A new SoCal underground water storage project aims to keep supplies flowing during drought

A solution to help bolster Southern California’s water outlook during future droughts is taking shape in the Mojave Desert. Water transported in canals and pipelines has begun flowing into a series of basins carved into the desert, filling a large underground reservoir that will be available to draw upon in dry times.

The facility, called the High Desert Water Bank, started taking in supplies from the State Water Project last month. Water diverted from the East Branch of the California Aqueduct has been flowing through a 7-foot-wide pipeline and gushing into one of the basins, where it gradually percolates into the desert soil and recharges the groundwater.

Newly drilled wells will allow for water to be pumped out of the aquifer when needed to supply cities and suburbs throughout Southern California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is spending $211 million to build the facility. The district’s officials say the project is a vital step in improving the region’s water infrastructure to adapt to climate change.

“We know that climate change will bring more of the dramatic swings between wet and dry that we saw over the last few years, so we must take every opportunity to store water when it is available,” said Adán Ortega Jr., chair of the MWD board.

The agency already stores water underground in other areas, but the High Desert Water Bank represents the MWD’s largest investment in groundwater storage to date.

The district developed the facility working with the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, which owns the property near Lancaster.

After three years of construction, the initial phase of the project has enabled the district to take advantage of the plentiful water from this year’s historic storms. And more water could be coming with the current strong El Niño, which has brought forecasts of another wet winter.

There is enough aquifer space in the Antelope Valley groundwater basin to store up to 280,000 acre-feet of water, comparable to the capacity of Castaic Lake and nearly four times the size of Big Bear Lake.

The facility, which is scheduled to be fully built in 2027, will enable the MWD to put in or withdraw up to 70,000 acre-feet of water per year — enough for about 210,000 average households.

With this much additional storage in place, Ortega said, “we can confront the next drought with more confidence.”

By increasing the district’s ability to store and withdraw water along the aqueduct, the project provides the state’s largest urban water supplier greater flexibility and a valuable backup supply to adapt to more extreme cycles of drought and wet weather.

The district’s managers said having the water bank will ensure more reliable supplies during severe droughts like the one during the last three years, when supplies from Northern California were drastically cut, forcing mandatory water restrictions for nearly 7 million people.

By banking more backup supplies, the project is also intended to help Southern California reduce its reliance on the overburdered Colorado River, where depleted reservoirs remain at low levels.

“When drought hits California, we can turn to this stored water, instead of drawing more heavily on our Colorado River supplies,” MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said.

Hagekhalil and other officials spoke last week at an event inaugurating the facility. As they spoke beneath a tent, water gushed into the pond behind them, creating a fountain-like upwelling in the wind-rippled surface.

“Climate change is upon us,” Hagekhalil said. “We need to have creative new tools, holistic solutions.”

Hagekhalil noted that the district is developing a new climate adaptation master plan, focusing on building more flexibility into the region’s water system to improve the reliability of supplies. He said storing more water underground will be one piece of the district’s climate adaptation efforts in the coming years, along with recycling wastewater and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

“It’s finding new ways to take water when we have it during wet years and put it in the ground, so we can have access to it when we have dry conditions,” Hagekhalil said. “This is the future of water management in the 21st century.”

COLORADO RIVER IN CRISIS video loop

Water has been flowing into the facility from the California Aqueduct since mid-September. By the end of the year, the district estimates it will have stored about 12,000 acre-feet in the groundwater basin, enough to meet the annual needs of about 36,000 average households.

Managers of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency said this part of the High Desert is well-suited for storing water underground. The 1,300-acre property includes vacant land and farm fields that were left dry and abandoned years ago.

As work crews have built recharge basins, they have removed old irrigation systems.

Farms in the valley have produced a variety of crops, such as hay, peaches, carrots and onions, but falling groundwater levels and increased costs for imported water have led to a decline in agriculture. The Antelope Valley groundwater basin is managed under a 2015 court ruling, which regulates pumping to manage supplies and address the long-term declines in aquifer levels.

“Our groundwater supplies, they’ve diminished. And thank goodness for these water banks,” said George Lane, president of the Antelope Valley agency’s board. “It will raise the water table. … It was completely overdrafted for a number of years.”

The Metropolitan Water District will be able to recover 90% of the water it stores at the site, paying the Antelope Valley agency when it withdraws water.

Evaporation losses and water that will be left underground will account for the remaining 10%, said Matthew Knudson, general manager of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency.

