A parched Folsom Lake,  at less than 20 percent of capacity (photo courtesy of National Weather Service).
A parched Folsom Lake, at less than 20 percent of capacity (photo courtesy of National Weather Service).

This is not a good time for California’s umbrella industry.

2013 was one of the driest years on record in the state. And January  — usually among the wettest months — has failed to provide any relief. With the precipitous drop in reservoir levels, Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a statewide drought emergency, calling this “perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago.”

drought-map-largeThe declaration outlines 20 different drought condition measures, one of which calls for the Department of Water Resources to execute a statewide conservation campaign, urging residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

But that begs two important questions: how much water does the average Californian actually consume and what would a 20 percent reduction look like?

It’s a hard figure to quantify, and estimates vary widely. For one, while indoor residential water use is relatively steady throughout the state, outdoor use — primarily for landscape irrigation — varies dramatically, with homes in arid inland regions consuming significantly more water than those in coastal areas.

“There are large variations across the state,” notes Peter Bostrom from the California Department of Water Resources. “Outdoor use could be 25 percent [of a household’s use] in Santa Cruz  and 80 percent is Coachella … 15 percent of users account for 60 percent of overuse in landscape irrigation.”

Source: California Dept. of Water Resources_Water Plan (2009)
Source: California Dept. of Water Resources; Water Plan (2009)

Additionally, estimates are typically represented as gallons per capita per day (gcpd), in which water use in each of the state’s 10 hydraulic regions is divided by population (see map at right). These calculations, however, generally factor in each region’s total water consumption, which includes residential water use as well as commercial and industrial uses.

Among the best ways to get a handle on your own household’s water consumption is by scrutinizing your water bill, which usually includes the number of gallons used that month. Additionally, a new state website provides a calculator for estimating your personal water.

An often-cited 2011 study of California single-family water consumption estimated that the average California household used more than 360 gallons of water per day. To put that in perspective, the typical office water cooler holds 5 gallons, or about 1.4 percent of the study’s estimated daily average household use. Given that figure, the average house in California would need to use 72 fewer gallons a day to meet the 20 percent reduction goal.

The study, which was sponsored by CDWR and managed by the Irvine Ranch Water District, logged water consumption in the year 2007 for 735 homes spread across the state’s 10 hydraulic regions.

The study found that about 53 percent of total average household water use — or more than 190 gallons per household per day — was used for landscaping and other outdoor uses (remember, this is only the state average —  most cities in the Bay Area use significantly less).

Meanwhile, Indoor use accounted for more than 170 gallons per household per day. Not surprisingly, the most in-home water consumption was in toilet flushes. A more shocking finding, however, was the whopping 18 percent lost to leaks inside homes, the study found. Data from the study is represented in the charts below.

Bostrom from CDWR claims that voluntary water reduction campaigns have proven to be quite effective during past droughts.

“We’ve found in general that when the call goes out, people respond very well to drought messaging,” he says, referring to successful reduction campaigns during the 2007-2009 drought. “It’s gotta be a coordinated message with water suppliers reminding people of the shortage and need for water conservation. And suppliers build that [reduction] into their drought planning.”

For 8 simple tips on conserving water, check out this recent post on KQED’s News Fix.

How Much Water Do Californians Use and What Does A 20 Percent Cut Look Like? 6 March,2015Matthew Green

  • Focus on LEAKS and OTHER… LEAKS?? wow.

    • nineteen50

      Diet has the greatest effect on water use. Look up how much water is needed for production of different proteins.

  • rojotoro

    While I’m sure the facts of this reporting are accurate and well researched it places the focus where it doesn’t belong. Residential water consumption from a statewide view is – to use a pun – literally a drop in the overall bucket.

    Nearly 90% of the water used in this state goes to industrial uses, primarily Ag. And while I wouldn’t say that is water wasted, we do need food, the idea that people taking shorter showers is going to make a difference is misplaced.

    Sure, every drop counts in a drought, and within residential usage there is a lot of inefficiency and waste, especially for things like lush green chemical laden lawns. But residential usage isn’t the problem.

