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Driest year on record: Water officials urge more conservation
January 09, 2014, 05:00 AM By Samantha Weigel Daily Journal

Jon Mays/Daily Journal
Crystal Springs Reservoir, seen from the Sawyer Camp Trail, contains the area’s emergency water supply. It is supplied with natural runoff and water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Yesterday’s gloomy skies and slight drizzle was little help in recovering from the prolonged dry spell California has been under for more than a year.

On Dec. 17, Gov. Jerry Brown moved to address concerns and the potential impacts of a drought, said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.

“The governor has united the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California [Governor’s] Office of Emergency Services into an interagency drought management team,” Thomas said.

During a California Department of Food and Agriculture Board Meeting on Tuesday, the head of the Department of Water Resources stated the Brown administration is “actively considering” declaring an emergency drought proclamation in the upcoming weeks.

2013 was the driest year in California’s history since the National Weather Service began monitoring downtown San Francisco in the late 1800s, said Austin Cross, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A meager 3.38 inches of rainfall were documented in 2013; a stark contrast from the 20.65 inches in a normal year, Cross said.

The California Water Service Company serves about 53,200 customers in San Mateo County and, on average, an individual consumed about 109 gallons of water per day in 2012, said Cal Water spokeswoman Shannon Dean.

Residents in the Bay Area who have access to sustainable water sources like reservoirs will be less affected by a drought compared to other parts of the state that are dependent on well or ground water, Thomas said. Farmlands may be the most impacted if a wet winter doesn’t present itself soon, Thomas said.

Conservationists are in full swing and Thomas said residents are encouraged to cut back on water use, especially on nonessentials like landscape or lawn watering.

Although those who live in San Mateo County haven’t seen much change in their water bills, the impacts of substantially dry years could catch up, Thomas said.

“A drought is a very slow moving thing and the severity of the impacts depend on how long you go without significant rainfall,” Thomas said.

Thanks to healthy reservoirs that service the Bay Area, the impacts of last year have yet to hit hard, Thomas said.

“One of the major things is even though this calendar year had record dry in many parts of the state, November and December of 2012, just before we went into this dry period, were very very very wet and, as a result, that filled up our reservoir. So even though this calendar year was dry, we came into it with a nice cushion storage which mitigated the impact,” Thomas said.

But last year depleted some of the storage and the reservoirs weren’t substantially replenished, Thomas said. The impacts may not be felt by those in the Bay Area, but for those living in other parts of the state, prolonged periods of minimal rainfall may have larger effects, Thomas said.

“If you have a managed water supply, such as the Hetch Hetchy system, you’re going to get through the dry period fairly well. But if you live in a rural area where you depend upon ground or well water … those systems can be unreliable in prolonged dry weather. So we will be working to assist those communities, homeowners and towns that don’t have sustainable, reliable water supplies,” Thomas said.

Both Cal Water and the Mid-Peninsula Water District serve San Mateo County communities and receive water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Although the calendar year marked the driest on record, there is still hope for the remaining water year marked from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, said David Briggs, local and regional water manager for the SFPUC.

“In California, 99 percent of our precipitation comes between October and mid-May and in the summer we get next to nothing. So that’s typically how we characterize our water year, by winter, because that’s when we get the most rain,” Briggs said.

Although this has undoubtedly been an abnormally dry year, Mother Nature could still turn things around.

“There’s still time left in the water year and February and March are typically very wet months; so even though it’s been a very dry year, there’s still time. … Even a few storms in the next few months could take us back to normal,” Briggs said.

Although SFPUC has been running solely on storage, its water level is only about 5 percent below the previous year’s, Briggs said. SFPUC will begin to communicate with its customers in February about the estimated availability of water in the coming year. In 2007, the SFPUC initiated a voluntary 10 percent rationing and hasn’t issued a mandatory rationing since the early 1990s, Briggs said. The SFPUC will wait until mid-April to announce what directives and possible changes may be required to combat the dry spell, Briggs said.

Cal Water is a SFPUC customer that also assumes multi-year drought conditions when estimating delivery plans, Dean said.

“We at Cal Water are very well prepared to address drought conditions. … We’re in a position now where we aren’t really concerned. Obviously we’re watching the situation very closely. But we’ve served San Mateo for more than 80 years and through droughts,” Dean said.

Cal Water addresses droughts on two fronts and is confident in meeting its customers’ needs, Dean said. Long-term supply plans include building storage facilities and constructing wells that could help sustain customers through a drought. Cal Water has a robust conservation plan and encourages customers through rebate and high efficiency irrigation programs, said Ken Jenkins, Cal Water conservation manager. It installed more than 1,000 high efficiency toilets for customers in San Mateo County that are expected to save about $262 million gallons over the course of the devices’ lifetime, Jenkins said.

The state mandates cities to reduce their water usage by 20 percent by 2020 and Cal Water is well on its way to helping its customers comply, Dean said. Since 2007, customers have reduced their usage by 18 percent, Dean said.

Whether this prolonged dry spell continues, people from all agencies agree conserving water is critical.

“Water is a precious natural resource that should never be wasted,” Dean said. “That’s why we’re committed to offering a whole range of programs to our customers to use water wisely and efficiently.”

For more information about water conservation methods visit or

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106



Tags: water, thomas, customers, drought, california, about,

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