Water & Drought

California water districts: We can handle three more years of drought

Sierra snowpack 'not what we hoped,' but still better than last year

Taking the key spring measurement of the Sierra snowpack near Echo Summit on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California cooperative snow surveys program, indicated mixed results. Compared to the previous year, the snowpack th
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Taking the key spring measurement of the Sierra snowpack near Echo Summit on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California cooperative snow surveys program, indicated mixed results. Compared to the previous year, the snowpack th

State officials will not force most California water districts to reduce water use this year, even as they caution that the five-year drought persists and note that drought-fueled wildfires continue to wreak havoc.

The State Water Resources Control Board in May asked California’s 411 urban water districts to evaluate how much water they would need in the next three years if drought continued – and whether their supplies would meet that demand. Districts that certified their supplies are adequate do not face mandatory water-use cuts. Those with inadequate supplies must set conservation goals proportional to their anticipated shortfall.

About 85 percent of the state’s water districts told the water board that they believe they have adequate supplies to handle continued drought and should not be subject to state-mandated conservation targets, according to results released Tuesday by the water board.

In the Sacramento region, no water supplier will face state-mandated conservation targets, though about half of the region’s districts have set voluntary conservation goals and a few local communities, including Sacramento and Davis, will continue to restrict lawn watering days.

The new localized approach to conservation is a sharp reversal from last year, when a “we’re all in this together” ethos led the state to impose mandatory water-use cuts of 25 percent on average across California compared with 2013. The mandated cuts ranged from 4 percent up to 36 percent, with districts with a history of heavy per capita water use targeted for the biggest cuts.

A relatively normal amount of rain and snowfall in Northern California last winter helped ease drought conditions, but 60 percent of the state remains in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The state’s reservoirs remain strained, with all but two of the 12 major reservoirs in California below average water depths for this time of year.

Water board Chair Felicia Marcus said the state’s relaxed approach to urban conservation is a response to improved conditions in the north state. But she encouraged Californians to continue to conserve water, even if it’s not mandated.

“It’s a question of degree,” she said. “A bit of relaxation is OK. Abandoning water conservation is not.”

Marcus and other water board officials said the requirements for passing the so-called “stress test” undertaken by water districts were stringent, and should be enough to ensure that the state will not overdraw its urban water supply. If they prove too lax, regulators said, the state is prepared to toughen them.

“We’ve got fires going on up and down the state – tremendous impacts,” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board. “We’re still reeling as a state from the impacts of the drought. The water we can conserve in our urban areas is a bulwark against further impacts.”

The stress test results were not audited by state officials. Regulators essentially are relying on the honesty of water districts. “We’re not going to go looking under rocks to see if they are fudging,” Gomberg said. “If someone else does that, we will take a look. Our role is not to be the arbiter except to the extent that there is something that is clearly erroneous.”

Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said her research indicates water districts are overstating the strength of their supplies. She said it is unlikely that almost nine out of 10 water districts would have adequate supply to meet three more years of drought.

“The requirements of the regulations allowed water districts to be overly optimistic,” she said. “The zero percent (conservation targets) we are seeing aren’t real numbers.”

Eliminating mandatory targets for most of urban California is the wrong approach to promoting efficient water use, Quinn said. “My primary concern is the mixed message, the terrible message,” she said. “We are still in this unprecedented drought.”

Of the state’s 411 water districts, just 35 completed the stress test and concluded they would have a shortfall if there were three more years of drought. Most of those will face state-mandated targets under 20 percent. Another 32 districts did not complete the stress test and instead opted to maintain the conservation targets the state imposed for much of the last year. The rest certified their supplies were adequate and will not face state-mandated targets.

Most of the water districts that will continue to face mandated targets are located in the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast and the Los Angeles area – areas of the state enduring the most severe drought.

Despite a relatively wet winter and spring, the Sacramento region also remains in drought, with half of the region categorized as being in “severe” drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Nevertheless, the region has a variety of reliable water supplies and strong water rights that serve as a buffer, said Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager at the Regional Water Authority. She noted the region’s water districts have made significant infrastructure improvements to ensure that water can move from areas where it is plentiful to areas where it is scarce.

“We are at the top of a watershed,” she said. “The surface water comes directly from the Sierra. We have the flexibility to switch between water supplies.”

Statewide, about 40 percent of urban water districts said they do not need state-imposed conservation targets but have nonetheless imposed voluntary water-use goals on customers, Gomberg said.

In June, the first month without mandated conservation targets, statewide water use went up compared with 2015 but remained well below 2013 levels.

Considering re-using household water on your yard? In this installment of The Sacramento Bee's Water-Wise Homeowners series, Chris Lopez of GrowWater.org discusses greywater, "second-time around" water such as that used for laundry that can be re-

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

California’s water shortfalls

More than 80 percent of the state is in some level of drought, but only about 70 water districts expect shortfalls if the drought lasts three more years.

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