California drought: Residents urged to reduce water use by 25 percent

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Brown soccer field in the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, Calif. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

Brown grass, dirt lawns, a sense of urgency statewide as water reservoirs dwindle, and government-regulated water use policies have been the tale of California for the last few years as the drought plaguing the entire state continues.

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Brown grass in Azusa, Calif. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

On April 1, 2015 California Gov. Jerry Brown called for the first ever mandatory statewide reduction in potable water use as he stood on brown grass where five plus feet of snow normally sits.

The 25 percent reduction announcement came following the lowest snowpack ever recorded with no end in sight for the drought.

The 2014 water year was the third driest in almost 120 years, according to U.S.Geological Survey (USGS). The snowpack average for April 1 is 28 inches. April 1, 2015, measurements recorded only 1.4 inches, just five percent of the average.

“The problem is that California gets about a third of its water for cities and farms (during the summer) from snowmelt, so the drought will likely get worse (or at least appear that way) this summer,” said Justin Brandt, Geophysicist at USGS.

Snowpack in California is the primary source of water to reservoirs that serve drinking water, agriculture and hydroelectric needs. Less wintertime snowpack, like this past winter, means less reservoir levels and less water for consumptive use, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

In January of 2014, Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency for California due to the severe drought conditions. For many Californians, news of the drought is nothing new but many don’t know what the “25 percent reduction” looks like.

In 2010 the water use data found by USGS found that California as a whole’s total public supply self-supplied water withdrawals for the year was 6298.72 mgal/d. Public suppliers provide water for a variety of uses, such as domestic, commercial, industrial, thermoelectric-power, and public water use. That’s a lot of water.

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Dry conditions seen in Orange County off the 57-S freeway. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

In a press release on the California Government website, Brown stated, “I’m issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible.”

The regulations directed by Brown must take into account the different levels of conservation that have already been achieved by communities based on their relative per capita water usage. New standards for water use will be imposed by the water suppliers that service to 3,000 or more customers.

“Urban water suppliers will be expected to begin implementing measures to meet their mandatory reduction targets by June 1, 2015 to ensure maximum conservation during the summer months,” said the California State Water Board in a press release on April 23, 2015..

Based on the Executive Order proposed by Brown on April 1, the 25 percent reduction standards that apply to everyone according to California State Water Board, includes the reduction of:

  1. Use of potable water to wash sidewalks
  2. Causing runoff when irrigating potable water
  3. Using hoses with no nozzle shutoffs to wash vehicles
  4. Using potable water in decorative lawn piece that do not recirculate the water
  5. Outdoor irrigation during and 48 hours after substantial rainfall
  6. Irrigating ornamental turf with potable water in street medians
  7. Irrigating outside of newly constructed homes without drop or micro-sprat delivery systems

The Executive Order mainly applies to outdoor water usage and if successful, will amount to saving 1.3 billion acre-feet of water over the course of nine months. According to USGS, irrigation purposes account for 50 percent of the water used by a single family residence, which is why the focus has been on regulating outdoor water use.

“We envision that the majority of their water savings will be achieved through a reduction in outdoor water use and improved efficiency,” said Brown.

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Emergency water use restriction sign in Azusa, Calif. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

In order for the state water board to know if water suppliers are meeting the requirements, the data that is reported by each individual water supplier for June 2015 to February 2016 will be compared to data from 2013 of that same time period.

Water suppliers can be fined by State Water Board from:

  1. Failure to file reports
  2. Failure to implement prohibitions and restrictions
  3. Failure to meet assigned water use target

Failure to meet the guidelines could result in a fine to the water supplier of $500 for each day the violations occurs.

The drought may be a statewide problem, but some areas are using a lot more water than others. According to the USGS 2010 estimated use of water in the U.S. county-level data, Los Angeles County withdrew more public water per day than any other county in the country, about 1,372.58 mgal/day (million gallons per day). The area serviced to over 10 million people.

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Water withdrawal for Los Angeles County per day in 2010. Photo courtesy: USGS.gov

“While this data does not contain the current drought, it gives us a good idea of the relative water withdrawals for each county during that year,” said Brandt. “USGS publishes water use data every five years, so after 2015 we will be able to gauge if LA County still leads the country in water use.”

Individual cities and communities are facing mandatory reductions from four percent up to 36 percent, based on their water usage in 2013, according to LA County Water District. With the most water consumption of any county in the country, it’s important for LA County residents to take the drought seriously.

Smaller cities in LA County, like Azusa and Glendora, have already initiated their own outdoor water use regulations to meet their required 20 percent reduction. The Azusa Light & Water District has implemented programs within the city to encourage their residents use less water.

Azusa Light & Water put up banners and signs around the city reminding residents to only water their lawn twice a week based on service address. Other signs warn that California is in phase III of the drought and water consumption needs to be reduced by 20 percent.

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Drought signs displayed in Azusa, Calif. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

“During a declared Phase II, III, or IV water shortage, the Water Utility will impose a drought charge, per CCF (hundred cubic feet), in excess of a certain threshold for each water shortage Phase,” stated the Water Utility Rule No. 21 document.

In order to help residents avoid extra water charges, Azusa Light & Water urged homeowners to change their water use habits in response to the drought.

“We have been asked to limit our water use, we have certain days/times we are allowed to water our grass or wash our cars” said Becky Baltazar, a lifelong Azusa resident. “We do get fined if we are seen watering our grass when it’s not one of the days we are allowed to.”

Even numbered houses are only allowed to water their lawn on Sundays and Thursdays 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Odd numbered houses are only allowed water their lawn on Wednesdays and Saturdays 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Azusa residents can water any time on designated days only if watering by hand with a shut off nozzle, drip irrigation system or a system that uses recycled water.

Failure to follow the Azusa Light & Water regulations could result in fines ranging from $50 to $200. Residents and commercial businesses are given four offenses before their water account will be closed if violations continue.

“I have not felt the effects of the drought personally, although I am more cautious on how I use water every day in order to avoid fines and save my family money,” Baltazar said. “We have already been fined $50 once for leaving our sprinkler on too long.”

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Azusa Light & Water residential rates. Photo Courtesy: http://www.ci.azusa.ca.us/index.aspx?nid=132

The city helps make the 20 percent reduction achievable by offering DRiP rebates of up to $1,400 for residents and up to $10,000 to school and commercial customers as an incentive purchase drought-friendly landscapes. This includes switching over to drought resistant trees, shrubs, ground covers, flowers, and living and artificial trees.

Azusa’s water rates have not increased yet as a result of the drought. Rates are based on the resident’s unit size.

Although not as extensive as Azusa’s, neighboring city, Glendora, offers a rebate through SoCalWaterSmart that pays residents $2 per square foot of turf removal. Resident’s fear a water rate increase, but as of now the depleting supply of water hasn’t impacted Glendora’s water rates yet either.

“Water rates have not increased in Glendora due to the drought,” said Steve Patton, Water Division Manager in Glendora. “However, we did send out a mailer insert with each resident’s water bill as a reminder to be water-conscious.”

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A lush green lawn in Rosedale in Azusa despite phase III drought conditions. Photo courtesy: Savanna Cowles

Glendora resident, Warner Trejo, has seen his water bill go up in last five months from watering his lawn more in order to keep his avocado trees alive in the dry conditions.

“I’m a little concerned about the drought but I don’t feel too impacted by it.” Trejo said. “California always goes through dry spells so this isn’t that unusual.”

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