Savor every drop. Despite forecasts for rain, California remains in a state of drought emergency. Officials weigh on the steps being made to generate solutions
California is running out of water.
It’s rare to go anywhere within recent weeks without hearing Chicken Little-like proclamations about the state’s dwindling water supplies. While much of the East Coast and the Midwest has been pounded with snowfall this winter, California has struggled with what experts say is the least amount of rainfall in more than 150 years. The state is now in its third year of severe drought, the worst on record.
Lest state residents think the alarm is hyperbolic, officials at the local, state and federal level are firm in their appraisal—the situation really is bad.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California on Jan. 17, directing state agencies to use less water and initiating an expanded water conservation public awareness campaign. President Barack Obama toured the Central Valley on Valentine’s Day to survey the damage done to the farmlands that produce a significant portion of the country’s crops. While there, he pledged $183 million in federal funds for drought relief programs in California, and state officials are busily working on implementing state programs. Communities throughout the state are implementing mandatory rationing programs and other reduction plans.
At the local level, the drought declaration has underscored the ongoing water issues the county has been struggling with. As of Feb. 17, Santa Cruz County had received 4.35 inches of rainfall in 2014, according to Steve Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s San Francisco/Monterey Bay Area forecast office. That’s just slightly less than the same period in 2013, which saw 5.07 inches of rainfall. The water year, however, runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. So far in this water year, the county has seen a total of about 5.51 inches, Anderson says.
Normal rainfall for this time of year would be about 18.6 inches, according to Santa Cruz city water department officials.
Recent rainfalls may have some residents feeling optimistic about the program—and the National Weather Service’s forecast for multiple storms in the Bay Area in late February and early March could add some levity—but state officials warn that it’s not time to be too optimistic just yet.
“Unless there are major rainstorms in the next couple of months, it’s just a drop in the bucket,” says John Laird, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources and a Santa Cruz resident.
In early February, Laird, who attended Brown’s drought announcement, says the state’s water shortage shouldn’t be underestimated.
“The snowpack, which is measured monthly, was 12 percent of normal for this time of year,” Laird notes. “That’s the lowest on record, and we’re still 10 percent below the previous driest year on record.”
The California Department of Public Health in January warned that 17 communities throughout the state were in imminent danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days if major precautions weren’t taken—our own tiny Lompico Water District made that list. Shortly after the list was released, members of the district’s board were being called by media outlets from around the state, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel referred to the district as a “canary in the coal mine” in an editorial.
Lois Henry, president of the Lompico Water District board and a 43-year Lompico resident, says her phone started ringing off the hook after the list was released.
“It’s been wild,” she says of the attention.
Though she didn’t know the community has been designated as being imminent danger of running out of water until the state health department called her, the water shortage has been something the community has struggled with for years. In January, the district declared a stage 3 water emergency and implemented a mandatory 30 percent water reduction.
In a community where water is a consistent issue—water has had to be trucked into the area in the past, for instance—Henry says reducing water consumption isn’t going to be easy. She says residents already have been working hard to conserve water, including one woman who told Henry she’s started taking communal showers with her husband and their baby.
“Everybody is trying to figure out ways they can reduce their water intake,” says Henry, the sole woman on the district’s board of directors and a force to be reckoned with. “People are doing what they can—I think people are really concerned.”
The district serves about 500 homes from three wells that draw from an underground aquifer, which is replenished by rainfall that seeps through the ground. The water district has long struggled, and officials there have been working on possible measures to merge with the nearby San Lorenzo Valley water district. The Lompico District recently voted to accept $115,000 in state emergency funding for an emergency pipeline that would connect it to the San Lorenzo Valley. The water district’s directors will likely be discussing the pipeline, which would help the district maintain its current conditions, at the board’s Feb. 20 meeting.
This step would give Lompico’s wells a chance to be rehabilitated and become more productive again, says Henry, who is now in her sixth year on the water board.
In the city of Santa Cruz, Rosemary Menard recently took over the reins as water director, replacing retired Bill Kocher as she wades into a myriad of debates about the short- and long-term solutions for sustaining the city’s water supply. With a desalination plant temporarily off the table, the department is actively working on other ideas while ensuring the community is engaged in the process. The department is asking the city council to approve a stage 3 water emergency, a jump from the city’s current stage 1 status.
The city council is expected to vote on whether to move into a Stage 3 Water Alert at its meeting on Feb. 25. “Assuming the council adopts that resolution, we’ll be moving immediately into water rationing,” says Menard.
It will be a phased implementation, and it will happen as soon as we’re ready to flip the switch on the excess use surcharges, which probably will be in April or May, she says.
In an earlier interview with Good Times, Menard said the city’s water situation was “pretty bad.”
“We’re currently critically dry,” she said.
Should the city council approve this recommendation, the current water shortage alert would increase from voluntary 5 percent cutbacks to mandatory reduction of up to 25 percent in the next few months. The stage 3 water emergency status would permit water officials to set penalty rates for households, businesses and other customers who exceed consumption limits. The City Council is expected to discuss the matter at its Feb. 25 meeting. The City last declared a stage 3 water emergency in 1990.
