Bay Area Vs. Drought: How Are We Doing?
By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
March 19, 2015

Headlines are sounding the alarm that California might have only one year of water left. How are water suppliers in the Bay Area responding to our state’s worsening drought? This week SPUR invited a few of the region’s principal water managers to share the outlook from their parts of the Bay Area. Here’s how they’re handling the dry season — and what they’ll do if we have another dry year.

First, it’s important to understand that the region’s major water agencies have different supplies of water available to them. As we described in our 2013 report Future-Proof Water, the Bay Area as a whole is dependent on five major sources of water supply: the Mokelumne and Tuolumne River watersheds, which originate in the Sierra Nevada; the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project, which are conveyed through the Delta; and local rivers, streams and groundwater. Because each water supplier has a different mix of supplies, and these water sources have been affected by the drought differently, some parts of the region are much better off than others.

A second thing that’s important to understand is that planning for drought — even one as bad as this — is part of the normal planning process and business model of water agencies. Water managers are not surprised by droughts. Agencies all have water supply plans, backup sources, emergency transfer plans and rationing scenarios for “design droughts,” which are commonly based on the most recent severe drought (currently the drought of 1977) or a multiple dry year period, such as occurred in 1987-92. With a drought as severe as the one we’re currently experiencing, we may need to do more than ask people to voluntarily conserve. It may be time to activate some of the more unpopular emergency measures, like use restrictions (as the state just did). But that doesn’t mean anyone is hitting the panic button — yet.

So how well-positioned is the Bay Area to head into another dry season, and what happens if we have another dry year?

Steve Ritchie of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which serves more than 2.5 million people in San Francisco, the Peninsula and the South Bay, was optimistic. Hetch Hetchy, the SFPUC’s largest reservoir, is at 68 percent capacity — about where it was at this time last year — which is much better than many of the state’s other large reservoirs. San Francisco’s system of several major reservoirs plus a water bank is storage-based, allowing the city to get through several dry years (the city’s design drought is eight years long). Hetch Hetchy is expected to be at 90 percent capacity by June, due to expected snowmelt, and with continued conservation success — and possibly use restrictions — San Francisco and its customers still have about three years of water left, even if it doesn’t rain. Ritchie noted that everyone in the system has made excellent progress at conservation, with many customers in the system using 50 gallons per capita per day or less. (This is really good: It’s 50 percent lower than the per-capita target for 2020 that the state set in its 2009 urban water conservation legislation.)

Michael Tognolini of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million people in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, described a water supply situation that is somewhat more alarming. East Bay MUD, supplied by the Mokelumne River, has two major reservoirs, Pardee and Camanche, which together are at about 55 percent of capacity right now. With the snowpack at historically low levels, East Bay MUD has just over a year of water left in its reservoirs if it doesn’t rain or snow any more this year. The good news is that the agency foresaw the potential for drought and the need for better reliability and in 2009 completed construction of a new conveyance from the Sacramento River, which can provide significant additional supplies. The question is whether there’s even enough water in that system this year to siphon any for the East Bay. These extra supplies are also expensive and require significant pumping, adding to operational expenses. East Bay MUD is doubling its recycled water capacity and accelerating a long-term conservation plan, including things like commercial sub-metering. But the agency may also call for mandatory rationing by its customers within a few months.

Robert Shaver of the Alameda County Water District, which serves 336,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City, was delighted to report that his part of the region is better off than last year with respect to water supplies. ACWD gets about 20 percent of its water from the SFPUC, 40 percent from the Alameda Creek watershed (which includes groundwater) and 20 percent from the State Water Project. In 2014, along with many other customers of the State Water Project, ACWD was told it would receive 0 percent of its request, leaving a gaping hole in the agency’s water portfolio. At the same time, the agency had intentionally reduced its groundwater levels due to various construction projects in 2013, leaving that source in very low supply as well. For 2015, things look better in southern Alameda County. With the rains this winter, groundwater basins are full, and the State Water Project is providing 20 percent of requested amounts. Customers were asked to conserve in 2014, as in SF and the East Bay, which has resulted in real water savings that can be carried over to this year and beyond.

In spite of the dire situation, especially in the East Bay right now, there’s a silver lining (or three): First, people seem to be aware of the drought and are taking action to significantly curb use. Drops of water not used or wasted are actually available in the region’s reservoirs, a savings that can be carried over to the dry season and, if we have one, to another dry year. Second, eight of the region’s 11 major water agencies are working together through a new entity, the Bay Area Regional Reliability project, that would create true regional planning for water, including the construction of system interties (pipe connections that link systems and can deliver water where it is needed in the event of an outage), upgraded water treatment facilities and more. This not only helps during times of drought but increases earthquake resilience. Third, our water agencies are supporting research and testing of direct potable reuse: the idea that wastewater can be treated to a potable standard and put directly back into the drinking water system. Only five years ago, nobody was talking about this due to the “yuck factor” in public perceptions. Steve Ritchie told our audience at SPUR that it will be completely common in 30 years.

In some ways, the drought may be accelerating regional water management and policy in a direction it should be going anyway: more cooperation, efficiency, conservation and reuse. Even while all our fingers are crossed that it will rain again this year — and snow again next year — we should keep our sights on today’s opportunities to make our region more sustainable and drought-proof for the future.

Read SPUR’s report Future-Proof Water >>

Read more ideas for reducing water demand >>

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