California is facing a crisis. Not only are its reservoirs already at critically low levels due to unrelenting drought, residents and businesses across the state are also using more water now than they have in seven years, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s efforts to encourage just the opposite.
Newsom has pleaded with residents and businesses to reduce their water consumption by 15%. But in March, urban water usage was up by 19% compared to March 2020, the year the current drought began. It was the highest March water consumption since 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board reported earlier this week.
The West's megadrought
Part of the problem is that the urgency of the crisis isn’t breaking through to Californians. The messaging around water conservation varies across different authorities and jurisdictions, so people don’t have a clear idea of what applies to whom. And they certainly don’t have a tangible grasp on how much a 15% reduction is with respect to their own usage.
Kelsey Hinton, the communications director of Community Water Center, a group advocating for affordable access to clean water, said that urban communities — which typically get water from the state’s reservoirs — don’t seem to understand the severity of the drought in the way that rural communities do, where water could literally stop flowing out of the tap the moment their groundwater reserves are depleted.
“In our work every day, people feel how serious this is, and know that we need to be working toward real solutions to address ongoing drought,” Hinton told CNN. “But then living in Sacramento, you don’t see the same urgency here because we’re not reliant on groundwater and scarce resources in the same way that these communities are.”
But advocates say government officials are also focusing on the wrong approach. They say voluntary residential water cuts are not the solution, and that restrictions should be mandated for businesses and industries that use the vast majority of the state’s water.
“Corporate water abuse has to be addressed or no other measures will matter,” said Jessica Gable, a spokesperson for Food & Water Watch.
“The perception in California right now is it’s no secret any longer that drought is linked with climate change,” Gable told CNN. “But there has been no effort to curtail the industries that are using the most water, which are coincidentally the industries that are also sending out the most emissions that are fueling the climate crisis.”
Most of March’s spike in water usage came from water jurisdictions in Southern California. Usage in the South Coast hydrologic region, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego County, was up 27% over March 2020, for example, according to data provided by the state’s water board. Only the North Coast region saved water in March, cutting about 4.3% of its use.
Edward Ortiz, spokesperson for the State Water Resources Control Board, said March was a huge setback for the governor’s water goals.
“This is a concerning development in our response to the drought as a state,” Ortiz told CNN. “Making water conservation a way of life is one way Californians can respond to these conditions. Saving water should be a practice whatever the weather.”