officials said helped make a difference. Water use started to trend down in June after a bump in April and May.

Still, conservation over the past year is still far below the 15% drop Gov. Gavin Newsom requested in summer 2021 as the state fought to maintain critical water supplies in anticipation of a drier year ahead. Statewide, water use is down since then by just 3.4% compared with 2020, the year Newsom is measuring against.

Currently, there is no indication that Gov. Newsom will implement a statewide mandate as he did in 2020.   

The State Water Resources Control Board reported the monthly numbers, based on data from urban water suppliers.

"Last summer the savings numbers were slow to ramp up because the governor's call had just gone into effect. But the most recent numbers show how far we've come," said Marielle Rhodeiro, a research data specialist with the board. "We can see some achievements — quite heartening."

Much of California remains gripped by a severe drought, with many counties throughout the hot, dry Central Valley in exceptional drought, the highest category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Meanwhile, the board's monthly report came as a heat wave that has lasted longer than a week blankets the state, forcing unprecedented power demands. It's not yet clear how the abnormally hot September temperatures will change water use for the month.

Residents on average used 104 gallons per day in July, 12 gallons per day less than a year ago. It was the lowest July water use since mandatory restrictions in July 2015, when usage dropped to 98 gallons per person per day.

"What a ride it's been," said the board's chairman, E. Joaquin Esquivel.

"We know that we need to keep the momentum going," he added later, warning that the state seems likely to face another winter with below-average precipitation.

Three of the state's 10 water regions exceeded 15% savings, Rhodeiro said, with the North Coast region "completely blowing it out of the water" with 28.5% less water usage over 2020. The San Francisco Bay region used 17.3% less, and the South Lahontan region that includes numerous mountain ranges used about 16% less.

Water use decreased early last winter after a series of storms, but it soared through March when the rains stopped and led to the driest first quarter on record. Newsom doubled down with a $100 million advertising campaign urging water conservation.

The state's main reservoirs are well below their historic averages despite some late April storms. They largely depend on snow melt that flows downstream from the Sierra Nevada. But the statewide snowpack was at just 27% of its historic average as of April 1.

Lake Shasta, the state's largest, and Lake Oroville, the second largest, both were a little over one-third of their capacity. Shasta was at less than 60% of its average for this time of year and Oroville at 64% of average.

"Things are in general significantly below historic averages," Eric Ekdahl, deputy director for water rights, told the water board. "That trend is continuing, and there's no clear precipitation on the horizon, with maybe the exception of Southern California, which may see some tropical moisture toward the end of the week."

Urban water use accounts for a relatively small percentage of California's overall water use, compared to agriculture. But state and federal officials also have reduced agricultural water allocations to zero in some places.

The state has declared drought emergencies for 11 communities where it is providing bottled or hauled water to more than 2,700 people. There are drought warnings for another 35 communities that are receiving funding to help them deal with the drought. Drought watches are in place for 2,018 communities that could be in danger of water shortages in the next year. The worst-hit areas are concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley and Russian River drainage.

Local agencies like the Sacramento County Water Agency (SCWA) have been trying to help people be proactive and ready for what could come later this summer. As of mid-July, in the capital region, SCWA had seen a ten percent drop in water usage since last June. But statewide, usage was up in double digits across most areas in the early spring months. 

Meanwhile, about 4 million people in parts of Los Angeles County were banned from outdoor watering for 15 days so that workers can repair a major pipeline that delivers Colorado River water to seven cities and four local water districts.

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