Getting California Water Consumption Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels

By Frank A. Monforte

California water

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly altered our way of life. One of the most drastic and visible shifts was the mass exodus of employees from commercial office spaces during the lockdown period of the pandemic. This had an impact on numerous industries, including utilities.

There has been significant discussion on energy use during the pandemic, which saw residential demand skyrocket. Now the question is: Was the same true for water consumption? Water usage is of particular (and timely) concern in California as the state is experiencing another deviation from the norm: a severe drought.

To conserve water, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in July 2021 asking Californians to reduce their water use by 15 percent compared to 2020. But that got my team wondering: If COVID-19 restrictions led to a net increase in water consumption, what would be the net impact of the voluntary restrictions? Does 15 percent return California urban water usage to more, about the same, or less than pre-pandemic levels?

We decided to take a look at the numbers to find out.

California Water Consumption Overview

At a high level, water consumption numbers followed a similar pattern to electricity. While non-residential consumption decreased, residential consumption increased far more significantly.

Now let’s dig in a little deeper. Starting with the good news, controlling for weather and COVID-19, California’s daily water consumption is trending downward. If you control for weather; however, there was a significant increase in residential consumption during the lockdown period. And controlling for COVID-19, the hotter and drier weather also led to increased consumption.

So, what does this mean for the goal of achieving a 15 percent reduction in water consumption relative to actual 2020 consumption levels? To meet this goal, the data highlights the need for a combination of the following three actions:

  • The lingering impact of prior COVID-19 restrictions dissolves and most of the workforce returns to work on-site.
  • California returns to normal weather conditions with significantly less heat and significantly more rain.
  • Consumers take action to curb, at the minimum, their outdoor water use.

It is doubtful that either the first or second scenario will play out. Increased residential water consumption levels continue to persist after the lockdown, suggesting this is our new normal as flexible working arrangements become permanent. Plus, climate disruption is showing no signs of slowing down. That means that in order to hit target water consumption levels, Californians will need to take action and change how much water – mainly outdoor water – they use.

drought sign

Utilities’ Role in Solving Current and Future Challenges

The Governor’s Executive Order urged residents to make simple changes at home – from “reducing landscape irrigation, running dishwashers and washing machines only when full, finding and fixing leaks, installing water-efficient showerheads and taking shorter showers.” While even small steps add up, the data shows outdoor water usage is where Californians need to focus their efforts. Estimates put landscaping and outdoor water usage at half of all residential consumption.

It’s true consumers need to take action, but utilities also play an important role in meeting consumption goals. Modernizing distribution infrastructure (much of which was installed more than a century ago) and adding intelligence to the edge of the water distribution network will help ensure supply meets demand. For example, with access to real-time data from sensors and other smart devices, utilities can save water by locating leaks quickly and providing customers with a granular look at their water usage.

It’s true consumers need to take action, but utilities also play an important role in meeting consumption goals.

Preventing water loss, in particular, can have a significant impact. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “The average household’s leaks can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year, and 10 percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day.” And globally, over a third of the water circulating in the distribution system is lost before it reaches consumers. Our analysis estimates that California utilities can save 27 billion gallons of treated water (roughly the equivalent of 850,000) average households consumption) by fixing the addressable leaks in the distribution systems.

Meeting Water Consumption Goals, Together

The data shows that California consumers have taken steps to reduce their water consumption, however the recent droughts and the shift to more permanent “Work from Home” have more than offset those reductions, but the data also shows it’s possible to ensure enough water is available to support our community. It’s clear that all stakeholders – from utilities to end users – need to make changes.

California – and the rest of the world – must come together and safeguard this finite and precious resource by making every drop count.

Dr. Frank A. Monforte is director of forecasting solutions at Itron. He is an internationally recognized authority in the areas of real-time load and generation forecasting, retail portfolio forecasting, and long-term energy forecasting. His expertise includes authoring the load and generation forecasting models used to support real-time system operations across several regions.

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