Big Coastal Cities, Not Wealthy Cities and Farms, Have Drained Northern California Reservoirs

“Laws are like spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught” — French novelist Hornore de Balzac, author of “Bureaucracy”.

Small, wealthy cities and large corporate agriculture have been blamed as the main culprits of California’s four-year long drought.  But focusing on the size of cities, not gallons of water used per person per day, tells a different story.

In response to the drought, cities must reduce water use from 8 to 36 percent but based on how much water they use per person per day by Executive Order of Gov. Jerry Brown.  A City such as San Francisco which uses 45 gallons per person per day must reduce water by 8 percent; Los Angeles with 90.9 gallons/day by 16 percent; and the Coachella Valley Water District near Palm Springs with 475 gallons/day (including agriculture and tourism) by 36 percent.

The reality is that city size and percent of dependence on imported water, not gallons of water used per person per day, is what has substantially drained northern California reservoirs.  And the largest water “user,” the environment, is hardly even mentioned in the discussion of what has led to the shortage of reservoir water that has accompanied the drought.

California’s drought is not primarily a depletion of groundwater or a reduced allocation of Colorado River Water.  Rather, it is a shortage of water in northern California surface reservoirs that supply Central Valley farmers, large coastal cities, and the environment.

Biggest Water Waster: Palm Springs or Los Angeles?

In the following analysis I use data from the Urban Water Management Plans for each city rather than from the California Water Resources Control Board data mainly because the Water Board counts agricultural and tourist water usage together with urban use but doesn’t count number of people fed or tourists.

The Palm Springs area water supplier of the Coachella Valley Water District with its 120 golf courses is the purported biggest water hog with its 238.8 gallons of water used per person per day. But the Palm Springs area doesn’t use any net imported water from northern California reservoirs at all while the City of Los Angeles uses 500,000 acre-feet of precious imported water per year, despite it uses only 73.9-gallons of water per person per day.

The Coachella Valley Water District (Coachella) transferred its allocation of northern California water from the State Water Project for water from the Colorado River Aqueduct decades ago. This saved the costs of having to build a $150 million pipeline to convey state water from Lake Perris (see page ES-3 here).  And it has been fortunate for California in the current drought because the Palm Springs area has not had to directly tap any imported water from northern California.  Additionally, Coachella is in the process of shifting from partial use of imported Colorado River water to recycled water for 28 golf courses.  The remaining 92-golf courses rely only on local groundwater.  So Coachella will not be using any crucial imported northern California water for golf courses at all.

The upscale cities of Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Palm Springs and wealthy avocado ranchers in Rancho Santa Fe have been singled out as the major culprits of the water shortage accompanying California’s drought.  Conversely, the media has described the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Francisco as water conservers, again based on gallons of water used per person per day.

Statistics indicate the City of San Francisco uses only a miserly 92 gallons of water per person per day.  But it still imports 87,840-acre-feet water (28.6 billion gallons) per year more than all the cities in the Palm Springs area even with their 120 golf courses.

And the working class city of Santa Ana uses nearly as much crucial imported water (18,164 acre-feet) annually as the wealthy City of Beverly Hills (18,890 acre-feet) – see table below. Beverly Hills has 2.36 persons per household while Santa Ana has 4.45.  Failing to take total population and household size into consideration misleads as to which city is the biggest water waster.

The upscale cities of Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Rancho Santa Fee, Solano Beach, and Fairbanks Ranch combined use only a puny 33,675 acre-feet of imported water per year (see table below).  Conversely, the big cities of Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Diego, Fresno, San Francisco, Irvine, and Oakland-Richmond-Alameda use 2,135,707 acre-feet, or 695.9 billion gallons of water, of imported water per year.

93% of Water Supply-Demand Gap is from Big Cities

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) study Water Supply and Yield Study of 2008, estimates that the water supply-demand gap in a dry year in the crucial Central Zone of the state is 2.3 million acre-feet per year.  California’s seven large cities listed below make up 93 percent of that gap.  The combined water use of the Coachella Valley cities near Palm Springs, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, and Rancho Santa Fe is only 2.8 percent of the supply-demand gap.

Moreover, urban and environmental water use comprises 57 percent of the total average year supply-demand gap (1,310,000 acre-feet) while agriculture is only 43 percent (97,000 acre-feet) [see Table A-3].  By 2030 the BOR projects that agricultural water use will shrink to 12 percent but urban and environmental use will swell to 88 percent of the water gap (Table A-4).

Interestingly, the 2008 BOR study also estimated that California has a supply-demand gap of 2.28 million acre-feet of water in a normal water year.  In other words, California reservoirs were in a structural (not cyclical) water deficit even before the 2012-2015 drought.

The State Water Project delivers only 10 percent, and the Federal Central Valley Project only 23 percent, for a total of 33 percent of the state’s urban and agricultural water supplies (called “developed water”).  The other 67 percent comes from local water systems and the Colorado River.

The use of the statistical measure of gallons per day per person (per capita) originated with the California Water Conservation Act, State Senate Bill SBX7-7 of 2009 sponsored by Democratic Party leader Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).  SBX7-7 was introduced and slammed through the Democrat-controlled state legislature in 12 days without sufficient public review.  The goal of SBX7-7 was to reduce per capita water use by 20 percent by 2020.  Focusing on the water absorbed by each proverbial tree and not the forest has kept the political heat from the drought off big Democratic-controlled cities and environmental interests.

The data used in this article comes from Urban Water Management Plans for 2015 for each water supplier and not from the California Water Resources Control Board data cited above.  Analysis of the imported water for the city of Long Beach was omitted due to missing data. Sacramento was omitted due to proximity to the Sacramento Delta.  Data on average household size per city is from the U.S. Census Bureau.


Use of Imported Water Per Year by Urban Water Supplier
Ranked from Most to Least Use of Imported Northern California Water

City Population/
No. of Households/
Average HouseholdSize
Total Annual Water Use
In Acre-Feet/
Percent Imported
Gallons Per Day Per Person Gallons Per Day Per Household
Total IMPORTED water use in acre-feet per year per household Total
IMPORTED Water Use in acre Feet Per Water Supplier
LADWP 4,172,760
131.5 301.5 0.34 501,321
Silicon Valley-
Santa Clara Valley
172.4 318.0 0.36 235,372
City of San Diego 1,405,540
165.3 373.5 0.42 218,577
134.7 310.5 0.35 186,651
City of Fresno 547,466
412.0 815 0.91 161,728
San Francisco 875.856
92 214 0.24 87,840
Irvine Ranch 359,627
439 485 0.54 74,218
Beverly Hills 45,032
390 883 0.99 18,890
City of Santa Ana 363,027
117.5 199 0.22 18,164
Newport Beach 68,478
222 184 0.21 8,032
Rancho Santa Fe, Solano Beach, Fairbanks Ranch 19,839
504 932 1.04 6,753
Greater Coachella Valley 510,967
urban only
460 0 0


(143,999 acre-feet from Colorado River)


Wayne Lusvardi covers on water and energy policy for