California’s water conservation sinks in August

Californians’ water conservation dropped to less than 18 percent in August, well below the savings rate from a year earlier, causing alarm among drought regulators.

The 17.7 percent savings compared with a 27 percent savings rate in August 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board announced Wednesday. Savings rates are measured against water usage in 2013.

The results raised “concerns that some water suppliers are abandoning their focus on conservation as California heads into a possible sixth drought year,” the board said.

Several Stanislaus County cities reported mixed results.

Modesto cut its water use 21.2 percent in August. Turlock reported a 15.7 percent reduction in August, Ceres a 30.9 percent reduction, and Oakdale a 15.9 percent drop. But the four cities reported bigger water savings in August 2015. For instance, Turlock reported saving 26.3 percent in August 2015.

But Riverbank, which has had trouble meeting it conservation targets, reported its water use increasing 22.3 percent in August. And it reported a gain of 17.4 percent in August 2015.

Earlier this year, the water board retreated from the mandatory statewide urban conservation program adopted in 2015, which required municipalities to cut usage by an average of 25 percent compared with 2013. Instead, water districts didn’t have to set any conservation standards if they could certify that they have enough water to last three dry years.

The vast majority of the state’s urban water districts said they could meet that threshold.

The urban water districts followed a state formula in determining how much water they would need to save if the drought continued three more years. For instance, Modesto came up with a savings rate of 20 percent based on the formula but voluntarily increased that to 25 percent. Under the state mandates, the city was required to reduce water use by as much as 36 percent.

The August results marked the third straight month in which water conservation slipped compared with a year earlier. The July savings rate was 20 percent, compared to 31 percent in 2015. In June, Californians cut water usage by 21 percent compared to the 2013 baseline, vs. 28 percent the year before.

Now state officials are worrying that the relaxed standards might be backfiring as the prospects for a rainy winter remain uncertain.

“The statewide August conservation results raise questions, and we are examining the data to understand why some areas slipped more than others,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “Are we seeing relaxation of conservation messaging and programs, or are we seeing abandonment of programs? One may be appropriate, the other is not.”

Modesto Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.