California got a drop of good news amid the crippling drought Thursday, when officials announced that Golden State residents cut water use by 31.3 percent in July, surpassing Gov. Jerry Brown's 25 percent goal.
Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said heavy rainfall in July helped the state save water but added that conservation, enforcement and strong warnings by water agencies helped even more.
The water reductions come at the perfect time since California, struggling through the fourth year of the worst drought on record, guzzles the most water during the summer months.
"This isn't your mother's drought or your grandmother's drought," Marcus said. "This is the drought of the century."
Evidence of strict conservation efforts strikes the eye when driving through Palm Springs, a desert city in Southern California popular with tourists since the early 1900s. Known as California’s Desert Oasis, the city’s once lush green grass is now a moribund yellow and brown. Certain fountains that flowed for decades with endless streams of water have been shut off. And residents have been made aware that they could face fines if they consume too much water.
“It is a new reality and as you can appreciate Palm Springs, the infrastructure 30-40 years ago was built on the lush oasis and that is not the reality now,” David Ready, Palm Springs’ City Manager, said.
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that the Coachella Valley’s three local water providers, which service Palm Springs and the surrounding area, cut their consumption by 36 percent - the highest reduction rate across the state. At times over the past year, Palm Springs has consumed two to three times the average amount of water as the rest of the state. But on Thursday, members of the State Water Resources Control Board announced the Desert Water Agency, headquartered in Palm Springs, had reduced its consumption by 35 percent.
“One of the state’s penalties will be a $10,000 fine paid for by the water agency not by the public,” Craig Ewing, the President of the Board of Directors of the Desert Water Agency, said.
Members of California’s State Water Resources Control Board have made it clear that fines are a worst case scenario, preferring to help consumers come into compliance.
But not knowing how long the drought will last, leaders in Palm Springs aren’t taking any chances. The city has spent millions of dollars to rip up grass in parks, medians and even parts of the airport, replacing it with desert landscaping which requires little to no water.
The Desert Water Agency has also injected a million dollars into a popular turf buyback program.
“We just finished doing 16,000 square feet of area of taking it from grass environment, pulling out the grass and putting in new landscaping which is more desert appropriate,” Kate Castle, whose H.O.A. took advantage of the buyback program, said. “There’s beauty that can be found in the desert and we’re employing that here throughout our community and I’m thankful for that, I really like it, I’m very proud of it.”
Even some of Palm Springs’ most popular golf courses have switched to recycled water.
“We’re making the change, we’re going to conserve and we’re going to do our part,” Ready said.
Ready admitted that many private courses are still using vast amounts of water. He said they’ll have to come to grips with the new reality sometime in the near future.
So what else can be done?
“Everything you can think of. This is an all of the above strategy for customers for Californians to deal with water conservation,” Ewing said.
That includes more education, leak detection and the threat of penalties.
City leaders say residents in Palm Springs have been vigilant when they see their neighbors wasting water.
“We found the citizens are very willing to step to the plate and they’re the biggest part of our enforcement and they’re coming to the plate and they’re helping us conserve,” Ready said.
While state leaders are hoping a winter El Nino will refresh the state’s aquifers, lakes and snowpack, they warn a drought busting weather system is not guaranteed and are pleading for Californians to continue to cut back on their water usage.
Follow Will Carr on Twitter @WillCarrFNC