By Matt Stevens, Chris Megerian and Monte Morin
May 5, 2015

State data released Tuesday painted a stark portrait of the uphill struggle Californians face in achieving a mandated 25% reduction in urban water use, with one official joking grimly that dealing with severe drought was similar to grappling with the five stages of grief.

Cumulative water savings since last summer totaled only 8.6%, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, far short of the historic reduction outlined in an April 1 executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown.

At the same time, the board said, most of the state’s water suppliers issued 20 or fewer notices of water waste in March even though they have received thousands of complaints.

“It’s a collective issue we all need to rise to. I keep thinking that we are in some stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,” said Felicia Marcus, the water board chairwoman, referring to the psychiatrist who wrote “On Death and Dying.”

The disclosures came as board members Tuesday night unanimously approved new conservation regulations set to take effect in time for summer, when outdoor water use traditionally accounts for 50% to 80% of residential consumption.

Water board staff scientist Max Gomberg said California residents and businesses used only 3.6% less water in March than they did during the same month in 2013, the baseline year for savings calculations.

“We need to do more,” Gomberg said. “Conserving now and over the summer is imperative.”

Despite the meager savings, some outside experts said it was still possible for the state to achieve the governor’s goal in the coming months. Brown is seeking hefty fines for water wasters, and some local water agencies have been crafting tougher conservation plans in recent weeks.

“Now we have absolute numbers. We know where we stand and where we have to go. This is the starting gun,” said Conner Everts, facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus, an organization that promotes sustainable water management. “Right now we’re scared. Right now we’re in the denial stage. We have to get into acceptance, and we have a relatively short period of time to do it.”

Others were more skeptical, citing new data showing that California’s hundreds of urban water suppliers assessed only 682 penalties to water wasters in the last several months after receiving more than 10,000 complaints.

The enforcement data demonstrate the “need to make enforcement a true deterrent to water wasting,” said Mark Gold of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “People don’t park in posted street sweeping parking spaces three weeks in a row. The vast majority of people in California are not looking at this as a dire situation, yet.”

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