Why has water conservation in California been a failure so far?

Nearly a year after Governor Gavin Newsom pleaded with Californians to voluntarily cut their water use by 15% amid a worsening drought, water conservation numbers are still a long way off. this brand.

Now, as millions of people in Southern California face unprecedented water restrictions starting next month, some water experts say much deeper cuts, such as those ordered by the former Governor Jerry Brown during the last drought, are needed to rouse the state from its false sense of water security.

“Even during the last drought, when Governor Brown asked for voluntary cuts, we didn’t respond to them,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a think tank on climate change. water in Oakland. “You really have to go towards the compulsory. It really sends a signal that we’re all in this together and everyone needs to do their part. »

Between July – when Newsom urged Californians to reduce their water use by 15% – and February, the cumulative statewide water savings amounted to just 5.8% compared to to a 2020 baseline.

Northern California water districts, which began experiencing severe shortages last year, have done the most to conserve. The Marin Municipal Water District reduced its usage by 28.5% after local reservoirs began to run low, forcing the water supplier to move to Stage 4 of its emergency plan in the event of a flood. drought.

The North Coast region also reduced its water consumption by 14.5% and the San Francisco Bay Area by 10.5%.

But in Southern California, which had large reserves last year, the story was very different. In the South Coast water region, home to more than half of the state’s population, water use fell only 4.6 percent during the same period, and the Department of L Los Angeles Water and Electric only recorded 2.6% cumulative savings.

A few water districts have even increased their water consumption significantly, with El Segundo reporting 44.6% more water since last July.

El Segundo officials say the increase was linked to the disastrous flooding of the Hyperion water reclamation plant in Los Angeles in July. After debris clogged the filter screens at the Playa del Rey plant, industrial customers who traditionally used recycled water for cooling had to use potable water for several months, said Elias Sassoon, director public works of El Segundo.

After California experienced its driest January, February and March ever, leaving State Water Project supplies dangerously low, officials in Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District have declared unprecedented restrictions that should start next month. Although Cooley said the action could serve as a “wake-up call” for many, it remains to be seen if the state can change course.

Experts have offered a variety of reasons for California’s lackluster conservation efforts.

Some point to the drier than usual weather, which prompted Californians to water their lawns and gardens more often than usual at the start of the year.

Cooley and others say the lack of mandatory statewide restrictions on water use, such as those ordered by Brown two years after the start of the last drought, is to blame.

Still others say there is a psychological aspect to managing drought for an extended period of time.

“We’ve been talking about drought for a very long time at this point, even though we’ve had like a brief little time,” said Kelly Sanders, professor of environmental engineering at USC Viterbi School of Engineering. People “become numb to the severity of the drought. You don’t hear people talking about it as much as you did in 2015 and 2016.”

The possibility of your water being cut off is also “less tangible” than something like a power outage, Sanders said.

Still, experts insist a 15% statewide goal is achievable.

There are still plenty of opportunities to reduce long-term water use, such as replacing older appliances that use far more water than those currently on the market, Cooley said.

Pacific Institute research found that urban water use could be reduced by an additional 30% simply by adopting current appliance water efficiency standards. This includes repairing leaky pipes and replacing washing machines and toilets.

Additional investment in what is considered “advanced technology” could increase water savings to 48%, Cooley said.

Authorities are also targeting lawns as a major culprit of unnecessary water use.

The National Water Resources Control Board is considering banning turf irrigation on industrial, commercial and institutional properties such as schools and hospitals, “when that turf is not being used for functional purposes,” James said. Nachbaur, director of research, planning and performance. to the national water conservation agency.

It wouldn’t affect individual homeowners, parks or other areas where people actively use turf, Nachbaur said.

Many state water providers also offer various discounts for replacing lawns with drought-tolerant gardens or standard sprinkler systems with drip irrigation, which use 20 to 50 percent less water than the sprinklers. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has offered a rebate of $3.00 per square foot of turf up to 5,000 square feet since 2019.

Changing a landscape is always a “relatively easier way” to become more efficient in our use of water than tackling indoor water use, which has already declined over time in California and continues to decline, Nachbaur said.

Despite the slow progress on water conservation so far, Nachbaur believes that the actions of the water board and local providers as well as the intensified messaging campaigns are reinforcing each other and “s’ add to a more cumulative awareness of drought”.

The MWD has approved a nearly $11 million media campaign in hopes of capturing people’s attention amid a “dizzying” news cycle, according to the council’s chief operating officer, Deven Upadhyay.

There is, however, cultural resistance to such changes, experts say. Verdant lawns and sprawling yards are certainly an object of American obsession, a mark of ownership, and the subject of inspection by homeowners associations, nosy neighbors, and the like.

“For a long, long time, we kind of told everyone that you can have any type of plant you want,” Sanders said. “We’re just going to have to get used to a landscape that looks a little more like Southern California and its current climate, you know. Times for large, lush green lawns might be limited.

Times writer Hayley Smith contributed to this report.

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