    The other thing I would suggest is that when California is ready to get serious about water management they will get serious about water storage. This state gets enough rain to hold it over, even in drought years. The problem is we let a large percentage of it run off into the sea.

    That isn’t to say I’m opposed to salmon runs, but rather that our storage capacity needs to be increased. Even when reservoirs are at “capacity” because they aren’t seismically retrofitted a lot of them are only filled to 75%.

    So (in good years) the water is there, we just aren’t capturing enough of it.

    • jjallison1

      Actually, industrial and commercial use is around 13%. The biggest taker of water is the EPA, for “environmental purposes”. Agriculture comes in at number 2. Residential use is a distant 3rd, and only third if you INCLUDE recreational purposes.

      • John Fairplay

        Do you have a link for this by any chance? There are a tremendous number of residential users claiming Ag is the problem and I’m trying to get the truth.

        • jjallison1

          I know what you mean. Depending on where you go, you see all kinds of funny numbers. I’ve seen some sites put agricultural use at 80%. While not an out and out lie, it is definatley a misrepresentation. The actual number I believe is around 40%. What you almost never hear, is the “enviornmental use” number, which is, I believe, at over 50%. Here is one link you might find helpful:


          I can post others if you want them, and an explanation on how I came to my above stated result. Either way, I wonder why our Governor is so focused on high speed rail when water is a much bigger issue. I can only assume that Sacramento wants us to be in a state of water emergency… That way they can decide who gets it. I would think that if we could pump oil in a pipeline from Alaska, we could pump water the same way. Also, there is all the water we need right off the coast. A whole ocean of it. While not an end all solution, desalination plants would definately help. Sadly, Gov. Brown is focused pushing his high speed rail through. Constructing that is more important than constructing solutions to the water problem. I really wish that Sacramento would focus on solution, rather than the problem when it comes to water.

          • Retiredbiker

            The PPIC (Public Policy Institute of CA) is largely funded by the Bechtel Corp, which tried to privatize the water supply system of a major city in Bolivia a few years ago. It went so far as to make it illegal to collect rainwater! I hardly think I would accept an organization they control as an unbiased source of information on ANY public policy in CA, certainly not policy regarding water resources.

          • Patriot123579

            Then provide a better unbiased source of information. Don’t stall the conversation by simply discrediting the PPIC.

          • Retiredbiker

            This is an almost endless list of unbiased sources that look at the problem of water resources in CA from a historical perspective, which is necessary if you are going to understand the current problem: start with Wikipedia (“Water in Calif.”), books by Norris Hundley: “The Great Thirst: Californians and Water,” “Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy between the U.S. and Mexico,” “Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and Politics of Water in the American West,” and “Cadillac Desert: the American West and its’ Disappearing Water”

          • Patriot123579

            Just so you know, I’ve read almost every source on your list. Starting from the bottom, Cadilac Desert, while an EXTREMELY entertaining read, was written almost 30 years ago, and was written largely as an opinion piece solely about Southern California being doomed because it has no native water. Hundley’s “The Great Thirst” echoed many of Reisner’s sentiments and was similarly lacking in any current data, or at least the data was glaringly incomplete and biased.

            Wikipedia still cites that Agriculture uses 80% of the water in the state, then uses a citation from the CDFA that, when you follow it, indicates that Ag only uses 40% of the state’s water, so the citation is wrong and thus the 80% listed in Wikipedia is uncredited.

            I want real, current, and complete research data, not anecdotal parroting.

          • Lysogenic

            >I want real, current, and complete research data, not anecdotal parroting.

            I’m looking at the PPIC site and they divide water into 3 categories: environmental, agricultural (Ag) and urban. Their definition of encironmental water states that, “most water allocated to the environment does not affect other water uses… These waters are largely isolated from major agricultural and urban areas and cannot be used for other purposes.” Why would this type of water be counted in usage statistics?

            As such, if you take out environmental usage, the PPIC percentage is 80% Ag and 20% urban. Have i misinterpreted something? By the way, the PPIC site states that 80% of human usage is Ag.

          • Patriot123579

            You realize how ridiculous that is, right? The state takes 40% of the water for “environmental use” and because that water can now no longer be used for anything else, you simply don’t count it?!?