So far, crews have finished building six recharge basins to receive water. When finished, the water bank will have 26 recharge basins covering about 600 acres, and 27 wells for recovering water from the aquifer.

The groundwater is tainted with toxic arsenic, so the project will also require building a facility to treat the water before sending it flowing back into the California Aqueduct.

The agencies plan for water levels to rise and fall as supplies are deposited and withdrawn. Groundwater levels at the site now range from about 260 feet to 280 feet underground, and will be allowed to rise as high as 75 feet underground at full capacity.

When water is pumped back into the aqueduct, it will flow into the MWD’s delivery system. The district supplies drinking water for 19 million people in six counties from San Diego to Ventura.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom Announces Ending State Water Restrictions

Requestion water allocation rate climbs to 75% – the highest since 2017

Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Friday that the state would be ending numerous water restrictions, while keeping those aimed at preserving groundwater and helping further recharge the Klamath River and Colorado River areas.

For the past several years, the drought in California has brought forward numerous measures aimed at preserving water resources. These ranged from the more local efforts of not allowing hand watering in gardens, to California’s infamous 15% conservation target cut to water usage statewide. While the measures were partially successful in reducing water usage, more cuts were expected this year as the drought was expected to continue.

However, 12 major atmospheric river and bomb cyclones hit California in the first three months of 2023. While the rain brought everything from flooding to mudslides to snow in Los Angeles, it also significantly reversed California’s water woes. Drought conditions went from covering nearly the entire state last year to falling to only covering one-third of the state this month. Many reservoirs are now quickly approaching capacity after nearly emptying out in 2022. Snowpack levels are approaching 300% when only 100% is needed by April 1st to ensure enough water reaches Californians this year. Ski season in Tahoe is now even going until July since there is so much snow there.

Continued rains this month also led many localities to end water restrictions. This including the lifting of restrictions in Southern California, allowing the first regular water usage there since July 2022. As a result, pressure was soon placed on the state to end restrictions of their own, leading to Governor Newsom’s announcement on Friday.

According to Gov. Newsom’s roll back announcement on Tuesday, the 15% conservation target cut is to end, as are many drought contingency plans. This also included boosting up California’s allocation of requested water supplies to 75%, an increase of 40% from February and the largest amount of water being allowed to be doled out by the state since 2017.

However, Newsom also stressed that a drought was still on for many parts of the state, and that areas with groundwater reliance or those areas near the still-threatened Klamath River and Colorado River will still have restrictions in place. This includes:

  • Maintaining the ban on wasteful water uses, such as watering ornamental grass on commercial properties;
  • Preserving all current emergency orders focused on groundwater supply, where the effects of the multi-year drought continue to be devastating;
  • Maintaining orders focused on specific watersheds that have not benefited as much from recent rains, including the Klamath River and Colorado River basins, which both remain in drought;
  • Retaining a state of emergency for all 58 counties to allow for drought response and recovery efforts to continue

Drought restrictions eased statewide

“We’re all in this together, and this state has taken extraordinary actions to get us to this point,” said the Governor in a speech in Yolo County on Friday. “The weather whiplash we’ve experienced in the past few months makes it crystal clear that Californians and our water system have to adapt to increasingly extreme swings between drought and flood. As we welcome this relief from the drought, we must remain focused on continuing our all-of-the-above approach to future-proofing California’s water supply.”

Newsom’s announcement was well received on Friday, but with many water experts noting that even more restrictions could have likely been pushed back even more.

“The Governor was playing it cautiously,” explained  Jack Wesley, a water systems consultant for farms and multi-family homes, to the Globe on Friday. “This is largely because a lot of people have told him that the drought isn’t over just yet. But then again those people also said January, February, and March were going to be dry too, and look how that turned out. So there is a lot we don’t know for the rest of the year, so some stay in place.”

“Of these, the restrictions around the Klamath and Colorado rivers make the most sense. They are both still very much under where they are supposed to be, so they still need help to flow right. It’s hard to argue on restrictions staying in place in those watersheds.”

“But, overall, this is just yet another sign that California is getting back to normal water-wise. It took a wild rainy three months, but even the Governor is starting to reverse his actions. That’s a very good sign.”

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

California Releases Its Own Plan for Colorado River Cuts

California released a plan Tuesday detailing how Western states reliant on the Colorado River should save more water. It came a day after the six other states in the river basin made a competing proposal.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California described how states could conserve between 1 million and nearly 2 million acre feet of water through new cuts based on the elevation of Lake Mead, a key reservoir.

