The state’s hydrology forecast and the extent to which Friday’s long-feared drought declaration will affect San Mateo County residents may not be officially established until mid-April, however local water districts are urging customers to begin diligent conservation efforts.
California has suffered a three-year dry spell and 2013 marked the driest on record having seen a meager 3.38 inches of rainfall instead of a normal year’s 20.65 inches. Gov. Jerry Brown’s drought proclamation came as little surprise to water officials who are now preparing to implement restrictions on local consumers.
Conservation experts recommend shortening showers, turning off or down the faucet while soaping or brushing, installing efficiency devices such as showerheads, washing machines, being hyper-vigilant in watching for leaky pipes, forgoing car washes and landscaping wisely.
Water officials are gearing up for looming changes to their practices and the price of drought conditions could fall on the pockets of consumers.
The California Water Service Company, the Mid-Peninsula Water District and the Coastside Water District serve San Mateo County consumers and purchase a portion, if not all, of their supply from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The SFPUC dictates voluntary or mandatory rationing to its customers and will be sending an expository letter in the coming weeks and announce its official directive by April, said David Briggs, local and regional water manager for the SFPUC.
Should individuals fail to reduce their usage when called upon and go above their allotted water consumption, hefty fees may ensue.
Droughts are inevitable in California and it is unknown if this one will extend for years to come, Briggs said.
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is currently at 70 percent capacity, lower than normal years. Yet this generally healthy reservoir equips the SFPUC to serve customers during dry conditions.
“Droughts are a reality in California. Statistically, it happens. It’s happened before, it will happen again. And that’s one of the primary reasons we build reservoirs,” Briggs said.
The drought declaration specifically affects the reservoirs and providers contracted under the State Water Project, of which the SFPUC is not a part, Briggs said.
“The governor’s declaration frees up a lot of restrictions. It has the potential to relax some environmental restrictions and it also fast tracks the establishment of a water transaction market place and program,” Briggs said.
During a normal period, the distribution of water controlled by the State Water Project must remain within a certain proximity of each reservoir. Yet it is given more flexibility to transport water further distances to and sell to areas more heavily affected by droughts.
Even if the declaration doesn’t have obligatory legal implications on the SFPUC and their customers, continuing wise water use is critical to reserving supply for what could be a long-term drought, Briggs said.
“In our minds, we’re 100 percent in support for [the governor’s] call for 20 percent voluntary conservation and we’re looking at how our own customers can curtail their own usage,” Briggs.
Conservation efforts already underway
San Mateo and San Carlos Cal Water customers already land close to the mark prior having reducing their per capita use by 18 percent and South San Francisco customers by 12 percent since 2007, said Cal Water District Manager Tony Carrasco.
Cal Water has the luxury of drawing from various sources to provide its customers with water. It not only purchases from the SFPUC, but it maintains a well in South San Francisco and a surface water source in its Bear Gulch district, Carrasco said.
The financial repercussions of the dry period are unknown at this point and Cal Water’s measures will depend on individual city ordinances and instructions from the SFPUC, Carrasco said.
The Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency represents the interests of the Peninsula’s 24 cities and water districts as well as two private utilities that purchase water wholesale from the SFPUC. It serves as a mediating agency and determines what percentage of the reserve will be allotted to each buyer.
Once the SFPUC and BAWSCA hand down their mandates, districts will be in a better position to provide consumers with answers, said Jeanette Kalaboas, conservation coordinator for the Mid-Peninsula Water District.
Mid-Pen has had a standing voluntary rationing program and, regardless of orders, keeping with current conservation practices will hopefully reduce the impact on consumers, Kalaboas said.
“As a district, what we’re doing here is we’ve always had a 10 percent voluntary conservation request for our customers in place. So we’re just getting that statement out there and we’re reiterating at the moment that they should stick with their 10 percent voluntary conservation. So once we hear how bad the water system really is we’ll be more prepared,” Kalaboas said.
Participating in conservation programs and rebate offers will assist customers in adhering to their drought duties and provide long-term savings, said Ken Jenkins, Cal Water conservation manager.
Ways to do more
Devices such as water-efficient toilets and washers, showerheads and smart irrigation controls provide savings throughout the lifetime of the device, Jenkins said.
“Those are effects that happen once they install the device. Then they can focus on behavioral type changes,” Jenkins said. “All of those devices have different life spans where we get savings for the length of their life. So that’s one of the benefits in making changes with devices, you do get savings over a period of time once you get them installed.”
Cal Water customers can take advantage of its free conservation kit that includes high-efficiency showerheads, hose nozzles, bathroom and kitchen faucet aerators and toilet leak tablets.
Leaks are a conservationist’s worst nightmare. Running toilets and leaking irrigation systems are some of the most wasteful and easily avoidable water practices, Jenkins said.
“Most people run their [outdoor] irrigation systems in the evening or early in the morning which is great for water efficiency. But we recommend periodically running those systems while they’re there so they can visually inspect for leaks,” Jenkins said.
Landscape irrigation is certainly the most draining use and Mid-Pen has a standing request for customers to water their lawns no more than three times a week, Kalaboas said. For those who can’t bear to let their lawns go brown, mulching is an eco-friendly way to keep green, Kalaboas said. With a bucket in tow, a visit to Recology to load up on free mulch reduces the need to water while preserving moisture in soil, Kalaboas said.
For those who are in the midst of redoing their outdoor decor, Jenkins suggests planting drought tolerant or California native plants and avoiding ponds or fountains.
Other conservation practices include turning off the water when brushing one’s teeth, shortening showers even if its just by a few minutes, turning the faucet on low while running water, waiting to run the dishwasher until its full and keeping the lawn tall to preserve moisture.
Preparing for the worst
San Mateo County water providers and conservationists are watching the skies with wishful eyes but preparing for the worst.
“We’re certainly hoping for rain and snow, but we plan for drought and we will continue to monitor our supplies closely and keep our customers informed,” Carrasco said.
Whether we’re on the brink of a multi-year drought or around the corner from a storm, using water wisely needs to be an everyday practice, Briggs said. Only a few days have passed since the governor’s drought proclamation, but the progression of the drought and the reactions of both providers and consumers are changing quickly. The SFPUC’s official response to the extreme conditions will undoubtedly affect San Mateo County residents, but until it announces mandates, all consumers can do is continue to cut back.
“Before that time, I don’t think we’re going to change our position other than continuing to promote wise water use,” Briggs said. “We’re concerned about the hydrology conditions obviously, but we won’t know more until [a few more weeks.]”
For more information on conservation methods visit: www.water.ca.gov, www.sfwater.org, www.calwatergroup.com or www.midpeninsulawater.org.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106