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California surpasses water-savings goal, cuts use by more than 30 percent

Facing severe drought crisis, many Golden State residents responded to governor's call to limit water use

California decreased its total water use by 31.3 percent in July, surpassing a goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown four months ago to cut urban water use by 25 percent, according to figures released Thursday.

Highlighting the savings, the state’s public and private water suppliers published a list revealing which cities were the most successful savers, as well as those who missed their targets. Superstars included Menlo Park, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Beverly Hills and Redlands were among the poorest savers.

“San Francisco is achieving 17 percent of cumulative savings,” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the State Water Board Office of Research, Planning and Performance. “That’s a real success story, and I definitely encourage people to look at their conservation campaign. It’s quite edgy. Some of it you might even call R-rated.”

San Francisco's campaign included a number of racy slogans, including "Nozzle Your Hose; Limit outdoor watering" and "Gardens Gone Wild; Use native, water-efficient plants." 

Los Angeles also performed well, cutting water use by 21 percent in July.

Jon Christensen, a faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Institute of Environment and Sustainability, attributes the usage drop to Gov. Brown’s focus on the issue and successful public-education campaigns.

He also cited peer pressure as a factor.

“The other thing is people seeing their neighbors letting their lawns go brown,” Christensen said. “Seeing your neighbors taking action really makes a difference.”

Faced with its greatest drought in 1,200 years, California is getting creative in its attempts to save water. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California posted on its website a press release titled Songs For Five Minute Showers. Earlier this month, Los Angeles completed the “shade ball” project, a bid to protect the water quality in its 175-acre reservoir by floating 96 million balls on its surface. The city even has its own high-profile drought shamer, Tony Corcoran, who uploads videos to YouTube of people he sees wasting water.

But not everyone is doing his or her part. Los Angeles in particular has been rife with public morality plays involving swimming pools, golf courses and the excessive use of water in wealthy areas. Local NBC4 News reported that reality TV star Kylie Jenner was served with two water violations and a fine for her LA home. Other violators included celebrities David Hasselhoff, Dr. Dre and Denise Richards. The City of Beverly Hills missed its conservation standard by over 10 percent in July.

Still, there has been a major shift in the way Californians think about water, said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability at UCLA.

“The fact is that this is one of the largest environmental social engineering experiments, if you will, in American history,” Gold said, noting that California has allocated great sums over the past few years to projects like getting rid of lawns. “People are seeing that it's their responsibility for everyone to do their part. Or at least a lot of people are.”

But Gold isn’t sure the state can keep up such admirable conservation numbers for the next few months. July brought some rain to Los Angeles — but August did not.

“I would be very, very pleasantly surprised if the city or the region hit 20 percent in August,” he said.

Many Californians are hoping this year’s El Nino — a Pacific Ocean meteorological phenomenon that brings heavy rain to the Southern California area every four or five years — will ease the state’s water troubles, but it is unlikely to be a cure-all.   

“There is no guarantee,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We need rain and snow in the Sierras, especially the Northern Sierras, to make a dent in this drought."

Agricultural areas of the state, where the majority of the water is used, remain hardest hit by the drought.

In August, the University of California, Davis released the results of a study that found 21,000 jobs in the Golden State had been lost because of the drought, with $900 million in crop revenue losses and $350 million in dairy and livestock revenue losses.

But in terms of urban areas conserving more water, any improvement is good.

“I think that we could continue to see incremental increases in conservation and it would be great to see continuing efforts to bring those numbers up,” said Christensen.

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