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By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — When state regulators tried to tally water use across California in June, they didn’t exactly get a flood of cooperation.

Of the 440 water agencies in the state, only 276 provided water consumption data. And officials in California’s second-largest city made a point of formally refusing the request, saying the state’s method for measuring San Diego’s water use was “misleading and technically inappropriate.”

The State Water Resources Control Board released the result of its survey in July, showing an 8 percent increase in water use in Southern California in May while most of the rest of the state was using less water.

The findings set off a firestorm, becoming fodder for talk radio, newspaper headlines, and social media screeds about the wasteful ways of Southern Californians.

But a closer look at the numbers shows the picture is more complex and state officials admit the survey is not complete.

Hoping to get a better view of the water usage, the state plans to do its first mandatory survey later this year. But officials said that won’t be a complete picture either because many water customers in the Central Valley and even parts of Sacramento and Fresno don’t have water meters.

State officials are learning that measuring water consumption is a task fraught with politics as well as science.

The survey found that Santa Ana increased water consumption by more than 60 percent in May. The city, facing criticism over the finding, said consumption was up only 10 percent. The state now agrees the 60 percent figure was wrong.

Then there is San Juan Capistrano, which the state said had a 37 percent increase in water use. City officials, however, note June was an outlier. A new golf course opened in the city, and there was an unusual amount of construction.

“One month doesn’t represent a trend,” said Francie Kennedy, the water conservation coordinator for San Juan Capistrano.

Southern California cities had other complaints. The survey measured straight water use and did not take into account use per person. Southland cities also noted that May was unusually warm. It was the hottest May ever recorded in San Diego and the second-hottest in Santa Ana.

State officials said they will be using per capita water figures in future surveys but that should not distract from the larger reality.

“It is surprising that water use is up so much in Southern California, even accounting for the hot and dry May weather,” said Max Gomberg, the state board’s senior environmental scientist.

The study was initiated after Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency drought declaration in January and called for a 20 percent reduction in water use. The results were reached by comparing the average water use during the month of May from 2011 to 2013 to May of this year to come up with a percentage increase or decrease.

But because water agencies self-reported their data there were some mistakes. In June, the board reported a 5 percent decrease in water use statewide. That turned out to be wrong because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power initially left the data for this May blank, Gomberg said, adding that L.A actually saw a 9 percent increase.

And the Irvine Ranch Water District made a typo, he said, that “overstated the amount of water used in the prior years by an order of magnitude.”

Once those mistakes got corrected, Southern California’s water use increased enough to cause the state’s cumulative water use to increase by 1 percent.

“I wouldn’t call it a superb response,” Gomberg said of the participation levels. “But it did provide us with a pretty good confidence level that we were getting data that was representative of the state.”

Photo: Bay Area News Group/MCT/Aric Crabb

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