When Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for California in January, he asked residents to cut their water consumption by 20%. Six months later, that mission can be measured. A survey released in July showed that the state used 1% more water in May than the previous three-year average for the same month.
The disappointing news comes as California remains stuck in a historic shortage, with reservoirs dwindling and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range at dangerous midsummer lows. The consequences are severe: a July 15 report from the University of California at Davis estimates that the drought will cost the state more than $2 billion this year, with some 17,000 seasonal and part-time agricultural jobs lost.
In an effort to awaken Californians, officials have put in effect the first statewide emergency water-use restrictions since the drought began. The curbs on lawn watering and other outdoor uses carry fines of up to $500 per day for each violation, but officials acknowledge that the fines’ real value is less enforcement than awareness. “There are not going to be that many fines written, given or paid because we just don’t have the resources to do it,” says Timothy Quinn, head of the California Association of Water Agencies. “This is only going to be successful if people have a change of heart.”
That buy-in is essential if the state is to find a way out of this crisis–and take steps to prevent the next drought from devastating California. That’s why water districts are fixing leaky pipes and encouraging customers to use recycled water for nonpotable purposes like fountains and lawn irrigation. Some communities are paying residents to remove thirsty turf in favor of drought-resistant plants. And throughout the state, more water districts are setting prices based on volume, charging extra for water used beyond a set threshold. “The more people conserve now, the less likely it is that in the next year or two they’re going to have to go to really serious water rationing,” says Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.
But even smart conservation can have a boomerang effect. Coastal Southern California has some of the state’s most cutting-edge water-use policies, including mandatory low-flow toilets, turf-removal programs and strict lawn-watering laws, but it got the worst grade on the recent state survey of water use. That stretch, which encompasses Los Angeles and San Diego, used 8% more water in May than the average for the same month over the previous three years. In the Sacramento area, where only about half of all homes have water meters and conservation policies are far less advanced, residents reduced water consumption by 13% in May.
Californians will need to replicate those habit changes across the state. “If it doesn’t rain next fall, all bets are off, and we’re going to have to go to far more serious restrictions everywhere,” says Marcus. For now, she adds, “We’re just ringing the bell and saying, ‘Hey guys, wake up.'”
This appears in the August 04, 2014 issue of TIME.