Armed with U.S. Drought Monitor maps showing nearly the entire state in a blaze of red, and bar graphs of dwindling reservoir water levels, representatives said the time for the public to conserve the precious supply is now.
The Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), Valley Water, the California Department of Water Resources and the California Water Service discussed the worsening drought at a July 1 community meeting, which was sponsored by state Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park).
The drought has already extended into its second year, and this year is predicted to become one of the driest in terms of water runoff in the state's historical record. Last year's water year — from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 3, 2020, — ranked as the 13th driest in statewide precipitation and the fifth driest in statewide water runoff. Much of the low precipitation occurred in the northern half of the state, which supplies the majority of the state's water supply.
The paucity extended into the 2021 precipitation year, which ended June 28, 2021. Nearly the entire state has received only about half of average annual precipitation, said Jeanine Jones, California Department of Water Resources interstate resources manager. The cumulative effect has plunged nearly the entire state into an extreme drought, according to data from the Western Regional Climate Center.
The water storage system that supplies most municipalities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is at 72.9% of its maximum capacity. Normally, the total storage averages 91% this time of year, Nicole Sandkulla, CEO and general manager of BAWSCA, said during a phone interview.
Although the system's water bank, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is currently at 99.1% of its maximum storage capacity, looks can be deceiving.
"Clearly, it's down," Sandkulla said of the total system, adding that people need to start conserving water voluntarily.
More concerning is the amount of precipitation feeding the water system. The years 2020-2021 were the second lowest on record since Hetch Hetchy was completed in the 1930s. The lowest was the 1976-1977 drought, Sandkulla said.
"It's very close; 1976-77 had 39.14 inches of precipitation; 2020-21 had 39.28 inches," she said.
Jones noted that statewide overall reservoir levels have been dropping and are about 64% of average. Individual reservoirs such as those in the large federal Central Valley Project and California State Water Project, which serve parts of Santa Clara County, have dropped even lower. San Luis Reservoir, for example, is at 33% of capacity or 54% of its historical average, she said.
A 'canary in a coal mine'?
Closer to home, Santa Clara Valley Water District, also known as Valley Water, is the poster child for how quickly a water system can become vulnerable to drought.
Water storage rates in Santa Clara County's 10 reservoirs are currently 16% in Guadalupe and Stevens Creek; Lexington, Chesbro, Coyote and Uvas are in the 20%-25% range; and Calero and Almaden at 45% and 54% respectively. Only Vasona is at near capacity at 94%, according to the Valley Water Surface Water data portal.
Anderson Reservoir, the district's largest, is at 4% capacity; however, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered the district to drain the reservoir over seismic concerns due to its age. Located near Morgan Hill, Anderson is Valley Water's largest reservoir and stores half of the water in its system. The reservoir will stay empty for the next decade, depriving the county of that critical water source until a rebuild of its dam can be completed, Valley Water Board Vice Chair Gary Kremen said.
Coyote Reservoir, the district's second-largest, is also currently limited in its current surface water storage due to limits imposed by the California Department of Water Resources Division of Safety of Dams, according to a staff memo to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Valley Water, which supplies some water to the city of Mountain View, gets about 30% of its supply from its reservoirs and the groundwater aquifer. Another 50% is imported (40% through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and 10% from Hetch Hetchy); 5% is from wastewater treatment and advanced purification; and 15% comes through residential and commercial/agricultural conservation, according to the district.
Valley Water's ability to get water imported from the California State Water Project, which manages 17 reservoirs statewide, and the federal Central Valley Project, which manages 20 dams and reservoirs, is also taking a hit. The State Water Project is now providing just 5% of the water, and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Central Valley Project, announced on May 26 that it is cutting the water to urban areas from 55% to 25% and for agricultural uses to 0%.
In response, on June 9 Valley Water instituted a 15% mandatory reduction in water use among its customers compared to 2019 usage due to the state and federal cutbacks, dwindling Sierra snowpack and the Anderson Reservoir shutdown.
"Increased conservation is also necessary to protect local water supplies and guard against groundwater overdraft, subsidence and dry domestic wells, especially if the drought extends into next year," Valley Water Board Chair Tony Estremera said in a June 9 statement.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors ratified the emergency order on June 22 and stated in a press release, "Reservoirs are so low, the water level is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife and urban needs." The order applies to unincorporated parts of the county and calls for customers to voluntarily use 15% less water as compared to their 2019 water usage. The order stays in effect until Aug. 21.
Given the statewide drought, Valley Water is also finding it difficult to find much water for sale. The water district is a member of a water-banking exchange through the Semitropic Groundwater Banking Program in Kern County, which is supposed to help manage variability in Valley Water's supplies from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. Semitropic is a member district of the Kern County Water Agency, the second-largest State Water Project contractor, according to Valley Water's website. Yet, Valley Water is having trouble accessing its share, Kremen said.
The district has banked about 425,000 acre-feet of water in Semitropic over a 20-year period and has withdrawn about 190,000 acre-feet during dry years, but it must retrieve the banked water by exchange with other State Water Project water being pumped at Banks Pumping Plant in Tracy.
"We can't get it back because there's no one to trade with," Kremen said.
Purchasing water — if a supply can be found — is also expensive, he said. Between Dec. 7, 2020, and July 7, 2021, the price per acre-foot jumped from $483.53 to $841.21, an 84% increase, according to the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index Futures (NQH2O). The prices steeply rose from just over $200 per acre-foot in March 2020, according to the data. Even if the district wants to buy water, it can't; it doesn't have a way to get it delivered into the county, he said.
The district also can't bet on pulling up groundwater from the aquifer. The California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act restricts how much water can be pumped out of the ground to protect the groundwater basin. Pulling out too much water also causes land to sink and compacts the ground and gravel layers that would normally store the water. The district has no emergency underground sources, Kremen said.
"We're not going to conserve our way out of this problem," Kremen said.
The next steps
The state Legislature on June 28 approved a $3 billion water resilience drought package to expand and protect water supplies across the state, Berman noted at the July 1 meeting.
But Tom Francis, BAWSCA's water resources manager, said that the projects that could help bolster the water capacity for the future could take more than 10 years to move forward. A project at Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo County would add treated but potable wastewater to the Crystal Springs supply, which comes from Hetch Hetchy, he said.
San Mateo County's three reservoirs, Upper and Lower Crystal Springs and San Andreas Lake, provide emergency backup and supply for northern San Mateo County and the city and county of San Francisco. Sandkulla said that both are being kept full to provide emergency use in the event of another wildfire such as last year's CZU Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For now, BAWSCA's 26 member agencies, which include East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, Stanford University, Purissima Hills Water District, which supplies water to Los Altos Hills, and California Water Service's Bear Gulch District, which covers parts of Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley and Woodside, aren't under a mandate to conserve water, but that could change this fall if there's no precipitation when the rains should begin, Sandkulla said.
In the meantime, BAWSCA and Valley Water are offering incentives, tips and rebates to help people save water so the area can bank enough water if the drought continues into next year, and hopefully, to create a water-saving culture. BAWSCA is offering rebates through programs such as Lawn Be Gone, which offers residents up to a $4-per-square-foot rebate to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant native plants, up to $300 for planting a "rain garden" of native plants with deep root systems, and a rain barrel rebate.
Valley Water is offering customers up to $400 to install a greywater laundry-to-landscape system. On July 1, it kicked off a landscaping rebate increase to $3,000 for residential sites and up to $50,000 for multifamily properties of five or more units.
To learn more about the water-saving tips and rebates for water-wise landscaping, visit bawsca.org and valleywater.org.
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