Newsom urges aggressive water conservation and warns of statewide restrictions

Alicia De Mello waters her front yard in in South Pasadena
Alicia De Mello waters her front yard in in South Pasadena.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has voiced concerns that the state’s approach toward drought conservation needs to be more aggressive.

Gov. Gavin Newsom met with leaders of the state’s largest urban water suppliers Monday and implored them to step up efforts to get people to reduce water use as California’s drought continued to worsen. He warned that if conservation efforts didn’t improve this summer, the state could be forced to impose mandatory water restrictions throughout the state.

Ten months ago, Newsom called for Californians to voluntarily cut water use 15%, but the state remains far from that goal.

The latest conservation figures have been especially poor. Water use in cities and towns increased by nearly 19% during March, an especially warm and dry month. Compared with a 2020 baseline, statewide cumulative water savings since July have amounted to just 3.7%.

“Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said in a statement. “Californians made significant changes since the last drought but we have seen an uptick in water use, especially as we enter the summer months. We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count.”

For part of the 2012-16 drought, then-Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory 25% reduction in urban water use. Many Californians responded by cutting back and taking steps such as converting lawns to drought-tolerant plants.

But after the drought, local water agencies told state officials they preferred an approach that allowed for greater flexibility and would be more tailored to their local situations. Newsom has favored this locally driven approach. But the governor’s office said in a statement that Newsom “voiced concerns today given recent conservation levels around the state.”

“Governor Newsom warned that if this localized approach to conservation does not result in a significant reduction in water use statewide this summer, the state could be forced to enact mandatory restrictions,” his office said. “The Governor will reconvene these same agencies in the next two months to provide an update.”

Officials who attended the meeting at the California Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento included leaders of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, East Bay Municipal Utility District and other large water suppliers.

On Tuesday, at the governor’s direction, the State Water Resources Control Board will vote on a statewide ban on watering of “non-functional” turf on commercial, industrial and institutional properties, as well as regulations requiring local agencies to implement water-use restrictions.

Currently, local water agencies have implemented restrictions on about half of California’s population. If the board’s regulations are approved, every urban area of California will be covered by a local plan to reduce water use.

Despite official calls to increase conservation amid worsening drought, urban water use across California increased by nearly 19% in March, according to the most recent conservation figures compiled by the State Water Resources Control Board.

When compared with March 2020 — the year the current drought began — average water use in cities and towns across the state increased 18.9%, according to the water board.

The increase was even greater in the South Coast Hydrologic Region, which is home to more than half the state’s population. In this region, which includes Los Angeles, urban water use increased 26.9%.

Department officials said the steep increase was due in part to March 2020 being wetter than average compared with March of this year. The first three months of this year marked the driest start to the calendar year in California history, with statewide precipitation at only 15% of average.

March 2022 was also 3.6 degrees hotter than usual; the same month one year ago was 1.3 degrees cooler than average.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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