Its plan did not account for water lost to evaporation and during transportation — a move sought by the other states that would mean big cuts for California.

The 1,450-mile river (2,334-kilometer) serves 40 million people across the West and Mexico, generating hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigating nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.

A multi-decade drought in the West worsened by climate change, rising demand and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That has forced federal and state officials to take additional steps to protect the system.

California’s plan and the separate methods outlined by states Monday came in response to Reclamation asking them last year to detail how they would use between 15% and 30% less water. The federal agency operates the major dams in the river system.

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All seven states missed that deadline last August. Six of them regrouped and came to an agreement by the end of January. California was the the lone holdout to that agreement, and responded Tuesday with its own plan.

Unlike the other states’ plan, California’s does not factor the roughly 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transportation.

Instead, it proposes reducing water taken out of Lake Mead by 1 million acre feet, with 400,000 acre feet coming from its own users. The state previously outlined that level of cuts in October. Arizona would bear the brunt of bigger cuts — 560,000 acre feet — while Nevada would make up the rest. Those numbers are based on discussions from prior negotiations, California’s letter said.

An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three U.S. households for a year.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it was still reviewing California’s proposal and didn’t have an immediate comment.

But Tom Buschatzke, the department’s director, said earlier Tuesday that water managers across the basin couldn’t reach agreement with California on cuts, even at the broader state level.

“The big issues are what does the priority system mean, what does the junior priority mean and how does that attach to that outcome of who takes what cut?” he said. “That was the issue over the summer, that was the issue over the fall, that’s still the issue.”

California has the largest allocation of water among the seven U.S. states that tap the Colorado River. It is also among the last to face water cuts in times of shortage because of its senior water rights.

That has given the state an advantage over others in talks that spanned months over how to cut water use.

California water officials have often repeated that any additional water cuts must be legally defensible and in line with western water law that honors its water rights.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, indicated California may file a lawsuit if the federal government attempts to count for evaporative losses.

“The best way to avoid conflict and ensure that we can put water in the river right away is through a voluntary approach, not putting proposals that sidestep the Law of the River and ignore California’s senior right and give no respect to that,” he said.

Existing agreements only spell cuts when Lake Mead’s elevation is between 1,090 feet (332 meters) and 1,025 feet (312 meters). If it drops any lower than 1,025 feet, California’s plan proposes even further cuts based on the so-called Law of the River — likely meaning Arizona and Nevada would bear the brunt of them. Those cuts are designed to keep Lake Mead from reaching “dead pool,” when it could no longer pump out water to farms and cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The reservoir’s current elevation is around 1,045 feet.

In total, California’s plan could save between 1 million and 2 million acre-feet of water based on the elevation levels at Lake Mead, from which Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico draw their share of the river.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of California, the nation’s largest water supplier, said it was important to protect key reservoirs “without getting mired in lengthy legal battles.”

Hagekhalil and other water managers pointed to numerous efforts the state has made to drastically reduce its water usage by making agricultural and urban water use more efficient.

“California knows how to permanently reduce use of the river — we have done it over the past 20 years, through billions of dollars in investments and hard-earned partnerships,” he said in a statement. “We can help the entire Southwest do it again as we move forward.”

The new proposals do not change states’ water allocations immediately — or disrupt their existing water rights. Instead, they will be folded into a larger proposal Reclamation is working on to revise how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — behemoth power producers on the Colorado River.

Despite California’s inability to reach agreement with the other six states so far, the parties said they hope to keep talking.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Am I A Water hog? Here’s What Could Land You on California’s List of Homes Using Too Much Water

With California’s water supply shrinking and the drought dragging on, Bay Area water agencies are getting serious about persuading their customers to use water responsibly.

At least one, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, on Tuesday started releasing the names of those guilty of what it considers “excessive use” of water. Three homes made the initial list but it’s expected to grow to hundreds by the end of October.

So how does someone wind up on this list?

Leaks

According to Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for EBMUD, the circumstances that land most people on the list are leaks and outdoor water use, primarily for landscaping.

Leaks — ranging from drippy faucets to corroded pipes to seeping irrigation systems — exist in about one out of every four of the residences in the district’s service area. Leaks can go unnoticed, particularly if they’re underground or in an area that’s not seen regularly.

“It can be obvious, but it can also be a pain to discover these,” Pook said.

Landscaping is also a major cause of excess water use, she said, particularly during the summer when people are trying to keep their lawns green and their plants from turning to twigs.

People should avoid watering their lawns and plants more than three times a week, Pook said, and should check their irrigation systems to make sure they’re not leaking, that streams from sprinklers are reaching vegetation and not pavement and that automatic programs are set efficiently so they’re not watering too often or too long.

Landscaping is responsible for about two-thirds of wasted water, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

How to stay off the list

How can people best conserve water and stay off the excessive use list? Here’s some advice from experts:

• Check for — and repair — leaks.

• Monitor your water use so you’ll notice if there’s an unexpected spike in use. EBMUD offers rebates on flow meters, devices that can be connected to your water meter and display real-time water use. The district also answers questions during office hours, will conduct audits of your water use and send representatives to your house to look for problems and solutions.

“We find that most people underestimate their use of water,” Pook said.

• Inspect your irrigation system. Turn it on and see if you’re watering the sidewalk instead of the plants. Check the programming to see if it’s set to water efficiently for the weather and the season.

The state Department of Water Resources offers similar advice, but also suggests:

• Get rid of your lawn , or reduce its size, and replace it with drought resistant plants or landscaping that requires little or no water. Grass uses twice as much water as other yard plants, the department says.

• Replace irrigation systems that use sprinklers with drip irrigation systems.

• Change some household practices and equipment: installing high-efficiency toilets, recycling indoor water — from showers and bathtubs, washing machines and sinks for use in the garden, turning off water when brushing teeth or shaving and running only full loads in washing machines and dishwashers.

Still worried about making the list? EBMUD’s policy allows a relatively generous amount of water to be used before a penalty is applied and a warning is issued — an average of about 1,646 gallons per day over the 60-day billing cycle. Average daily use in the district is 200 to 300 gallons per day, Pook said.

According to data released this week in response to a public records request, about 2,250 households received warnings for going over the limit during their early-summer billing period while at least three continued to exceed the threshold for a second period.

Names of violators are made public only after a warning is sent out and a 15-day appeal period has lapsed. The list of offenders released Tuesday reflects just three days of bills being sent out over the continuous two-month billing cycles — the days in which the appeal deadline has passed. The district said it won’t provide another list until late October.

As the drought worsens, and if Northern California has another dry winter, Pook said, the water allotments will shrink.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Dirty Water, Drying Wells: Central Californians Shoulder Drought’s Inequities

On a hot morning in August, the pressure gauge on Jesús Benítez’s well read about 10 pounds per square inch — barely enough for a trickle. 

The 74-year-old has been living just outside of Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, for about 14 years, ever since he decamped from Downey in search of bigger skies and more space. But the once-green three-acre property that was meant to be his retirement haven is now dry, brittle and brown. 

Like a growing number of Central Californians, Benítez is bearing the brunt of the state’s punishing drought, which is evaporating the state’s surface water even as a frenzy of well drilling saps precious reserves underground. As a result, the number of dry wells in California has increased 70% since last year, while the number of Californians living with contaminated drinking water is at nearly 1 million. 

The majority of those people live in low-income communities and communities of color, state data show — and experts say heat, drought and climate change are only making those inequities worse.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle due to climate change,” said Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at UCLA. “Even with the progress we’re making, there are other losses that few people anticipated when it comes to heat impacts on water quality … and the pace at which people, and even larger systems, are at risk of running out of water entirely.”

Benítez is one of the unlucky people dealing with both. His sputtering well — the only source of water on his property — is polluted with nitrates, uranium and hexavalent chromium, which are becoming more concentrated as the water draws down. He and about 60 other residents in the area are trying to get connected to the water system that services the city of Visalia, but officials have told them the work may not be complete until 2024.

“I hope I don’t die without water by then,” Benítez said. The nearest municipal pipeline ends just about 100 feet from his property.

His story is becoming increasingly common in California, where an audit last month found that the State Water Resources Control Board “lacks the urgency necessary to ensure that failing water systems receive needed assistance in a timely manner.” The audit also noted that more than two-thirds of the water systems that have fallen below basic quality standards are in disadvantaged communities of significant financial need. 

“California is one of the largest economies in the world, and yet this is happening here,” said Pedro Calderón Michel, a spokesman with the nonprofit group the Community Water Center. All too often, he said, “the browner your skin, the browner your water will be.”

The problem is multifaceted. On the surface, climate change-fueled heat and drynessare contributing to a thirstier atmosphere that is sapping the state’s water, while a persistent lack of rain and snowpack means mounting deficits are not getting replenished. More than 97% of the the state is under severe, extreme or exceptional drought, and officials have said the first half of the year was the driest it’s ever been.

