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Californians Just Aren't Getting Their Water Use Under Control

Four years into a historic drought, water consumption is down just 3.6 percent compared to last year — far shy of the 20 percent goal set by Governor Jerry Brown.
Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Despite pressure from Governor Jerry Brown and state water regulators, drought-stricken Californians are failing to get their water use under control, as the worst drought in more than a millennium continues to parch the Golden State.

A month after Brown enacted the state's first-ever mandatory water cuts, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted on Tuesday emergency regulations that assign conservation targets to each of the state's roughly 400 water suppliers. Some districts face cuts as high as 36 percent over 2013 levels.


"We have to face the reality that this drought may continue and prepare as if that's the case," Felicia Marcus, chair of the water board, said Tuesday. "If it rains and snows next winter, we celebrate. If the drought continues, we'll be glad we took difficult but prudent action today. It's the responsible thing to do."

According to data released by the board, Californians reduced their water use by 3.6 percent in March over the same month in 2013. Across the state, consumption is down 9 percent since July 2014, lagging far behind the 20 percent target set by Brown in January 2014.

Water districts say the targets are nearly impossible to reach.

In order to coax them toward more aggressive conservation efforts, the state board has threatened to fine water suppliers up to $500 a day if they fail to meet reduction targets, though it will likely be mid-summer before any are issued, a water board spokesperson said.

Related: California's governor issues mandatory water cuts — except for farmers

The agency has increased to $500 per day the amount districts can fine their customers who don't cut back on water use, while Brown has proposed legislation that would allow that fine to soar to $10,000. But the districts have been reluctant to police their customers, instead focusing on educating consumers about how to conserve.

The state's water districts issued 682 fines in March and 8,762 warnings, according to state water board data.


Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said water suppliers need to generate revenue, so telling their customers to use less of their product is somewhat counterintuitive.

"If they're selling less water and they haven't implemented drought rates or penalty fees, then they're not recovering as much revenue," Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program, told VICE News. "And on top of that, their goal is really customer satisfaction. Water suppliers do feel that pressure to make their customers happy, and between those two things there's a real push back against being required to reduce demand."

'It's very dry, it's been very hot, and wildfires are almost inevitable here.'

Some districts have already implemented rate structures that charge customers significantly higher fees if their water use surpasses certain limits. In Orange County's Irvine Ranch Water District, customers who are wasteful with water could see their rates increase nine-fold.

But lost revenue isn't the only obstacle water districts are facing. Southern California's Yorba Linda Water District, for example, borders Chino Hills State Park, which is prone to wildfires. About a quarter of the district's 74,000 customers live in a zone where they're required to irrigate their land in order to prevent wildfires from spreading to populated areas. The district is one of those facing a mandated 36 percent cut in water use by the end of the year.


"It's very dry, it's been very hot, and wildfires are almost inevitable here," Damon Micalizzi, a spokesman for Yorba Linda, told VICE News. "It happens every year. We were imploring the state to give us some wiggle room or some adjustment to our conservation mandate so that 36 percent didn't jeopardize public health and safety."

The district has only issued a handful of fines so far, instead focusing on educating consumers about conservation, Micalizzi said. But with penalties from the state water board looming, that may have to change.

"We don't have a mechanism in place right now to police this the way the state is mandating us to do so," he told VICE News. "So now I've got to have people work off-hour shifts or hire water police to go out and patrol."

What will happen to districts that don't meet those cuts remains to be seen. The state water board is considering permanent restrictions on water use, Quinn said, but how those will be enforced and whether districts will get on board are still open questions.

"[Some] water suppliers are saying that they have sufficient supply for 18 months to four years," Quinn told VICE News. "We could have another eight years of drought left and if people are thinking, 'Well, we have four years left, we should be able to continue to use water however we want,' that's a really scary proposition."

Related: California's governor faces criticism over drought relief policies

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro