By Paul Rogers |
Leigh Poitinger | | Bay Area News Group
Published:  February 14, 2018 at 6:00 am
Updated:    February 14, 2018 at 2:58 pm

As California suffers through another dry winter, increasing fears that drought conditions may be returning, the state’s residents are dropping conservation habits that were developed during the last drought and steadily increasing their water use with each passing month.

A new analysis of state water records by this news organization found California’s urban residents used 13.7 percent less water last year in the first eight months after Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the drought emergency than they used in the same eight-month period in 2013. But in each of those eight months last year, the water savings dropped from 20 percent in May to 2.8 percent in an unseasonably dry December.

We are having a very dry winter again,” said Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland non-profit that studies water use patterns. “That wet winter we saw last year could have been one wet winter in a 10-to-12 year drought period. We have to be very cautious about our water use.”

But it’s not clear Californians are getting that message. After last winter’s record rains, the governor on April 7 ended statewide emergency water conservation targets imposed on cities and water districts. Many eased, or dropped entirely, their mandatory water restrictions, rebate programs and other incentives to conserve, because they wanted to make more money by selling more water, and in part because it was difficult to convince their customers of the urgency when the state had just seen its wettest winter in 20 years.

But with each passing month, the savings have shrunk. Californians opened the spigots to water their lawns, took longer showers and returned to pre-drought habits, state records show.

By July, statewide water use was down 15 percent, then 8.5 percent in October. By December, the most recent month for which the State Water Resources Control Board has data, statewide water use was only down 2.8 percent, compared with December 2013, the baseline year that state water regulators use for monthly water conservation reports.

Usually after California droughts, some conservation is locked in permanently. That happened after the 1976-77 drought, the 1987-92 drought and the 2007-2009 drought.

People who install low-flush toilets or replace lawns with water-efficient landscaping don’t go back and remove them when it starts raining again, experts note. But as the memories of bone-dry conditions fade, it’s common for residents to use more water, and for cities and water districts to drop tough rules, and limit rebates, which cost them money.

In recent months, all of those trends have been underway. But very hot, very dry weather, particularly in Southern California, where temperatures this winter have reached the 90s in Los Angeles and rainfall levels are below 25 percent of historic averages, have quickly sped the return to heavier water use.

Meanwhile, the Sierra snow pack level on Tuesday was just 22 percent of its historic average. That’s lower than any Feb. 13 even during the worst years of the most recent drought, including 2015, when it was 26 percent on the same date.

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