But much of the problem is happening underground, where California’s aquifers have long served as a reliable source of water, especially during dry times. In 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a historic law intended to address the overpumping of those supplies. But the act laid out a timeline that spans more than two decades, and set off a rash of well drilling among those trying to beat the deadline, particularly in agricultural areas where wells are the lifeblood of the industry. 

Residents who rely on domestic wells are increasingly paying the price. Benítez’s well, for example, dried up after a neighbor installed a new, deeper well to help water 25 acres of silage corn, or corn used to feed dairy cows and other livestock. 

That neighbor, Frank Ferreira, said he spent $160,000 on the well, and he may need to dole out even more to dig deeper when it dries up. When asked whether the state has placed any limits on how deep he can go, Ferreira said, “not yet.”

While agriculture is a leading factor in groundwater depletion and contamination, the added layer of drought is exacerbating the problem, according to Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

California Should Build Infrastructure, Not Shame Water Users

 After returning from a recent trip to the rainy Pacific Northwest, I opened the faucet and instead of hearing rushing water I heard only the dreadful coughing sound one gets from empty pipes. Fortunately, my well hadn’t gone dry, but some mechanical part in the pump had given out.

Still, few things are as frightening as running out of water. Our well was running in 24 hours, but that was a long day of using bottled water and rationing the use of toilets. It reminded me of the disaster that awaits if California can’t fix its shortages before it rains again. By the way, it was creepy driving past Mt. Shasta and noticing its non-existent snowpack.

The state always has been plagued by alternating droughts and floods. “California summers were characterized by the coughing in the pipes that meant the well was dry, and California winters by all-night watches on rivers about to crest,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1977 essay, “Holy Water.” Living near California’s last undammed river, I’ve spent long nights watching the Cosumnes overcome the aging levees.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, policy makers spend too much time worrying about how much water Californians use to run their households – and too little time figuring out how to bring more water into our system. The state hasn’t built significant water infrastructure since Didion penned that essay – when the state had 17.6-million fewer residents.

Five years ago, Jerry Brown announced the official end of a grueling six-year drought. Other than passing resolutions to “make conservation a way of life,” the former governor didn’t do much to improve the situation. After rains resumed, interest waned in fixing our water supply issues.

These days, the Newsom administration and Legislature have done little more than engage in water shaming. They want to badger us into using less water, as the state imposes tougher water-use standards on water districts and some districts (especially in the Bay Area) embrace water rationing.

Conservation is, of course, a good idea – and local districts that manage depleted reservoirs perhaps have no choice but to issue water-use edicts. But there’s a better way forward than encouraging people to report their water-wasting neighbors to the authorities.

“Since the drought emergency was declared in July 2021, Californians have reduced water usage by 2 percent, far below (Newsom’s) goal of 15 percent,” the Los Angeles Times reported this month. “You’re not saving enough water, Southern California,” blared a July Orange County Register article noting that, “draconian measures may be coming to stop folks from watering all those begonias.”

Begonias aren’t the problem. Californians and other residents of the parched Western states have indeed been conserving water. It is a way of life and has been for years. In the 1990s, Californians used around 200 gallons per capita per day (down from 220 in the 1980s), but now use around 48 gallons per capita per day – below the statewide standard of 55.

My favorite statistic comes from far drier Arizona, where Arizonans use less total water than they did in 1957 – when that state had one-seventh its current population. There’s no need to shame Westerners for their water usage, but there is reason to shame our officials for not doing their part to upgrade and build new water infrastructure.

Newsom was elected in 2018, and only this week did he reveal his plan for the Delta tunnel. “After three years with little to no public activity, the state released an environmental blueprint for … a 45-mile tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento River and route it under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so that it can be shipped to farms and cities,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

The now-single tunnel proposal will not provide more water, but will assure more reliable deliveries. The Sacramento River flows into the Delta, where it gets mired in hundreds of miles of waterways before the water is pumped southward. Administrators frequently shutter the pumps when a Delta smelt is found in the fish screens.

Environmentalists are aghast at the plan. They predict an environmental catastrophe, yet currently – thanks to saltwater intrusion from the Pacific Ocean and subsidence (sinking land) – that beautiful region is suffering from a slow-motion environmental mess. The plan will also fund habitat restoration.

