Why Water Use Varies So Widely Across California

It’s Tuesday. The latest drought figures reveal how water use varies across the state. Plus, California lawmakers pass a $300 billion budget framework.

An automated sprinkler watering grass in front of homes in Alhambra in April.Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As California increasingly slips into extreme drought and calls intensify to reduce water use, the state’s water savings in 2022 remain bleak.

The average Californian used 83 gallons of water per day in April, compared with 73 in April 2020. That’s far from the 15 percent decrease that Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for as our reservoirs and the snowpack dwindle. (This underperformance has persisted since January.)

But, as is often the case with such an enormous state, the overall numbers only tell part of the story.

Yes, the average Californian used 83 gallons of water per day in April, but San Franciscans consumed less than half of that at 40 gallons per day. Meanwhile, residents of Riverside County used 137 gallons.

One factor here is spring weather: April was unusually dry in Southern California, while it rained in the Sacramento, Bay Area and North Coast regions, so “savings were largely concentrated in the northern part of the state,” said Marielle Rhodeiro with the California State Water Resources Board while presenting the data during the board’s meeting last week.

But wide variation in water usage across California’s 58 counties exists every month and every year, weather patterns notwithstanding. Take a look at these numbers from 2021 as a whole:

Counties with the highest per capita residential water usage

  • Lassen (201 gallons per day)

  • Tehama (167)

  • Calaveras (163)

  • Shasta (151)

  • El Dorado (144)

Counties with the lowest per capita residential water usage

  • San Francisco (40 gallons per day)

  • Santa Cruz (51)

  • Humboldt (58)

  • San Mateo (64)

  • Santa Clara (65)

A California information sign along the freeway in San Francisco reminding people to conserve water.Credit…John G Mabanglo/EPA, via Shutterstock

As you can see, there’s a fivefold gap between the biggest and smallest water users, the data shows. Some of that, experts say, may be because of drought awareness and differing cultural norms around water conservation, as well as older housing stock in some regions that tends to have less water-efficient plumbing.

But most of it can be chalked up to something Californians either love, or love to hate: our yards. “The biggest driver of the difference is outdoor water usage,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Half of California’s annual water usage is considered environmental water, meaning it flows through protected rivers or supports wetlands in wildland preserves, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The other 50 percent is for human use — 40 percent for agriculture and 10 percent for urban use, split between indoor (drinking water, showers) and outdoor (lawns, washing cars).

But the relatively warm, dry weather in California tips the scales toward outdoor consumption. Plants quickly evaporate water, so keeping them green here is more water-intensive than, say, on the East Coast, where it rains in the summer.

In dense, urban environments, people tend to have smaller yards, so there’s less green to water. And in cooler, coastal regions, water demands dip even further as there’s less evaporation. That’s how you end up with San Francisco’s low water consumption rate.

And in a place like Lassen County, in the northeastern part of the state, yards are much larger and lead to more irrigation, especially as the weather heats up. “It still gets very warm in the summer time, so if you keep your property green, you spend a lot of water,” Lund said.

So you can see why California so far has focused its drought restrictions so heavily on yards.

In January, state officials announced penalties for watering yards after a rainstorm. Starting this month, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the largest water distributors in the nation, restricted outdoor watering to one day a week.

Also this month, the state banned irrigation of decorative grass at businesses and other commercial properties, the most drastic statewide cut to address the drought so far.

For more:

  • The drought is pushing Latino farmers and workers to make difficult decisions, CNN reports.

  • San Diego is introducing new water restrictions, City News Service reports.

  • California last week imposed a sweeping ban on pumping river water in the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area, CalMatters reports.

Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, came across as a relatively moderate candidate, but once in office he was met with a fierce backlash.Credit…Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

If you read one story, make it this

The lessons liberal prosecutors are drawing from the ouster of Chesa Boudin.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California during the Summit of the Americas on Wednesday in Los Angeles.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • Budget: California lawmakers approved a $300 billion state budget framework on Monday over objections from Gov. Gavin Newsom, The Associated Press reports.


  • Sheep Fire: A fast-moving wildfire in Angeles National Forest is prompting road closures and the evacuation of a large portion of a community northwest of San Bernardino.

  • Young Kim: A Republican who is one of the first Korean American women in Congress, Kim will advance to the general election in November after a hard-fought primary to represent California’s 40th district.

  • Slim 400 killing: Two people were arrested on Monday in connection with the fatal shooting of Compton rapper Slim 400 last year in Inglewood, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • San Diego gun legislation: Two San Diego County supervisors want county staff to recommend policies that would enable the county to sue gun manufacturers, The Times of San Diego reports.


  • Graffiti at Yosemite: Vandals last month used spray paint to draw on more than 30 sites at Yosemite National Park, The Associated Press reports.

  • Air quality worsens: San Joaquin Valley residents are learning that extreme drought conditions can be as hard on human lungs as they are on local crops, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Downtown S.F. struggles: The city’s downtown, its primary economic driver, is teetering on the edge, and officials have yet to come up with a plan to help the area thrive again, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Attack on Millbrae councilman: Millbrae’s first Hong Kongese American city councilperson, Anders Fung, had a brick dropped on his head during a visit to San Francisco in what he believes was an ethnically-motivated attack, The SFist reports.

  • Mudslides: A nearly 50-mile portion of Highway 70 in Butte and Plumas counties remains closed because of mudslides and debris flow near the Dixie Fire burn scar, The Sacramento Bee reports.

What you get

For $1 million: A 1923 bungalow in Monrovia, a two-bedroom condominium unit in Oakland and a Spanish-style house in San Diego.

Kumamoto oysters at Horses in Los Angeles.Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

What we’re eating

California restaurant critic Tejal Rao reviews a hot Hollywood hangout where the food is actually the point.

Credit…Cody Blue/Heavenly Mountain Resort, via Associated Press

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Romie Shield, who lives in San Mateo. Romie recommends a getaway in South Lake Tahoe:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

Summer is here. What’s your favorite part of the season in California?

Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.comwith your stories, memories or recommendations.

A large soaring adult California condor.Credit…U.S. FIsh and WIldlife Service

And before you go, some good news

In 1982, the entire population of California condors was down to 22, and none of them flew free in the wild.

Since then, recovery efforts have allowed the condor population to grow to 537, as of the last official count in December 2021. Three-hundred and thirty-four of them were free-flying.

Read more from Bay Nature magazine on the reintroduction odyssey of the California condor.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “The noblest art is that of making others ___”: P.T. Barnum (5 letters).

Jaevon Williams, Mariel Wamsley and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at


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