Drought by the Numbers: Where Does California Water Go?

Either, Or.
| Illustration assembled from rights-free image and photo by Bert Kaufmann/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California's water budget is skewed heavily toward agriculture. The conventional estimate is that 80 percent of the water used in California flows into the state's multi-billion-dollar agricultural sector.

The 20 percent left for urban use is split between homes, businesses, and government.

About 6 percent of the state's water is consumed by industries, commercial operations, and governments. About 14 percent is poured into bathtubs, toilets, and washing machines or sprayed over residential lawns.

But there are statewide differences in the volume of residential water use, with divergent patterns of consumption based on climate, water system efficiency, and conservation efforts. In this season of drought, some communities are faring better than others because some water providers have done more -- and for longer -- to cut per capita water use and expand water storage.

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As Madelyn Glickfeld, director of the water resources group at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability told Time magazine recently, Southern California "is so far ahead of Northern California in taking good care of water and using it carefully. The Central Valley doesn't even have water meters."

Here in Los Angeles County, there are equally wide disparities in residential water use, largely driven by wide income differences. Even when water is priced according to a sliding scale, an acre of golf-course-worthy lawn in one city will require a smaller proportion of disposable income than 4,000 square feet of struggling crabgrass in another. (Landscaping accounts for nearly half of all residential water use.)

According to data compiled between 1995 and 2010 by the California Department of Water Resources, working-class Bellflower residents use an average of 128 gallons of water a day. Per capita water use in Pico Rivera (126 gal/d), Norwalk (119 gal/d) Inglewood (114 gal/d), and Compton (106 gal/day) was even less.

Santa Monica residents used 154 gallons per day on average, just slightly higher than the city of Los Angeles, which averages of 152 gallons per day.

Water use in Palos Verdes (282 gal/d) and Beverly Hills (284 gal/d) was markedly higher.

These averages are a baseline that city water departments and for-profit water companies can use in updating their "urban water management plan," something that each must do by law every five years. As the San Jose Mercury News noted, those plans used to get little notice from consumers or state officials.

The drought has changed all that. Now, management plans are being looked at with care as California nears a 2020 deadline to cut the state's overall water use by 20 percent.

In our favor, the numbers show that an ethic of water conservation has taken hold in Los Angeles County since the 1990s drought years, aided by rebate programs for planting low-water-use landscaping, mandates for efficient toilets, some limits on lawn watering, and variable pricing in some cities for above average water consumption. But not all of the effects of conservation have been uniform.

Future conservation targets could have further consequences for quality of life issues in working-class neighborhoods unless water planners take into account that more restrictions will mean one thing in Brentwood and something very different in Downey.

In allocating a scarce resource that's shared by everyone, water providers have to ensure -- by pricing and policy -- that every class of consumer sees a drier, browner landscape growing in all parts of town.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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