California apartment dwellers have been especially slow to cut back on their water use

Apartment living can be less community-minded than it seems.
Apartment living can be less community-minded than it seems.
Image: Mike Blake
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California has been asking all residents to cut back on their water consumption as the state weathers its worst drought in 1,200 years. Fines for overusing water have been a useful deterrent for homeowners and farmers, but for apartment dwellers, not so much.

That’s because the vast majority of apartment buildings in California don’t equip their units with individual water meters. For the 12.5 million residents who live in buildings with one master meter, the overall complex typically foots the water bill.

California reported a 27% reduction in water use in June from a year ago, exceeding the 25% mandate recently instated by governor Jerry Brown. But data from WegoWise, which makes software monitoring the energy consumption of multifamily buildings, paint a less rosy picture. Analyzing the water use of 25,000 apartment units in California, it found a 9% reduction in median water consumption per bedroom. (The company says the best metric for water use is on a per bedroom basis, compared with the per square foot metric for analyzing electricity or gas use.)

The least water-efficient buildings have seen the steepest drop. Apartment complexes that ranked in the 75th percentile in efficiency (meaning that three-fourths of apartment complexes were more efficient than them) lowered water use by 14% since last summer. But those buildings also used 57% more water than buildings in the 25th percentile.

“Water is one of those things where it is surprisingly easy to not do anything when there is a problem,” Barun Singh, founder and chief technical officer of WegoWise, tells Quartz. “Most tenants don’t say anything about [these problems] unless it’s bothering them. But if they’re not paying for it, why would they reach out to their landlords?”

Because apartment dwellers have less incentive to cut back, property owners are finding greater savings by retrofitting their buildings. Raising awareness and levying fines, only goes so far, says Singh. Beyond that, the state has to ”deal with the infrastructure itself.”