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In this May 2, 2014 photo, dust rises around a walnut tree as a worker mows weeds in Gridley, Calif. California�s 19th-century water laws give about 4,000 companies, farms and others unmonitored water while the state is mired in a three-year drought that has forced water cutbacks to cities and the nation�s agricultural center.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press - Ap

Despite drought, Californians won't turn off their faucets

  • Article by: Bettina Boxali
  • Los Angeles Times
  • June 28, 2014 - 6:17 PM

– Southern Californians have fallen far short of achieving the 20 percent voluntary cut in water use sought by Gov. Jerry Brown in the face of the deep drought afflicting every corner of the state.

A recent statewide survey found that urban water use in coastal Southern California declined by only 5 percent from January through May. And a Los Angeles Times review of data from the region’s three largest cities shows that use actually went up over the past year.

Local water officials attribute the meek response in part to the conservation successes of recent years, which they say make it more difficult to realize further reductions.

“It’s a little bit more of a struggle now,” said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources for the San Diego County Water Authority, which recorded a 4 percent uptick in overall demand since last summer after a 27 percent drop in daily per capita use from 2007 to 2013. “We got rid of a lot of waste.”

Southern California is not alone in missing the goal for voluntary reductions that Brown set when he proclaimed a drought emergency in January. No region of the state has met it, according to the survey of urban agencies conducted by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Statewide, average urban use from January through May fell 5 percent compared with the same period from 2011 to 2013.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in late May found that a majority of California voters said the drought has had little or no effect on their daily lives. And while outdoor watering restrictions are in place in Los Angeles and many other cities, Southern California agencies have enough supplies in regional reserves to avoid severe rationing this year.

But that is no reason for complacency, state board chair Felicia Marcus warned.

“We have no idea how long this drought will last,” Marcus said. “Having a couple of years of storage available isn’t something that should help you sleep at night.”

As the region enters the summer season, water agencies are stepping up conservation campaigns. Los Angeles recently increased its cash-for-grass rebates and is now paying residential customers $3 a square foot to replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants and drip irrigation.

Daily per capita use in Los Angeles dropped from a high of 187 gallons in fiscal year 1987 to a low of 122 gallons in fiscal year 2011. It crept up to 129 gallons last year.

But the city’s overall water demand remains less than in 1970, despite the addition of 1 million residents. “We’re probably one of the leaders in conservation throughout the state,” said Penny Falcon, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s conservation manager.

With 40 percent to 60 percent of drinking water in Los Angeles used for landscape irrigation, the agency is focusing on outdoor use. There has been a tenfold increase in applications for a turf-removal rebate, which rose in May to $2 a square foot.

© 2014 Star Tribune