Water In The Bank

In the Midst of California’s Drought
by Rosalea Barker

Back in the summer of 2014, signs suddenly sprouted on the parched lawns of the small community college I was attending in the San Francisco Bay Area. (The photo was taken after record December rain had restored the lawn’s green hue.) “Brown is the New Green” the signs proclaimed, in line with a controversial water conservation campaign launched by the Governor of California. The campaign slogan was controversial because Jerry Brown was also campaigning for a fourth term as Governor and it seemed to some that the signs were more about that than the stated purpose.
In November, 2014, Brown was re-elected, and voters also approved his signature Propositions 1 and 2, which were promoted literally under the same umbrella. Prop 1 was a water bond to fund, among other things, tunnels under the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to bring water from the north of the state further south, and Prop 2 was about the state’s rainy day fund. Meanwhile, local water authorities across California were struggling to get their customers to adopt a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use. On April 1 this year, with the Sierra snowpack at just 5 percent of the average for that date, Brown issued an executive order requiring the first-ever mandatory 25 percent water use reductions statewide for 2015.

My local water supplier, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), has declared a Stage 4 drought emergency and incorporated some of the prohibitions from the executive order into its own ordinances. For example, no potable water can be used for outdoor landscapes during and up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall, and you can irrigate turf and ornamental landscapes no more than two days a week, not on consecutive days, and before 9am and after 6pm. It is also planning to divert water from the Sacramento River via a pumping facility it built in concert with a small Sacramento County water utility that used to rely on groundwater. The combination of water conservation and water importing is pretty much the full extent of EBMUD’s game plan.

From July onwards, EBMUD customers will pay a surcharge for putting that water in the reservoir bank, and be fined for excessive water use if they don’t get it 20 percent below 2013 usage. With 89 percent of the Bay Area’s rainy season gone, there is no chance at all of water storage reaching levels that would assist us through any further years of drought. (If you’re interested in the details, the slideshow from the presentations staff made to the EBMUD board of directors on April 14 is here.)

The San Francisco Bay Area is but one of the California areas that are struggling with the impacts of the current four-year drought and it’s not even the worst hit, as this excellent two-page summary from the Association of California Water Agencies attests. Regions experiencing the worst effects are the Central Valley—America’s market garden—the Central Coast (which relies on groundwater) and Southern California, which gets much of its water from the Colorado River. As I explained in this 2009 article in Werewolf about California’s water wars, there are multiple players in this battle for a scarce resource.

And multiple schemes are being adopted to reduce water usage and to bring new supplies online—for example, a de-salination plant will begin operation in Carlsbad, near San Diego, later this year, and several agencies are investing in “toilet to tap” technologies that process treated sewage wastewater into drinking water. But those of us who depend on snowmelt replenishing rivers that feed reservoirs, the damage done by a climate pattern that steadfastly refuses to produce weather capable of dumping huge amounts of snow in the Sierra feels completely irreversible.

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