As California's drought deepens, many Bakersfield residents are turning to prayer.
But are they truly repenting their water-wasting ways?
A snapshot of three large water suppliers in Bakersfield suggests recent progress has been made in water conservation -- followed by some serious backsliding.
"Right now we're not desperate, we're not in a crisis. But this drought is serious, and we're asking people to conserve," said Rudy Valles, district manager of California Water Service Co. in Bakersfield.
Valles and two other local water officials provided The Californian with a three-year snapshot of customer consumption by comparing water use in January 2012, January 2013 and January of this year.
In January 2012, Cal Water's 40,278 metered customers recorded a total use of 724.1 million gallons. That calculates to an average of 17,978 gallons per metered connection that month.
While the vast majority of those connections are single-family homes, the totals may include businesses, industry and other non-residential users. Therefore, the figures in all three water-use areas should not be seen as reflections of average residential water use in those areas.
It's also important to note that Cal Water still has thousands of customers on flat rate, unmetered connections. And Valles said he doesn't know how much those customers are using.
What the Cal Water numbers do show is that average water use in the district fell by about 7 percent in January 2013 compared to the same month the previous year. Customers performed even better in the area generally west of Stine Road served by the city of Bakersfield. There the reduction reached nearly 10 percent.
And in north-of-the-river areas served by the Oildale Mutual Water Co., usage fell by more than 16 percent when comparing January 2012 with January 2013.
Unfortunately, in two of the three districts that progress was halted and reversed this January, when Cal Water and Oildale customers used significantly more water than they did in either of the previous two Januarys.
Vaughn Water Co., with about 9,600 mostly metered connections in Rosedale, experienced the same pattern: down in January 2013 -- and way up this winter, said General Manager Van Grayer.
In January 2014, Cal Water customers' average use rose by more than 13 percent over the previous January. The spike in usage was even more pronounced in Oildale, with consumption jumping nearly 24 percent.
"Because of lack of rain in January, I would expect use would be up," said Oildale Mutual's General Manager Doug Nunneley.
In addition, Nunneley said, residential growth has been flat in his district for years. Virtually all new connections are industries, which tend to use much more water -- even hundreds of times more water -- than a single-family home.
And that usage may skew the average in an upward direction.
The opposite appears to be the case for the city of Bakersfield's water department.
Unlike the other two districts, average customer water use not only declined in January 2013, the west Bakersfield area charted another decline in water use this year.
Art Chianello, Bakersfield's Water Resources Department director, said he's not sure why the local district has managed to cut water use, but one possibility is the trend toward smaller residential lot sizes.
The district has added more than 1,600 water connections over the past two years, he said, and smaller lot sizes mean homeowners don't need to do as much watering.
Despite Bakersfield's bone-dry January, the smaller lot sizes may have helped pull average use down, Chianello said, which he hopes will become a trend.
Meanwhile, most water purveyors are asking customers to voluntarily decrease their water use this year by 10 percent to 20 percent.
"One of the easiest ways to cut water use is to not plant rye grass in the winter," Nunneley said.
But that's not so easily done. Imagine living in perfectly manicured neighborhoods like Seven Oaks, Riverlakes Ranch or old Stockdale and letting your front lawn go brown.
Even Nunneley admitted he started planting and irrigating a winter lawn after moving to the Olive Drive area a few years ago. The pressure of being the only one on his block to fallow his lawn eventually became too much.
Some day, letting one's lawn turn brown, or converting to low- or zero-water landscaping, may be seen as admirable, even patriotic. But we're not there yet.
In the meantime, despite the drought, average residents of metro Bakersfield are not facing an immediate water shortage -- and so far many do not appear to be reducing their residential use.
But that has to change.
CAPTURING THE FLOW
While a "Miracle March" can't be counted out -- and rain is a possibility this week for parts of the state -- the National Weather Service predicts drought conditions will worsen through April 1, the end of the state's so-called rainy season. The chance of ending the water year at average precipitation levels is now a measly 1 percent.
So what can be done?
According to the California Department of Water Resources, agriculture uses roughly 34 million acre-feet of water of the 43 million acre-feet diverted from surface waters or pumped from groundwater. That's close to 80 percent of California's total developed water -- a huge chunk that dwarfs use by city dwellers and industry.
But that doesn't mean urban users can't make a difference in water conservation.
Unlike some California cities that have occasionally implemented forms of urban water rationing during drought years, Bakersfield has not.
The urban area is fortunate in that it has surface water rights via the Kern River. It also has groundwater and the ability to recharge that groundwater in wet years for use in dry years.
"We purchase water and bank it," said Oildale's Nunneley. "We have over 250,000 acre-feet of water just for this type of situation."
Bakersfield is also far from crisis mode, with water banked from 2010, which enjoyed 124 percent of normal runoff in the Kern River water basin, and 2011, with 202 percent of normal runoff filling the river and replenishing area water banks.
But now the feast is history and the water famine is upon us.
Smaller water districts may be most vulnerable, early on.
The Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Co., which serves about 400 connections in the southern mountains near Frazier Park, is in crisis, said Bob Stowell, who manages the service as an unpaid volunteer.
"We had to truck in water last summer," Stowell said. And they may have to do it again this year.
But Lake of the Woods has been tapped for a $250,000 state grant that Stowell hopes will help the tiny water company locate and sink new water wells.
Water managers are concerned, said Grayer of Vaughn Water. Some wells in the southern valley may go dry this summer.
"I've been contacted this week by two small water companies seeking an intertie agreement," he said. In an emergency, such agreements would allow another district to tie into Vaughn's system for up to 30 days.
But Grayer said he already has five such agreements in place, and he needs to be cautious and watch out first for Vaughn customers.
"There's only so much water to go around," he said.