            That’s like saying, I make $100,000 a year – but I have to pay 33% of that to taxes,and I can’t use that 33% for anything else, so when people ask me how much I make, I can only tell them I make $66,667 a year. No, the truth is, I make $100,000 a year, and I have to pay 33% toward taxes.

            Whatever the state deems it needs for “Environmental Use” of water is PART OF THE WATER CONSUMPTION TOTAL. You don’t get to erase it just so you can make Ag consumption look higher than it actually is!

    • Patriot123579

      Actually that 90% ag number is way off, as is the current 80% currently thrown around. Since more accurate categorization methods were implemented more than a year ago, it’s actually estimated that Ag uses only about 53%.

    • Urbane_Gorilla

      You are so right! Homes use 4% of the state’s water. If we all managed to cut another 25% (and we’ve all reduced through water saving devices from the last drought), that would mean an effective 1% savings in total, which makes as much sense as an ER focusing on the bumps that a shooting victim sustained while falling over, rather than stemming the blood. Agriculture uses 80% of the water and they were let off the hook during the last drought, just as they are now. It’s time they begin to become more water efficient.

    • Patriot123579

      By the way Rojotoro, that 90% figure you use is completely uncredited. Wikipedia states 80%, but the citation for the 80% comes from a CDFA article that, when you go to it, only shows Ag as using 40% of the state’s water.

      I’m not saying Ag isn’t a large consumer. Even at 40% that’s a HUGE portion of the consumption. And certainly practices such as surface irrigation and flooding need to be done away with (as does burning post-harvest biomass which is still done commonly in the Central Valley).

      All I’m saying is, let’s get real data.

  • Glenn Bourgeois

    San Diego is the leader in conservation of water.

  • rob2234

    California has always had extensive agriculture. The people are increasing all of the time. Something doesn’t add up.

  • AB

    My family of three in CA averages a use of 13 gallons/per person/per day according to my latest water bill! We are doing our part!

    • pete

      I take one shower a week and use a 5 gallon bucket for my defecation. I average 4.3 gallons per day. How bout them apples. (I only take one shower a week because I have a foot long incision down my leg and the rest I was kidding about)

  • Thanos

    In California, water used by irrigation 53%, thermo electric power plants 28%, public supply 15%. Water breakdown by sector and state: http://www.csgwest.org/policy/WesternWaterUsage.aspx

  • WileyPost

    With an average water use/day of 50gal/person; deporting/blocking 1 million illegal immigrants would save 50 million gal/day….just saying….

  • renojim_2000

    So, here I am, living outside Temecula, CA. I have done what I can to reduce my water consumption without killing everything green around my house and getting personally stinky. If I have to go to those extremes, so be it, I’m just not there yet. So here’s my question. How much good do I do reducing my water consumption my 20%, while there are 1000’s of new houses going up all around me, each of which will consume >300 gpd? If things are so bad, why are we building all these new homes?

  • Chucky

    My family of four averages 67 gallons a day this year, last year it was about 10 gallons more. I wash my car at the low-water car wash places. My daughter is not into the teenage years, where she’ll probably be showering daily. I “cheat” and shower at the Club, but there I still take about 3-minute showers. My indulgence: I swim…but the pool would be filled even if I weren’t there. So, I’m kind of “recycling” water that’s already being used. It’ll be pretty hard to reduce more, but we’ll try. Time to “save water, drink beer” I guess.

  • JohnnyB

    How about the fact that nearly 9 Billion gallons, (8.775 Billion gallons or 29,000 acre/ft), were/are expected to be, released to hopefully allow 29 steelhead trout, to maybe find their way back to the sea. According to researchers, only between 25%-60% of steelheads actually survive the journey so now we’re down to releasing the water for a probable net gain of between 7 and 18 fish.

    If we assume there’s about 38.8M California residents, (according to the Census bureau 2014 projections), that means that to save 12 fish, EVERY man, woman and child in the state would sacrifice in total about 226 gallons.

    If the second stage of this release goes through, I’d like a credit for my 226 gallons please since, as a taxpayer, I find it ridiculous that this much water is being essentially “flushed down the toilet”.


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Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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