When skiers are sunbathing at Tahoe in December and January and there is little or no snow on the mountains — to date the snowpack is 20 percent of average and the driest year on record — the price may be water rationing come the summer or next year. The alarm bells are sounding.
Sonoma County is urging its residents to start voluntary water rationing now. Meanwhile the California Conference of Catholic Bishops asked people of all faiths to join in prayers for rain. And locally, The Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency Lawn Be Gone! Program provides rebates from $1,000-$5,000 to customers that convert water-thirsty lawns to water-efficient landscapes. To be eligible for this program, an applicant must be a customer of a participating BAWSCA member agency.
Paul Constantino, Burlingame attorney, suggests shorter showers. Others say let the water-guzzling green lawns turn brown. And, don’t run the water while brushing your teeth. The San Francisco Chronicle urges legislative action to deal with the third year of drought.
A recent SPUR study concludes that much of the state is at high risk of water shortages, including the Bay Area. Reason is climate change and the increase in population. The area is expected to grow by two million by 2040 (from 7 million to 9 million people). Potential earthquakes could seriously disrupt water pipelines. The organization recommends targeting demand with price reforms; requiring retrofits of existing buildings to include water efficiency and requiring new development to be water efficient.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one in 10 watersheds in the United States is stressed with demand for water exceeding natural supply — a trend that may become the new normal. The frequency length and duration of droughts will accelerate with climate change. A Columbia University study agrees that a surge in population is magnifying the supply demand problem. The study cites the 11 cities in the United States most vulnerable: Salt Lake City; Lincoln, Neb.; Cleveland; Miami; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston, Texas; Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Meanwhile, one of California sources of water, the mighty Colorado River, is in many places now down to a trickle. The New York Times reports that because of the shortage, “federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream. That will reduce even more the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.” RAND, which is doing several cutting edge studies on water shortages and conservation, points out the vital role the Colorado plays. Water from the Colorado River is used by 22 native tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, 11 national parks and more than 30 million people in seven states. Yet while demand for this water is ever increasing, its future availability is uncertain.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to declare an emergency drought proclamation because 2013 saw only 3.38 inches of rainfall compared to 20.65 inches in a normal year. The good news for Bay Area residents who receive their water from reservoirs is that they will suffer less than those who are dependent on well or ground water. Much will depend on how long the drought lasts, how long reserves last and how much users conserve.
Remember “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink.” Ironically, the same forces causing droughts and water shortages are also causing rising sea levels. These impacts will be felt by cities which ring the Bay and by San Francisco International Airport. It’s too bad making ocean water into fresh water is not yet practical. Desalinization processes are expensive, energy-intensive and require large-scale operations.
Peter Drekmeier, Bay Area program director of the Tuolumne River Trust, invites readers to an informative conference, Monday, March 24. It will be held at Foster City’s Recreation Center on Shell Drive. Sponsors are the Silicon Valley Sustainable Landscape Summit. The subject: wise use of water. Admission is free if you register at http://www.waterawards.org/LandscapeSummit. I just signed up. In the meantime, shorter showers, no faucet on while brushing and idle those sprinklers.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.