Where are the plans to bolster our water-storage capacities? Why can’t California prepare for the future? Recently, the California Coastal Commission rejected a desalination plant that would have met 12 percent of Orange County’s water needs. Newsom supported it, but didn’t expend much political capital to assure its approval.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

Californians Could See Mandatory Water Cuts Amid Drought

California Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened Monday to impose mandatory water restrictions if residents don’t use less on their own as a drought drags on and the hotter summer months approach.

Newsom raised that possibility in a meeting with representatives from water agencies that supply major cities including Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Democratic governor has avoided issuing sweeping, mandatory cuts in water use and instead favored giving local water agencies power to set rules for water use in the cities and towns they supply.

January through March typically is when most of California’s annual rain and snow falls, but this year those months were the driest in at least a century. Despite calls for conservation, the state’s water use went up dramatically in March — 19% compared to the same month in 2020 — and now Newsom is considering changing his approach.

“Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said in a statement.

California is in its third year of drought and virtually all areas of the state are classified as either in severe or extreme drought. Due to low water levels in state reservoirs, the state is releasing only a limited amount of water from its supplies.

Newsom last summer called on Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% by doing things like taking five-minute showers and avoiding baths, only running the washing machine and dishwasher with full loads and limiting water use for cleaning outdoor areas. Water used for farming isn’t counted.

Several local water officials present in the meeting said the tone was positive and focused on how all of the agencies can work together to promote conservation.

“From our perspective it works best when local water managers deal with local water supply conditions, but we’re trying to support the state, we’re trying to support the governor as best we can,” said Ed Stevenson, general manager for the Alameda County Water District.

The district gets about 40% of its water from state supplies. It’s water use is down about 7% since Newsom called for voluntary conservation.

San Diego County Water Authority, meanwhile, hasn’t needed any water from state supplies since July partly because it relies on a mix of other sources including a desalination plant, said board Chairman Gary Croucher. But he said the district still has a role to play in responding to the drought. The authority is made up of 24 water agencies including the city of San Diego, where water use is down 1.3% since Newsom called for savings.

“If anybody wants to say that we’re independent and we’re okay just by ourselves, they’re fooling themselves. We really need to work together as a group of collaborators,” he said.

How soon Newsom could impose mandatory restrictions if conservation doesn’t improve wasn’t clear. Spokesperson Erin Mellon said the administration would reassess conservation progress in just “a few weeks.” She didn’t offer a metric the administration would use to measure success.

Newsom has already moved to force more conservation from local water districts. The state water board will vote Tuesday whether to ban watering of decorative grass and to force local agencies to boost conservation efforts.

After the last drought, the state required water districts to submit drought response plans that detail six levels of conservation based on available supply. Newsom has asked the board to require those districts move into “Level 2” of their plans, which assumes a 20% water shortage.

Each district can set its own rules, and they often include things like further limiting water use for outdoor purposes and paying people to install more efficient appliances. They must include a communication plan to urge conservation.

If approved those restrictions would take effect June 10. Water agencies that don’t comply could be fined $500 per day, as could businesses or other institutions that continue to water ornamental grass, said Edward Ortiz, a spokesperson for the water board.

Last week while touring a water recycling plant in Los Angeles County, Newsom spoke about better communicating the need for water conservation with the state’s 39 million people. He’s included $100 million in his budget for drought messaging.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state’s largest water wholesaler, has adopted sweeping water restrictions for cities that rely primarily on state supplies. Starting June 1, the local agencies must limit lawn watering to one day per week, set volumetric limits on water use or face fines.

In the meeting, District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said he told Newsom it would help if some of the state money for conservation could be used to help local districts step up enforcement to curb water waste.

“I appreciate that (Newsom) really wants to work with us,” Hagekhalil said.

During the last drought, in 2015 former Gov. Jerry Brown issued a mandatory 25% cut in the state’s overall water use, and the state water board set requirements for how much each water district had to cut based on their existing use; districts with higher water use were asked to cut more. Water agencies could be fined up to $10,000 per day if they didn’t comply.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

“Water cops” Likely This Summer as Santa Clara County Misses Drought Goal by Large Margin

If you waste water in Santa Clara County, water cops could soon be on the way.

Since last summer, Santa Clara County residents have been asked to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels to conserve as the state’s drought worsens. But they continue to miss that target — and by a growing amount.

In March, the county’s 2 million residents not only failed to conserve any water, but they increased use by 30% compared to March 2019, according to newly released data.

