Voluntary Water Reductions Aren’t Effective in California

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If local governments in drought-stricken California want their residents to save water, they’re going to have to be more aggressive about mandating conservation. Voluntary measures simply aren’t cutting it, according to a new analysis by The Sacramento Bee that looked at impacts on water use in local jurisdictions that have mandatory rules backed up with enforcement measures versus those that simply request water-use reductions by residents.

According to the Bee:

California water agencies with mandatory rules alone used 5 percent less water from January through May this year, compared to an average over the three previous years, according to a Bee analysis of the data. Agencies with only voluntary conservation measures saw water demand rise 4 percent over the same period.

The difference is even more significant when examining only the month of May. That is the most recent month for which data is available. It also was an unusually hot month in many areas and marks a point when it was obvious that drought was gripping the state.

State water authorities have stressed that all Californians should cut back on their own. Although local jurisdictions have been authorized to use fines, penalties or other beefed-up enforcement measures to ensure conservation efforts, state water officials have stopped short from mandating them.

Earlier this month, Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist with California’s Water Resources Control Board, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "The fines are tools and they're available, but we're not looking for every jurisdiction to go out and start fining people. So long as people are reducing their water use, that's the direction we want to go."

But if tougher measures are needed across the state, it may not be as bitter of a pill to swallow as some might anticipate. Last week, the Public Policy Institute of California released a new statewide opinion poll indicating that 75 percent of Golden State residents support mandatory water reductions.

Looking at water-use reductions across the state, conservation efforts in Northern California are yielding better results than in Southern California, according to the Bee. Roughly 75 percent of water districts north of the so-called Grapevine in Kern County — often used as a dividing line between the northern and southern parts of the state — reduced their water use in May versus the 30 percent south of the Grapevine that did the same, the newspaper reported.

In Alameda County near San Francisco, Pleasanton city officials have imposed restrictions on water use since this winter and have seen impactful reductions.

According to the Bee:

City leaders in March declared a mandatory 20 percent reduction in water use. In May, they upped it to 25 percent. Residents could water their lawns only twice a week.

They also told residents that if they did not reach the target, their water rates – low by Bay Area standards – would roughly double. Pleasanton advertised the changes heavily. They sent city workers to residents’ homes to help set sprinklers to discharge the right amount of water.

After a two-month grace period, more than 95 percent of residents hit the 25 percent target, said Daniel Smith, director of the city’s operation services, and water use has continued to decline in June and July. He said the mandatory restrictions were a key part of the strategy.

The local water authority there has also provided free recycled sewer water for irrigation purposes, decorative fountains and other uses that don’t involve direct human consumption.

But even in a place where mandatory restrictions are in place and have been effective, local officials have been hesitant to stress the penalties for water waste in favor of encouraging local residents to cut back on their own.

“Our goal is to educate the community regarding conservation and to encourage compliance with the 25 percent mandate so that we have adequate water supplies throughout the summer and fall timeframe,” Smith told the Pleasanton City Council in May. “As such, our primary focus will be to first and foremost seek compliance and collaboration, not the implementation of fines and/or penalties. This is a community issue that requires everyone’s cooperation.”

As California’s water situation continues to worsen, mandatory reductions might be inevitable.

In the meantime, California water providers are facing a tough public quandary when it comes to mandatory cutbacks, Jay Lund, a resource expert at UC Davis, told the Bay Area News Group: "If you're a water utility, you don't want to be accused of crying wolf. If they impose restrictions this year, and next year we get wet weather, people will say, 'Why did you do it?' This is the dilemma urban utilities face."

(Image via James Mattil/Shutterstock.com)

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