SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — August's steep and sudden drop in water conservation after more than a year of impressive savings has California drought regulators questioning whether cities are ignoring conservation rules that have just been relaxed.
Statewide water savings declined to 17 percent in August - down from 27 percent in August 2015 - and sparked concern within the California State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday.
"The statewide August conservation results raise questions," board chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement. "Are we seeing relaxation of conservation messaging and programs, or are we seeing abandonment of programs?"
In May, the regulator voted to nix stringent statewide drought orders that called for a 25 percent conservation target, allowing California's more than 400 water suppliers to set their own targets. The water board called the plan a "trust-and-verify approach" that requires cities and water suppliers to self-certify their water supplies and ensure that a minimum three-year supply exists in case of extended drought.
Many cities and water suppliers jumped at the opportunity to lower their targets and loosen the taps to collect on lost revenue.
Marcus said Wednesday that some cities are still "conserving up a storm," while others may be taking advantage of the relaxed rules.
"We urge suppliers where conservation levels have dropped steeply to reach out to high-use customers to find way to conserve and to join their community's conservation efforts," she said.
In its monthly drought update, the water board stressed the need for water suppliers to continue pushing conservation messages and dialogue with customers. It also warned that it's possible that top-down conservation laws could return in January if totals don't improve.
The diluted August totals come as California enters its sixth straight year of drought. With Oct. 1 marking the official start of the water year, more than 83 percent of the Golden State is experiencing drought, and 62 percent of the state is in severe drought.
While forecasters initially warned of La Nina conditions this winter, the formation of El Nino's drier cousin has recently slowed in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists are now predicting a 55 to 60 percent chance of neutral conditions in the Pacific this winter — neither El Nino nor La Nina.
Since Gov. Jerry Brown's drought orders went into effect June 2015, Californians have combined to save 23 percent compared to 2013 levels.
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