Improving Urban Water Conservation in California

by Erik Porse

The relatively dry 2017-18 winter in California resurfaced recent memories of drought conservation mandates. From 2013-16, urban water utilities complied with voluntary, then mandatory, water use limits as part of Executive Order B-37-16. Urban water utilities met a statewide 25% conservation target (24.9%), helping the state weather severe drought. Winter rains in 2016-17 led to a reprieve from mandatory conservation. Freed from statewide requirements, urban water agencies ended mandatory cutbacks by meeting “stress tests” that included several years of secured water supplies.

A useful outcome of the 2013-17 drought period was long-needed reporting data on monthly urban water use and conservation. This reporting has continued, creating a growing repository for measuring trends. The data helps understand how much water California cities actually use, including trends over time, across geography, and seasonal differences.

But, importantly, can it help understand how much water California cities should use? Some analysis of the water conservation reporting data, coupled with recent research, lends a few clues to this more complex question.

Seasonal and Geographic Differences in Water Use

Recent water use totals through the end of 2017 show that cities in many parts of the state continue to use less water compared to 2013, but not as efficiently as during drought. There were a few exceptions, including the South Coast where 59% of utilities reported increases compared to the similar period in 2013.

But examining trends over time and space is instructive. Some localities continued high, even ostentatious, rates of water use. In addition, seasonal differences are evident. Drier months see much higher per capita water use due to outdoor irrigation, as shown in graphics via the Pacific Institute’s water use webmap. But winter irrigation can be just as important. Moving towards urban landscapes with no winter irrigation requirements can be as effective as limiting summer irrigation.

Summer and winter water use across Los Angeles urban retailers (source: Pacific Institute, downloaded November 2017)

Benchmarking Per Capita Consumption

Many cities in California have higher rates of water use than counterparts in other countries. But what does a target of 100 gallons per person per day (total use) actually mean for urban life?

The 2016 Executive Order sought to address this question in part by requiring state agencies to develop water use budgets based on specified targets of indoor use, commercial and industrial needs, and outdoor irrigation. This effort is continuing. But water use budgets themselves do not reveal the implications of various per capita targets, especially for outdoor needs.

Could a city in coastal Southern California, for instance, exist with 80 gallons per capita per day of total use? What would this mean for its plants, trees, and landscapes? How would the effects change in the San Francisco Bay Area or the Central Valley? Urban ecology research demonstrates that plants and trees often show distinct and varying physiological characteristics and water use trends in cities, owing to irrigation habits, climate, and other factors. Such emerging knowledge must help inform practice.

In Los Angeles, for example, research used experimental data for species-specific tree and lawn water use to estimate outdoor water use budgets and associated effects of conservation on trees and plants. Across metropolitan LA, an estimated target of 80-100 gallons per capita per day could support trees and low water landscapes, along with current residential and commercial needs, while also allowing for significant cutbacks in imported water. More aggressive conservation at the lower end of that range would require long-term conversion of the existing tree canopy to low-water and drought tolerant species.

Urban Yards as a Resource

Well-designed urban yards can support important plant and animal species, but residents need better tools, information, and guidelines on soil and irrigation practices. Outdoor landscapes constitute 50% of total urban water use in many areas. Water utilities increasingly fund replacement of lawns as a way to promote long-term conservation. But most programs do not require resultant landscapes with ecological diversity and native plants.

Research from Los Angeles indicates that, even in the absence of such requirements, turf replacement can yield more diverse landscapes. Urban utilities with ecologists on staff can better ensure turf replacement that supports biodiversity, native vegetation, and trees. Some examples, such as the City of Long Beach’s turf replacement program, offer useful guidance for residents. Resources such as the Calflora database of native California plants and Cal-Poly’s Urban Forest Ecosystem Institute tree selection guide are excellent statewide resources. But improving native and drought-tolerant plant selections in California’s urban nurseries would allow residents to translate such information into practice.

Water Use in an Era of Big Data

Urban water use trends are usefully understood when consumption data is linked with other data sets, including US Census data, county property tax records, and climate trends. This allows for high-resolution analysis that informs investments and rate-setting procedures. Some examples of innovative data initiatives exist, including the California Data Collaborative. Such tools have cascading benefits for planning.

