Southern California cities lagging on water savings hustle to catch up

A display set up at the Westfield Santa Anita mall on ways to save water. It's part of the city of Arcadia's efforts to cut water use by 36 percent compared to 2013.
A display set up at the Westfield Santa Anita mall on ways to save water. It's part of the city of Arcadia's efforts to cut water use by 36 percent compared to 2013.
Sanden Totten / KPCC

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State officials are scheduled to release September water conservations numbers this Thursday — numbers that could compound the challenges faced by dozens of Southern California cities that are struggling to meet their mandated water cuts.

With a blistering summer and toasty early fall giving way to cooler temperatures, opportunities for big savings are fading, leaving those cities in a tough spot.

That's where water conservation officials like Sami Taylor come in.

Taylor, a recent USC graduate with a degree in public policy, was hired by the city of Arcadia in August to help cut water use.

The city of nearly 58,000 in the San Gabriel Valley has been ordered to reduce water consumption by 36 percent compared to 2013. Since June, it's needed to hit that goal on a monthly basis to stay on target for reaching nine months of cumulative 36 percent savings by the end of February. 

The goal is part of the executive order issued April 1 by  Gov. Jerry Brown in the face of one of the worst droughts in California history. Brown called on the state's urban water users to cut consumption collectively by 25 percent — June 1 through February 29 — compared to the same period in 2013 before the drought was declared. To get there, cities like Arcadia that used more than others were asked to cut more. 

As of the end of August, Arcadia had only reached cumulative savings of just under 29 percent. That means that during the period of September through February, Arcadia needs to average monthly water savings of 40.8 percent to achieve its ultimate goal.

Over the past several weeks,  Arcadia officials have put up signs about letting lawns go brown. They've started using recycled water for public trees.  They cut the number of outdoor watering days from three times a week to two.

And they've sent Sami Taylor into the community to be the face of efforts to cut even more. 

Even though she often has to tell people bad news about their water use, she tries to keep things friendly.

"If you can do it with a smile or like not as a doom-and-gloom persona, you can get a lot farther," she said on a recent enforcement cruise through the city.

(Sami Taylor is spearheading efforts to save water in Arcadia.)

The city's conservation efforts have paid off somewhat. In September, Arcadia was just three percentage points short of its goal.

The bad news is, even hitting the target one month isn’t enough.

"So we still have a long way to go but we are definitely making progress," Taylor said.

(A close up of a display in the Westfield Santa Anita mall designed to explain water saving tips to visitors.)

More than 30 cities across Southern California are in a similar bind. They've fallen between five and 15 percentage points behind their cumulative savings goals and need to make cuts above and beyond to have any hope of hitting their targets.

A lot of those cities' water use goes to yards and gardens, but cutting back is hard for places like Pasadena, which is also behind on its overall goal of reducing use by 28 percent.

"I think one of the challenges is that we do have a lot of green landscape in the city," said Ursula Schmidt, a water conservation manager for Pasadena.

The city was just a few points shy of its goal in September, but overall it needs to save about 33 percent per month going forward to make its target.

Schmidt says the city has reduced the number of outdoor watering days to one a week. It has also given out water-efficient shower heads and rebates to homes installing systems that reuse bath and laundry water.

Still, Schmidt said, it can take time for these programs to see significant water savings.

"The requirements from the state came down pretty quickly, and the compliance period is fairly short," Schmidt said.

Part of the problem is seasonal. People typically use less water in the late fall and winter months because of cooler temperatures. That was the case in 2013 — the year the state is using to calculate the water savings. 

That's putting added strain on the Inland Empire city of Redlands, which is working to meet its state mandated goal of cutting water use by 36 percent.

It’s already so far behind, the city needs to slash about 46 percent a month until March 1 to make up the difference.

The state suggested Redlands try raising water rates, but Chris Diggs with the Redlands Utility District says that means navigating weeks of red tape.

"Public notice has to be given... reports have to be complete and approved by council, so these are not things that happen over night," he said.

Still, the stakes are high.

The State Water Resources Control Board has said it could issue fines of up to $10,000 a day against water districts that don’t meet their goals.

But most won’t see such extreme fines if they are putting in a good-faith effort, said water board chief analyst Max Gomberg.

"The question for us in terms of enforcement is have they been doing everything they can to try to achieve the highest level of conservation and are they continuing to do that," he said.

Cities like Arcadia, Pasadena and Redlands all had to submit reports to the water board on steps they’re taking to achieve their goals.

If these and other lagging districts remain behind in their savings much longer, the state could issue conservation orders giving water managers a list of steps to take to help further reduce consumption.

Arcadia is taking a proactive approach now by issuing warnings and fines of $100 or more to water wasters. They are even considering using low-flow restrictors that would reduce water pressure for homes that aren't following water rules.

Maintenance worker Jonathan Adame said all this effort is paying off.

"Even from reading meters you can tell, you can see the droppage in usage," he said. "I think we are going to get there."

The question is, will cities like Arcadia get there soon enough? They’ve got only a few months left to find out.