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California Makes Biggest Water Conservation Gains Yet in Battle Against Drought

California residents slashed water use by 29 percent in May in the biggest conservation gain by the state since Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions earlier this year.

The State Water Resources Control Board announced Wednesday that Californians cut water usage by 28.9 percent in May as compared with May 2013, the baseline year set by water regulators to measure conservation.

“The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure, which is welcome news in the face of the dire drought,” Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “That said, we need all Californians to step up – and keep it up – as if we don’t know when it will rain and snow again, because we don’t. If the drought continues beyond this year, we’ll all be glad we did.”

In April, Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in California history, ordering the state’s urban users to reduce usage by 25 percent. But it has taken some time for residents to approach anything close to that figure; Californians cut water use by 13.6 percent in April, a significant improvement over single-digit gains in February and March but far from Brown’s target.

Now it seems that drought-conscious Californians are actively making a difference.

“My first response is almost disbelief,” Mark Gold of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability told the Los Angeles Times. “These results are beyond encouraging; they’re heartening. They make you realize that as a whole, people in urban areas are making the sacrifices necessary to get through this unprecedented drought.”

In the statement announcing the progress, the Board conceded that rainfall in May likely contributed to the savings.

But all parts of the state managed to increase their conservation in May, with the Sacramento River hydrologic region leading the way at 38.6 percent. Individual water districts with big savings included the Lake Hemet Municipal Water District in Riverside County (49 percent), the Sacramento Suburban Water District (45 percent), and the Serrano Water District in Orange County (43 percent).

Additionally, cities and towns with more affluent residents that had struggled to conserve reported strong gains in May: Beverly Hills reportedly cut its usage by 17 percent, while Newport Beach saved 22 percent.

“We’re doing everything we can think of to keep this in the public eye,” Santa Margarita Water District spokesman Jonathan Volzke told the Times. The district bumped its water conservation total to 18 percent in May after almost a year of averaging three percent savings.

The rise in conservation could be partially attributed to the rise in complaints and enforcement actions against water-wasters; according to the Board, the state fielded 28,555 complaints about water overuse in May, almost double the amount registered in April. The Board issued 36,159 formal warnings about overuse, and handed out 1,786 penalties statewide, although roughly 50 percent of those penalties were issued in Fresno.

Still, more work remains to be done. Sixty water suppliers (or 15 percent of the state’s roughly 400 agencies) still allow outdoor lawn watering seven days per week. The Board had ordered water districts to limit lawn watering to twice a week.

And some water districts actually reported increases in water usage in May, including Ventura County’s Casitas Municipal Water District, which reported a 26 percent increase, and the city of El Monte, which reported a 10 percent increase.

While May’s numbers are promising, Gold said that the hotter summer months would be a crucial test for statewide conservation efforts.

“It’s only going to get harder,” he told the Times. “Now we need to roll six months together to make a significant difference.”

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