Now, faced with the alarming prospect of water shortages, the Santa Clara Valley Water District — a government agency and the county’s largest water provider — is proposing to hire water enforcement officials to issue fines of up to $500 for residents watering so much that it runs into the street or watering lawns too many times a week or wasting water in other ways.

Not all details have been worked out. The water district’s board is expected to discuss the enforcement plan Tuesday and vote on a detailed ordinance on May 24 at its meeting in San Jose. If the crackdown goes forward as expected, it will be the first time in the agency’s history it has taken such a step.

“These trends are alarming. We are in a serious drought emergency,” said Aaron Baker, a chief operating officer of the water district, on Monday. “We are looking to take additional actions to help us meet the goals.”

California has had three years in a row of below-normal rainfall. Overall, 95% of the state is now in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal report. That level is similar to 2014 when the state was in the depths of its last drought, an emergency that began in 2012 and finally ended in 2017 with heavy winter rains.

But this time, Santa Clara County is in a more severe predicament than many other parts of Northern California and the Bay Area. Federal dam regulators in 2020 ordered the district’s largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, drained for earthquake repairs. The $1.2 billion job, which involves constructing a huge new outlet tunnel and essentially tearing down and rebuilding the 235-foot high earthen dam, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns and is not scheduled to be finished until 2030.

On Monday, all 10 of the district’s reservoirs were just 24% full. The agency has also been told it will receive little water from state and federal suppliers. It has been spending millions to buy water from Central Valley farmers with senior water rights and also has been pumping groundwater to make up the difference.

But this year, water sales are more scarce. And district projections show that without more conservation, groundwater could drop to dangerously low levels next year in Santa Clara County if the drought continues into 2023. That could cause subsidence, a condition where the ground sinks in some places, potentially breaking roads, building foundations, water lines and gas lines.

“We are looking to end the year at adequate groundwater levels,” Baker said. “But if we are unable to meet the call for conservation, groundwater levels will be below our subsidence levels, and wells will go dry in South County.”

Since last June, when the district declared a drought emergency and asked residents to cut water use 15% from 2019 levels, through March, the total cumulative savings has been only 3%.

Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels -- missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District)
Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels — missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District) 

The water district has asked the public to water landscaping no more than 2 days a week. Most of the cities in Santa Clara County have passed local ordinances requiring that. But some, such as Milpitas and Sunnyvale, still allow 3 days a week. Several others — Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford University — have put no limits in place on weekly watering.

More significant, cities and private water companies that have limited watering to 2 days a week have not enforced the rules.

“Fines aren’t the only thing we need to be doing, but they are an important component of a drought strategy,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland non-profit that studies water issues.

“There are individuals who may not respond to conservation requests,” she said. “And if people are allowed to waste water, that makes other people feel like ‘I’m not going to save because that person isn’t.’ It creates a culture of ignoring the requests.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District already asks people to report if residents are watering lawns so much that water runs into the street or watering more than twice a week. They can call the district at 408-630-2000 or email waterwise@valleywater.org and the district sends a letter or puts out a door hanger asking the water waster to conserve. But until now, the district has not taken the additional step of issuing fines for repeat violators.

Data from the water district shows that many of the wealthiest areas are using the most water — much of it to water lawns during January, February and March, which were the driest three months to start any year in Northern California since 1849.

Click here to read the full article at the Mercury News

6 Million Southern Californians Face Unprecedented Order to Conserve Water

Unprecedented water restrictions are in store for about 6 million Southern Californians, a sign of deepening drought in counties that depend on water piped from the state’s parched reservoirs. 

The Metropolitan Water District’s board voted unanimously today to require six major water providers and the dozens of cities and local districts they supply to impose one of two options: limit residents to outdoor watering once a week or reduce total water use below a certain target.

The water providers must have plans to police their customers, and if they fail to impose the restrictions, they could face fines of $2,000 for every extra acre-foot of water that exceeds their monthly allocation limits, starting in June, according to Metropolitan.

The restrictions target parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely heavily on water from drought-stricken Northern California rivers transported south via the State Water Project.

“At this time, a third of our region, 6 million Southern Californians in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino counties, face a very real and immediate water stress challenge,” said Metropolitan Water District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “Today these areas rely on extremely limited supplies from Northern California. And there is not enough supply available to meet the normal demands in these areas.”

Cutting back outdoor watering to one day a week would be a big change for the arid, densely populated areas, where many people irrigate their lawns and gardens. 

