The State Water Resources Control Board announced last week that urban Californians' monthly water conservation declined to 17.7 percent in August - down from 27 percent savings in August 2015 - raising concerns that some water suppliers are abandoning their focus on conservation as California heads into a possible sixth drought year.
The water conservation data from August shows conservation levels slipping, prompting talk of returning to state-mandated conservation standards beginning next year.
"The statewide August conservation results raise questions, and we are examining the data to understand why some areas slipped more than others," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. "Are we seeing relaxation of conservation messaging and programs, or are we seeing abandonment of programs? One may be appropriate, the other is not. It's a mixed picture. Many communities who certified that they didn't ‘need' to conserve are still conserving up a storm, while others have slipped more than seems prudent." She added: "While last year's rain and snow brought a respite for urban California, we are still in drought, and we can't know what this winter will bring."
Californians continue to conserve water in significant amounts, however, even in the absence of state-mandated conservation targets. The cumulative average savings from June 2015 through August 2016 was 23.3 percent, compared with the same months in 2013.
Since June 2015, two million acre-feet of water has been saved - enough water to supply 10 million people for a year. However, water conservation has dropped steeply among some local water suppliers.
The total water savings in California was 17.7 percent in August compared to 20 percent in July and 27 percent in August 2015. The decreased conservation concerns some at the state level.
City of Ceres Public Works Director Jeremy Damas said Ceres residents continue to do a good job in conserving water, but admitted the numbers have slipped a bit.
"The usage has gone up a little bit, and it's going to float around, but if you look at the annual averages I think they're more telling than what the monthly is," said Damas.
The city of Ceres reported that residents used 124.78 gallons per capita per day in July, which was an increase in use from 122.63 in June and 97.91 in May. As a comparison, in August 2015, Ceres reported a use of 112.77 gallons per person per day. In September 2014, that number was 147.28 gallons.
Statewide, Californians used an average of 114.1 gallons per person per day in August, an increase in the 102.2 gallons used in August 2015.
Originally the state dictated that Ceres needed to conserve by another 26 percent, even though it realized a 40 percent water savings from conservation measures enacted in 2010. Under the state water board's revised emergency water conservation regulations, urban water agencies have the ability to set their own conservation standards based on a "stress test" of supply reliability. Water suppliers had to document that they have sufficient supplies to withstand three years of continuous drought or take additional measures that include state-imposed mandatory conservation targets. The regulation is in effect through January 2017.
The stress test performed in Ceres revealed the city only needs to achieve a 13 percent reduction when judged against the water use of June 2013. Damas said, however, that Ceres realized a 30.9 percent reduction in water use in August 2016 compared to August 2013.
Modesto and Turlock choses higher target percentages for water conservation based on their stress tests, he said.
Damas said the state's recent talk about returning to mandatory conservation figures set by the state is likely due to cities who are failing to do their part in water conservation. Putting the onus on the cities through the stress test is the right approach, he feels. Applying a statewide figure to cities does not take into account prior conservation measures that have been in place, geography and climate.
"They're starting to listen to the agencies and they're more understanding to the surroundings of where you're located," said Damas. "They still need to target more of those agencies who aren't doing or doing very minimal.
Of more than 400 local water agencies in California, 343 suppliers passed their stress test. Of those, 114 suppliers - or about a third - saved more than 20 percent in August, compared with the same month in 2013.
The statewide prohibitions on specific wasteful practices such as fountains without recirculating pumps, or irrigation of turf in street medians, remain in place.
Prohibitions also remain against homeowners associations or local governments taking action against homeowners who reduce or stop watering lawns. As directed by the executive order, the State Water Board will be making these prohibitions permanent.
Marcus urged water suppliers where conservation levels have dropped steeply to reach out to high use customers to find ways to conserve.
Damas' approach is to educate rather than issue fines and he urges all residents to sign up to monitor their water use through a web portal set up through the city's website at www.ci.ceres.ca.us. He said the recent rains experienced earlier this year may have lulled residents into the false notion that water problems are over. Not true, he said.
"The drought's not over, the groundwater aquifers where we actually pull our water from for drinking water purposes have not been replenished - they've actually dropped a little bit - so we really need to maintain the resources we have."
The also has a rebate program to replace turf with permeable landscaping, such as rock, and drought resistant plants. Since the inception of its program, the city of Ceres has issued a total of 36 turf replacement rebates.
The city also offers rebates for low-flow toilets, water efficient washing machines and dishwashers. So far the city has issued 480 rebates in all totaling $36,000.
The city of Ceres has enacted several steps to curb water use, including water consumption limits for households as follows:
• 22,000 gallons per month for October and March;
• 12,000 gallons per month for November, December, January and February;
• 27,000 gallons per month in April, May, June, July, August and September.
Ceres households who exceed the "target" by 10 percent get off with only a warning but those who exceed by 25 percent face a $25 fine; exceeding by 75 percent, a $75 fine; and exceeding by 150 percent, a $150 fine.
The city still only allows outdoor watering two days per week. Homes with an even address may water on certain hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays while those with odd-numbered addresses may water on Wednesdays and Sundays. No outdoor watering is permitted between noon and 7 p.m. in Ceres.
"We did a little sight survey of 200 homes," said Damas. "We picked 100 who had nice plush green lawns and we picked 100 that looked like they hadn't been watered in a while. The ones that had nice green lawns were well with our targets so we know the program works. I think it's more of an education on how to water your law efficiently to get that green. Those residents who don't water their front lawns and get it all dry, was a choice. It saved them probably $10 a month, maybe, rather than having a nice green lawn."
Damas said it's best to water a lawn to two five- to 10-minute watering cycles on their days to water "and it's more than enough." He also recommends mowing taller to maintain more moisture.