As it stands, the city already has restrictions in place on such water-heavy activities as watering lawns and gardens, which is prohibited during the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Swimming pools may not be initially filled or drained and refilled, and all hoses used must be equipped with a shutoff nozzle, among other requirements.
The water department also has modified eligibility requirements for its lawn removal rebate program. Lawns don’t have to be green to receive the rebate, artificial turf installations will be rebated, and the project doesn’t need to be completed within 180 days. Through the program, residents are eligible for a rebate of 50 cents per square foot of lawn removed. Full information about the rebate program is available online on the city’s website. Before removing any lawn, residents must call the Water Conservation Office at 420-5230 to set up a pre-approval site visit to ensure the project meets rebate requirements.
The city recently decided not to open the Loch Lomond Recreational Area, the city’s largest storage facility, on March 1, as it has in previous years. The storage facility is at a historic low at just 65 percent full.
Other significant steps are being made. City water officials are working to launch a new web page dedicated to ongoing drought information, and will be implementing a new advertising campaign to promote conservation efforts.
Directors with the Soquel Creek Water District have already asked for customers to voluntarily cut water use by 20 percent because of the drought. Currently, an average person in the district uses about 72 gallons of water a day; with the 20 percent reduction, the goal is to get that down to about 53 gallons a day. As a reference point, a 10-minute shower using a low-flow showerhead takes as much as 15 gallons of water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that showers account for nearly 17 percent of residential indoor water use. The district is offering residents a number of tips on its website for reducing water consumption, with the number one recommendation being to shorten your shower time. Rebates are being offered for water-saving appliances, including toilets, showerheads and washing machines, as well as for rain barrels. The district is offering a rebate of $25 per barrel for barrels with a storage capacity of 50 to 100 gallons, or $25 per 100 gallons of storage capacity for larger tanks.
The cutbacks are voluntary at this point, say district officials, but the board of directors will be evaluating whether to make them mandatory at the April 1 meeting.
“Drought conditions definitely help raise awareness that water is a limited and precious resource,” says Kim Adamson, the district’s general manager. “We’re thankful for the attention to a very serious problem, but want to stress that the near-term effects of drought increase our water shortage problem but are not the cause of it. If our area were to receive normal rainfall amounts for this winter, we are still facing our long-term challenges of inadequate water supplies to serve our customers and protect the groundwater basin from contamination of seawater intrusion.”
Likewise, Secretary Laird emphasizes the need to look at the drought as part of the bigger picture and not just as a temporary problem.
What Californians really need to prepare for, Laird says, is the possibility of the two more dry years like we’ve already seen. In that event, if conservation measures aren’t taken now, we run the risk of serious impacts to health and safety, he says. It’s also an economic issue—agriculture is a huge component of the state’s economy, and we’re already seeing farmers having to make tough decisions about their crops because of the water shortage, he says.
“It’s very dire – statewide,” says Laird.
Laird emphasizes that his staff has been looking at long-term solutions even before this current crisis. That includes a recently completed statewide water action plan. The plan, released in late January for public review, outlines the state’s current problems and lays out three broad objectives: more reliable water supplies, the restoration of important species and habitat, and a more resilient, sustainably managed water system and environment that can better withstand inevitable pressures in the coming decades.
Key to the plan is that “we have to make conservation a California way of life,” says Laird, who focused heavily on water issues during his tenure on the Santa Cruz City Council.
The full plan is online at resources.ca.gov/docs/Final_Water_Action_Plan.pdf.
The county’s water districts have united to launch a set of guidelines prompting residents to take the “20 gallon challenge” to reduce their daily water consumption by that amount.
The suggestions include taking shorter showers, making sure your toilet is water efficient, turning off the water faucet during tooth brushing or shaving, turning off the water while rinsing dishes, and running dishwashers and washing machines only when there’s a full load.
Not leaving the water running while rinsing dishes—which can use up to 1.5 gallon per minute—has the potential to save up to 27 gallons, according to the water districts. Running the washing machine only when full and using a high-efficiency EPA Water Sense washer can save up to 20 gallons as one load of clothes-washing uses 20 gallons of water per load.
Still, while conservation is a must, it might not have made as much of an impact on our current situation as one might think, says Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California.
“No one was really calling for conservation last year—it would have helped but really the issue is that we’ve had no rain,” says Parker.
While the state does have enough water to make it through the next winter, on average, he says people do really need to be careful about their water consumption and possibly make some lifestyle changes.
And though the potential of running out of water is definitely scary, some county residents like Henry believe we’re hardy enough to weather the storm.
“I think people here (in Lompico)—we’ve been through everything—we’ll survive this,” she says.
More water tips and rebates can be found at watersavingtips.org.
Learn how to conserve water at Save Our H20 (saveourh20.org).
> Special online exclusive: Sen. Bill Monning’s op-ed on conservation measures.