Statewide efforts around water data are ramping up, but the state’s fragmented system of water governance inhibits broader analysis. Moreover, high-detail water use data is difficult to obtain. More accessible data across residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional properties is essential for improving management. Linking and publishing this data is an important step for promoting 21st Century, data-driven urban water polices in California.

Responsibility at Many Levels

Both water utilities and residents are essential participants in continued conservation. Utilities must retool finances to stabilize revenues given long-term conservation. Additionally, they must better engage residents and community organizations in promoting culture change. But residents also have responsibilities. Building social capital is key. Community-based organizations help engage residents in this task. For example, The River Project with its Water LA program engages residents in remaking landscapes for dual goals drought-tolerance and stormwater management. The Sacramento Tree Foundation and TreePeople are additional examples of community-based groups effectively bridging gaps between residents and utilities. Water agencies that meaningfully engage community groups will be better positioned to promote long-term conservation.

Given the popularity and continued growth of California’s cities, along with the inevitability of drought, urban water conservation will need to continue. Implementing policies to promote equitable conservation, which also supports cities where we want to live, is a challenge that an innovative California is capable of tackling.

Erik Porse is a Research Engineer in the Office of Water Programs at
CSU-Sacramento and a Visiting Assistant Researcher at UCLA.

Further Reading

Cahill, R., & Lund, J. (2012). Residential water conservation in Australia and CaliforniaJournal of Water Resources Planning and Management139(1), 117-121.

Gleick, P. H., et al. (2003). Waste not, want not: The potential for urban water conservation in California. Oakland, CA: Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security.

Hanak, E., & Davis, M. (2006). Lawns and water demand in CaliforniaPPIC Research Reports.

Litvak, E., Bijoor, N. S., & Pataki, D. E. (2013). Adding trees to irrigated turfgrass lawns may be a water‐saving measure in semi‐arid environmentsEcohydrology7(5), 1314-1330.

Litvak, E., Manago, K. F., Hogue, T. S., & Pataki, D. E. (2017). Evapotranspiration of urban landscapes in Los Angeles, California at the municipal scaleWater Resources Research53(5), 4236-4252.

Mini, C., Hogue, T. S., & Pincetl, S. (2014). Estimation of residential outdoor water use in Los Angeles, CaliforniaLandscape and Urban Planning127, 124-135.

Mitchell, D., Hanak, E., Baerenklau, K., Escriva-Bou, A., McCann, H., Pérez-Urdiales, M., & Schwabe, K. (2017). Building Drought Resilience in California’s Cities and SuburbsPublic Policy Institute of California.

Pataki, D. E., McCarthy, H. R., Litvak, E., & Pincetl, S. (2011). Transpiration of urban forests in the Los Angeles metropolitan areaEcological Applications21(3), 661-677.

Pincetl, Stephanie, Thomas W. Gillespie, Diane Pataki, Erik Porse, Shenyue Jia, Erika Kidera, Nick Nobles, Janet Rodriguez, and Dong-ha Choi. (2017) “Evaluating the Effects of Turf-Replacement Programs in Los Angeles County.”

Porse, Erik, Kathryn B. Mika, Elizaveta Litvak, Kimberly F. Manago, Kartiki Naik, Madelyn Glickfeld, Terri S. Hogue, Mark Gold, Diane E. Pataki, and Stephanie Pincetl. “Systems Analysis and Optimization of Local Water Supplies in Los Angeles.” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 143, no. 9 (2017): 04017049.

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3 Responses to Improving Urban Water Conservation in California

  1. Pingback: Water News for May 7, 2018

  2. J Rizzi says:

    Use more water now? Need to use more water in non-drought years, so that we can be able to cut bat 25% when needed, but also using more it typically done by watering outside; which inturn adds to our ground water reserves for future droughts.
    LA aqueduct and other rivers should look into adding inflatable water risers to raise and capture water with ways for the water to go into our ground water storage and the water risers would be deflated to avoid floods when needed. More water for fish, wildlife and people too.

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