The majority of residents and businesses in the state of California appear to have ignored calls for voluntary reductions in water usage during the current drought emergency. The Bay Area is the only exception, but even we only decreased usage by less than 2%.

New data from the state's Department of Water Resources shows that California overall has shown a near complete disregard for the drought, and since January 2020 water usage has gone up overall in many locales throughout the state.

Governor Gavin Newsom has been asking for voluntary cutbacks in water use of 15% since last spring, but only some counties have instituted mandatory water-usage restrictions and fines for violations. Faced with fast-dwindling reservoirs last April, Marin County was the first in our region to announce usage restrictions, and by July they were telling residents only to water lawns once a week or face fines.

San Francisco, which has a lot fewer lawns overall, has actually reduced its consumption of water overall in the past five years since the last drought. But still in November, before the deluges of December, the city asked everyone to voluntarily cut back water use by 5%.

Voluntary measures aren't cutting it though, clearly. As CalMatters reports, compared to January 2020, before the drought emergency began, the Bay Area has only decreased its overall water use by 1.4%. The Central Valley has decreased its water consumption also just barely. And California residents overall are using 2.6% more water than they were two years ago — perhaps because they've been spending so much more time at home?

The Palm Springs and Inland Empire area is the worst culprit, driving up the state average and using a whopping 19% more water than they were two years ago. Has anyone reminded them they live in a desert and there's a drought?

There has been some conservation, CalMatters says. Since the drought messaging began in earnest last year, Californians have reduced water use by 6.5% between July 2021 and January 2022. So that's something. But it's still far short of the conservation that's needed, and well below Newsom's 15% ask.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) upped its rates for customers and asked for voluntary reductions in water use of 10% last year, and they got it in the last six months of the year. But usage has ticked up during the past two, very dry months.

"Clearly, it’s becoming difficult [to conserve] this time of year, when nature is normally watering our East Bay gardens," says EBMUD's water conservation manager Alice Towey, speaking to CalMatters.

A similar pattern was seen in the South Bay, where the water district instituted rate penalties for those who didn't conserve. And water use ticked up there in January as well.

Peter Thompson, who directs resources and analytics for the water district of Palmdale in the Mojave Desert, he sees that they've been able to achieve water reductions by giving higher rebates for replacing lawns and other water-heavy landscaping.

"The momentum of having the state come out with a mandate makes our jobs easier,” Thompson tells CalMatters. “But California is huge. And it's diverse in terms of the different water agencies and their available water supplies. So it makes a lot more sense to make that an individual choice for each agency.”

And, yes, as CalMatters reminds us, and as was often repeated during the last drought, residential and urban water usage makes up for only 20% of the water California uses. The other 80% goes to agriculture, and we'd do a lot to conserve water if everyone stopped eating beef and drinking almond milk altogether. But don't start that argument again on Twitter. It goes nowhere.

Photo: Hamed Taha