Southern Californians have heard for decades about the dangers of drought, but per-person residential water use has increased in the past two years, despite the severe drought. Experts say conservation wavers in the region because restrictions are largely voluntary — and their water never seems to run out

“This is insane but not unexpected,” Peter Kraut, a council member from the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas told the Metropolitan board, which is composed of 38 city and local district officials. “I’m appalled that a change this drastic is happening in such a short period of time.”

“This plan will result not just in brown grass but in killing countless trees. The damage to our environment will take decades to repair,” Kraut added.

Today’s mandate is the first outdoor watering restriction imposed by the giant water-import agency, which supplies 19 million people in California. More stringent restrictions may come later, Metropolitan officials warned: The water providers must also prepare to ban all outdoor watering as early as September, if necessary, as California suffers one of its driest periods on record.

The six affected water suppliers are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District — all in Los Angeles County — and the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino County.

About 13 million other Southern Californians are unaffected by the order because they aren’t as dependent on water imported via the State Water Project. They receive imports from the Colorado River, which largely are sent to Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

Metropolitan has been working to increase the number of customers who can receive Colorado River water to reduce reliance on the hard-pressed state aqueduct. The Colorado River, however, also is facing extreme drought, and deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona are being cut back under an agreement signed by the states in December.

How much each agency must curtail customers’ water use under Metropolitan’s order depends on how much each relies on the state aqueduct compared to other sources, such as  groundwater or recycled sewage.

Water agencies are still figuring out the details. Some local water providers urged the board at today’s meeting to let them continue watering sports fields and parks more frequently so the turf doesn’t dry out.

Two of the six depend almost entirely on state aqueduct supplies — the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves 75,000 residents west of Los Angeles, and the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 19 agencies and cities in southeast Ventura County. 

Some communities served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District have other sources that may buffer the blow of the new mandate. Los Angeles DWP spokesperson Ellen Cheng did not respond to multiple inquiries about which parts of the city will be affected. 

Some of the affected agencies, such as Las Virgenes in Calabasas and nearby western Los Angeles County cities, already have cracked down on residents by imposing new escalating rates and penalties, with mixed success. Others, including Los Angeles DWP, which has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, have not added any new restrictions during the current drought.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

How Recent Rains Affected California’s Drought and Wildfire Season

Some good news on fire risk, but reservoirs didn’t see much new water

After the driest January, February and March in Northern California’s recorded history back to 1849, rains this past week finally brought some relief — and real benefits — across the Bay Area and other parts of the state.

But the wet weather was kind of like receiving wrinkle cream for your birthday, experts said Friday. Better than nothing. But not enough to celebrate.

Simply put, 2 to 3 inches of rain fell in the Santa Cruz Mountains, North Bay Hills and Big Sur over the past week. The Sierra Nevada received 1 to 3 feet of snow over the past week, depending on the location, the most since December.

That desperately needed moisture will delay fire season, experts say. It clears the air, boosts flows in streams for fish and wildlife, charges up the spring wildflower season and will reduce water consumption somewhat because people turn off lawn sprinklers when it is raining.

But California was heading into the third summer in a row of severe drought before the rain. And a few April showers — likely the last hydrologic hurrah until October — can’t make up for three years of major water shortages, experts noted.

“Any little bit is nice. But this is not going to make a significant difference in the drought,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources.

The issue is basic math.

San Francisco historically has averaged 1.6 inches of rain for the month of April. This month, through Friday morning, it had received 1.08 inches. And no more significant storms are forecast.

In other words, the April showers this year haven’t even brought most parts of the Bay Area up to average for a typical April. It just seems like a lot because it’s been so unusually dry since New Year’s Day.

“Compared to January, February and March, it has been a really rainy month,” said meteorologist Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services in Half Moon Bay. “Everyone has been craving rain.”

“We’ve had so little,” he added. “It’s much more noticeable than it would be normally. It has risen up in people’s consciousness. But it’s too little, too late.”

A closer look shows just how badly the Bay Area, and nearly all of California, remains in a serious rainfall deficit.

In the 34 months since July 1, 2019, San Francisco, used as a proxy for the Bay Area because it has the longest-running set of weather records of any city, has received 39.16 inches of rain. The historical average for that time period is 67.77 inches.

In other words, San Francisco has received just 58% of normal rainfall for nearly the past three years and has a deficit of 28.61 inches, even when the latest rain is included. Put in context, that deficit is more than an entire average year of rainfall for San Francisco, which is 22.89 inches.

Click here to read the full article at the Mercury News