North Coast residents outpace Southern Californians in water conservation
Marianne Neufeld marveled at the dwarf sweet pea bushes, which have doubled in size since she planted them last summer in front of her Oakmont home.
“They do very well in clay soil,” she said, surveying the drought-tolerant landscaping she’d installed in August, displacing the lawn that covered her front and back yards. At the time, Gov. Jerry Brown had called a state of emergency with 17 wildfires raging in drought-ravaged California, and Neufeld, an avid gardener, decided it was her moment to begin seriously conserving water.
She loves the look of the evergreen grass and shrubs now thriving in her drip-irrigated yard, and she enjoyed the payoff, too: a $100-a-month savings on her city water bill, cut in half by the conversion to so-called xeriscaping.
“Oakmont is very conscientious,” said Neufeld, who serves on the adult community’s architectural committee and estimates that about 300 of her neighbors have also ripped out their water-thirsty lawns.
The efforts helped Santa Rosa, along with five other North Bay communities, win recognition from the state Water Resources Control Board for “noteworthy conservation achievement” by continuing to curb personal water use in the face of a drought now entering its fourth year.
The water board’s latest report, documenting conservation efforts - or lack thereof - by nearly 400 cities and water agencies in November, also highlighted a disparity between Northern and Southern California, long at odds over style, substance, sports rivalries and now sensible water consumption.
Residents of the North Coast hydrologic region, which stretches from the Russian River Basin in Sonoma County to the Oregon border, used an average of 59.4 gallons of water a day in November - the lowest of all 10 regions in the state - and recorded a 19.5 percent reduction in water consumption from November 2013.
Folks in the South Coast region, which runs from Los Angeles to San Diego and accounts for 56 percent of all residential water customers, used 91.7 gallons per day and achieved a meager 3.2 percent year-over reduction.
Water regulators have long known that Southern California lags Northern California when it comes to water conservation. The state started releasing monthly water consumption totals for cities and water districts with more than 3,000 customers in July “so people can see what their neighbors are doing,” said Felicia Marcus, the state water board chairwoman.
While it’s unfair to slap all of Southern California with a water-wasting brush, officials say, the numbers show that more needs to be done to cut down on excessive water use in the state’s most populous region.
“I do think they need to step it up,” Marcus said. Some communities have “done a lot, and there are others who are just waking up. Hoping that it’s going to rain is not a strategy.”
Billions of dollars have been spent in the southland on conservation, helping San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles consumers to cut their use in recent years. Orange County, for example, is a national leader in use of recycled water, and efforts in San Diego have lowered residents’ average daily water use to 65.5 gallons.
The giant Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers, lowered daily personal water use to an average 77.13 gallons in November, a 6.9 percent improvement over the year.
“That’s pretty good,” Marcus said. “They can do a lot more.”
Of the 20 cities and water agencies with the highest per-capita water consumption statewide, 14 were in the South Coast region, with rates ranging from about 200 gallons to nearly 500 gallons per day. Statewide average water use was 88.97 gallons a day in November.
Local water officials weren’t inclined to call out the regional contrast in water use, or lob any criticism, preferring instead to highlight efforts in their own jurisdictions.
“I can’t speak to what’s occurring in other cities,” said Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of water and engineering services.
Santa Rosa’s 170,000 water customers are making “truly impressive” efforts to curb outdoor irrigation, she said, noting that drought-tolerant plants need about one-third as much water as green grass.
Santa Rosans’ average use of 48.52 gallons a day in November was the 21st-lowest rate in the state.
The hotter weather down south and the need to irrigate landscaping to keep it alive are twin factors pushing Southern California’s higher average personal water use, officials say. Overall, outdoor residential water use, primarily landscape irrigation, accounts for 34 percent of urban water use in the state, vastly exceeding commercial, institutional and industrial water consumption.