Amid Drought, Here’s Where California Really Uses Its Water

As it endures a historic drought, the state is considering imposing $500-a-day fines for wasting water.,


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ImageA city water conservation specialist checking out a resident's sprinkler system in Sacramento.
A city water conservation specialist checking out a resident’s sprinkler system in Sacramento.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

For Californians still clinging to the myth that we’re not in the midst of a severe drought, a brutal reality awaits.

With a dry winter projected for much of the state, California officials are considering fines of up to $500 a day for overwatering yards, hosing down driveways and other water-wasting actions. The state’s water board could impose the penalties as soon as next month, when they come up for a vote.

You may be wondering: What about mandating shorter showers? Fewer toilet flushes? Using the dishwasher only when it’s full?

There’s actually good reason those measures aren’t atop the water-saving list. While in-home conservation doesn’t hurt, a majority of California’s residential water — as much as 80 percent of it — is used outdoors.

Take this example: When California was slammed with an atmospheric storm in late October, many of us skipped watering our lawns. After months of water savings of no more than 5 percent compared with last year, Californians’ water usage in October dropped to 13.2 percent below the rate in October 2020, according to new state data. While still short of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 15 percent target, it’s the closest we’ve come.

“This jump in water savings we saw across the state can illustrate just how much water can be conserved when we’re not irrigating outdoors, even for just part of the month,” said Charlotte Ely, who presented the savings data to the State Water Resources Control Board this week.

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 our cars).

But the relatively warm, dry weather in California tips the scales toward outdoor consumption. Plants quickly evaporate water, so keeping them green is more water-intensive than in other parts of the nation, said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

“Our per capita water use rates are much, much, much higher than they are back east, where they have rainfall in the summertime,” Lund told me.

While the average Californian uses roughly 110 gallons of water a day, a person in Massachusetts, for example, consumes on average around 65.

And it’s not because heat makes us drink more water. Every day, the average human consumes one gallon, maybe two, Lund told me. So at most, that’s 2 percent of our total water usage.

Lund pointed to the water-saving success of Healdsburg, a town in Sonoma County that was facing a severe shortage this year. In June, officials banned residents from watering their lawns and yards.

Since then, the city’s water usage has fallen by 50 percent.

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Joy Klineberg tossing an onion peel into a container for composting kitchen scraps in Davis, a city that requires residents to recycle their food waste.Credit…Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
  • Mandatory composting: Starting in January, California will begin requiring that excess food be tossed into green waste bins (rather than the trash) so it can be composted, The Associated Press reports.

  • Theranos trial: Lawyers for Elizabeth Holmes have concluded their defense.


  • Weed capital: With support from A-list investors like Jay-Z, West Hollywood is vying to become the Amsterdam of the far West, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Transgender lawsuit: A transgender woman won a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit filed against an El Cajon gym, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

  • Parental guidance: A mother has been criminally charged for her role in her daughter’s sports-related assault, The Associated Press reports.

  • Gang crackdown: San Bernardino police officers arrested 180 people in the takedown of a street gang, The Associated Press reports.

  • L.A. superintendent: Alberto Carvalho, the leader of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was selected to be superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Weather warning: Parts of the San Joaquin Valley and Indian Wells Valley could experience temperatures as low as 22 degrees starting Friday night.

  • Covid-19 hot spot: Fresno County’s coronavirus hospitalization rate is eight times greater than San Francisco’s, California Healthline reports.



Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Sophie Leng.

Glazed holiday ham — with a secret ingredient.


Credit…Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Today’s travel tip comes from Peter Lautz, a reader who lives in Chula Vista. Peter recommends:

“The walk along the amazing cliffs at Montana de Oro State Park along the central California coast, about 15 miles west of San Luis Obispo. Sea otters ride the surf below and wildflowers abound — a truly magical place of serenity and wildness.”

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.

The best actors of 2021.

An annual tamales party, New Year’s in Palm Springs or an order of Ikeda’s pies for Christmas dinner — what are your Golden State holiday traditions?

Email me at

Missed the sunset last night? No worries.

This time lapse captured a spectacular dusk at a Pacific beach. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Talk, talk, talk, talk … (3 letters).

Jack Kramer, Steven Moity, Isabella Paoletto and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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