How are California cities handling the drought?

The 2022 water year has just ended, and the numbers confirm our suspicions: The 2020-22 drought was the driest three-year period on record. The drought damaged California’s freshwater ecosystems, drying up thousands of drinking water wells in small communities and leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland fallow. But cities fared better: As in the 2012-16 drought, they avoided major supply outages. But you wouldn’t know that from the news, where the main story is that city water agencies have failed to meet Governor Newsom’s July 2021 call to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%. So are cities failing to cope with the current drought? Or are we focusing on the wrong metrics?

Complex urban water protection metrics

A bird’s-eye view of water conservation across the state suggests Californians have fallen well short of Governor Newsom’s 15% goal: As of August 2022, water agencies have collectively reduced their use by just 4% since July 2021. Only a handful of agencies (4%) met or exceeded threshold of 15% (Figure 1).

image - Most municipal authorities fall short of the state's voluntary 15% retention requirement.

But as we explained in a blog post last December, urban water savings aren’t really that low when you put them into context: Most communities got into this drought using much less water than they did in the early years of the drought in 2012–16. Especially in places where water use is already very low – like most of the Central Coast – this makes it difficult to achieve further savings.

Additionally, national averages can be misleading. The current drought initially hit northern California the hardest. Southern California—home to roughly 60% of the state’s population (and the city’s water use)—did not declare a drought emergency until fall 2021, months after the governor’s call for savings. Such regional differences in drought conditions affected the alignment of local conservation policies with the governor’s statewide challenge. Initially, water agencies on the North Coast and parts of the Bay Area pushed the hardest to tighten belts, reflecting local shortages (Figure 1). A similar pattern occurred at the beginning of the last drought, when agencies in the Central Coast and Sacramento regions were the first to act.

By the summer of 2022, when the effects of the drought were more widespread, so were calls from local agencies for protection. National savings jumped dramatically – up 9% compared to 2020. More than 91% of all agencies saved more than the previous summer, and 23% exceeded the voluntary target of 15% (Figure 2).

image - Protection increased across regions this summer

Two sides of resilience

Requiring customers to conserve more water when supplies are tight is a key part of cities’ drought resilience. However, demand management is only one side of the equation; the other side maintains a robust inventory. Access to a diversified portfolio of water resources – including stored water – can help avoid the need for strict water rationing during droughts. City agencies are generally in decent shape—despite the drought—because they’ve made massive investments over the past few decades to reduce long-term demand and improve supply reliability.

A closer look at water use in the summer—when demand is highest—shows that agencies facing acute supply constraints during this drought significantly reduced water use (Figure 3). Agencies at the top — from the North Coast and the Bay Area — called for big water savings in 2021 to address local shortages. Agencies at the bottom—Southern California communities that rely heavily on the drought-threatened State Water Project—adopted major usage restrictions in June 2022. In all cases, customers responded to these local drought measures. For most of these agencies (and 27% of all agencies statewide), recent savings were even greater than in the summer of 2015, when the statewide conservation mandate was in effect.

image - Individual agencies with a vulnerable supply portfolio made significant savings

Of course, some communities will need to save more, especially if the drought remains next year. But focusing only on cumulative protection levels from July 2021 can give the false impression that municipal water agencies are not prepared to handle this drought.

In short, protection is important, but it’s only part of the spectrum of actions that lead to true drought tolerance—and the 4% national protection number is misleading when you drill down to the local details. Local action has worked for most agencies during this drought: When locals need to save, they do. Another top priority going forward is continuing to build supply resiliency in our changing climate – key to reducing drought risks for California cities and suburbs.

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