Nearly 90 percent of the state is still experiencing extreme drought conditions. Photo courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.  

Just over a year ago, Governor Jerry Brown stood atop what would normally be a mountain laden with snow, but had diminished to a dry dirt hillside. At that moment, he declared the existence of a water emergency in California.

A year later, the conservation mandates his office handed down were narrowly missed—23.9 percent water reduction statewide, just shy of the 25 percent mark Brown set—but the drought that prompted his executive order persists.

Statewide, residents pitched in to save 96 percent of the water goals that Brown sought to meet, but recent trends have shown a lapse in that conservation mindset, one that will probably loosen further as summer weather arrives. According to United States Drought Monitor, nearly 90 percent of the state is still engulfed in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, the two worst ratings of the group’s five-part drought rating system.

In February, the last numbers to be reported, conservation dropped to 12 percent across the state, from the 17.1 percent mark registered in January. Still, officials at the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRC) were optimistic about the findings.

“Twenty-four percent savings shows enormous effort and a recognition that everyone’s effort matters,” State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Chair Felicia Marcus said in a release this week. “Californians rose to the occasion, reducing irrigation, fixing leaks, taking shorter showers, and saving our precious water resources in all sorts of ways.”

The goal of 1.24 million acre feet saved was missed by about .5 million acre feet. Among the worst offenders and biggest contributors to that decline in conversation have been Southern California water suppliers, including the City of Long Beach. In the February report put out by the SWRCB, the South Coast Water District saved the least amount of water (6.9 percent) than any other hydraulic region in Southern California.


George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the board, said this was attributed to a few factors, namely the extraordinary heat the state experienced in the second month of this year, which was compounded by the historically low water usage rates due to usually cool, wet weather experienced every February.

“It’s always been incredibly tough to reduce significantly outdoor irrigation or water use if you already have the water off anyway over the last three or four years during the same months,” Kostyrko said. “But the critical  months were really those summer months; that’s where we asked for and saw jurisdictions up and down the state clearly turned their outdoor water off. If you look at the July 2015 conservation rate, the statewide average was 31.3 percent.”

Long Beach has seen its conservation rate missed for four consecutive months since last reporting a 16.3 percent conservation mark in November 2015. Since then, its missed the 16 percent mandate handed down by the SWRCB by registering marks of 11.6, 9.8, 13.1 and 7.7 percent respectively through February.

A release put out yesterday saw that conservation mark spike back up to 15.8 percent, dropping its cumulative conservation mark to 15 percent since June 2015.

Oddly enough, with the exception of December’s numbers, the city’s average gallons per citizen daily has largely trended down over the same time frame. Included in the release was a bit of relief for the city and its residents; the conservation goal for the city has been dropped to 12 percent through October.

In November of last year, Brown extended the executive order through the end of October, but the influx of water deliveries through the State Water Project from Northern Californian reservoirs—filled by the El Niño weather system that largely missed the south—to Southern California markers could leave some room for municipalities to see smaller conservation marks in the future, despite recent failures to meet their current marks. However, the decreases for some cities aren’t meant to signal residents to increase their daily water usage.

“We need to remember that the drought is not over,” said Mayor Robert Garcia in the release. “We have to keep up the saving until October and beyond, to make conservation a permanent way of life.”  

There are three areas in which the State Water Board has outlined how a municipality can reduce its water conservation goal, including providing proof of a climate adjustment—an increase in precipitation in the suppliers’ area—a growth adjustment and other adjustments made by submitting proof of a new, local, drought-resilient water supply. These measures, if cities meet multiple guidelines, could reduce conservation marks by several percent.

“If you’re in a hotter area, it’s unfair to compare you to a cooler Northern California community like San Bruno where they might not have to do much outdoor watering because they have fog that comes in in the morning and it leaves dew and it’s much cooler,” Kostyrko said. “So by giving credits to knock down the conversation standard…if it was 36 percent maybe now it will be 33 or something like that.”

A spokesperson for the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD) could not say whether the city applied for any of those credits, but confirmed that with the water dropping its mark to 12 percent it will avoid the citation it would’ve been issued, had the mark remained at the 16 percent level it had been at since June.

The board’s enforcement strategy for suppliers that aren’t meeting its standards is outlined on its website with four categories of suppliers ranging from Priority 0, those that are meeting their marks, and Priority 1 suppliers that are more than 15 percentage points behind its conservation marks. Long Beach, with its current 0.8 percent deficit in cumulative savings would fall into the Priority 0.

Any further drops in conservation would land it in the Priority 3 category, those between one to five percentage points away from meeting the standard. Warning letters are sent to Priority 3 suppliers with those found to be in future non-compliance being upgraded to higher priorities, would could ultimately lead to daily fines as high as $10,000 a day if a city slips past the upper threshold of 15 percent non-compliance and continues its lack of compliance toward meeting the state mandates.

Since June, the water board has issued 98 warning letters, 118 notices of violation, 12 conservation orders and four Administrative Civil Liability Complaints, one of which has been paid, with three remaining in negotiation.

An April 20 workshop will help determine the future of water conservation going forward for California, Kostyrko said. Questions will be raised about whether all regions of state are created equal and how conservation standards might better be developed to be more tailor made, and permanent in some cases, for regions not fortunate to be hit by annual winter storms.

“Going forward, no matter what this year is, do we need water conservation standards in parts of the state that did not benefit from precipitation?” Kostyrko asked. “If Northern California has a lot of storage and we’ve got reservoirs and we’ve got the snow pack, it doesn’t make sense for those communities to be under the same water conservation mandates as those in southern California and the Central Valley because the weather treated them differently.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.