Gov. Jerry Brown asked Californians at the beginning of the year to voluntarily cut back their water use by 20 percent. In the first five months of the year, San Diego County residents went the opposite direction — they used 10 percent more water than the year before.

County water officials say there isn’t a single culprit for the spike – other than the weather, that is. Dry, hot conditions and a dearth of rain have inspired farmers and home landscapers to use more water even as state and local leaders urge them to use less.

San Diego isn’t alone here, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week. L.A. and Long Beach have also seen jumps in consumption.

San Diego’s most significant year-over-year increases came in January, February and May, when the region experienced significantly drier, hotter weather than in the previous year.

Here’s how the trend played out in the first five months of 2013 versus the start of 2014.

In January alone, when Brown declared a drought emergency, county residents sucked up nearly 40 percent more water than they used the same month last year.

Dana Friehauf, the Water Authority’s acting water resources manager, said a significant contrast in rainfall between January 2013 and January 2014 played a role in that uptick. For example, the National Weather Service recorded 1.2 inches of rain at San Diego International Airport last January and just .01 inches this January, Friehauf said.

Farmers who rely on rainfall in January instead turned on their irrigation systems.

That translated into a 200 percent hike in water used by participants enrolled in the Water Authority’s agricultural program in January alone, said Friehauf, who estimated more than half of the region’s agricultural users are enrolled in the system.

The following month, the Water Authority board called on local water agencies to roll out drought response plans. Water use fell slightly for a couple months. Then came May, when the county broke heat records and wildfires blazed throughout the county, pushing water use right back up.

But Friehauf said massive water dumps during the fires weren’t the major source of the increase. She thinks the heat – and its effect on crops and gardens – had a greater impact.

Temperatures have since cooled but the Water Authority and other agencies are ratcheting up their conservation campaigns. The city of San Diego will kick off a handful of voluntary drought restrictions on Tuesday. Friehauf and other water leaders acknowledge water use reductions won’t come easy.

That’s because county water use has actually fallen about 22 percent since 2007. (The chart below doesn’t include 2008 numbers because they aren’t featured on the agency’s water usage page.)

The downward trajectory is even more apparent when you look at water use going back two decades.

Chart courtesy San Diego County Water Authority
Chart courtesy San Diego County Water Authority

The region is using slightly less water than it did in 1991, for example, when the county had roughly 2.5 million residents. The population is now closer to 3.2 million residents.

Among the drivers of these decreases are water-efficient home appliances and plants that fare better without much rain. Friehauf said farmers have also cut back on watering since 2007, as have some county residents with large yards.

But these water consumers are particularly tied to outdoor temperatures and rainfall – meaning the county is likely to see a year-over-year jump in consumption and will fail to meet Brown’s 20 percent reduction goal if water doesn’t fall from the sky instead.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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