Gov. Jerry Brown last week officially declared a “drought emergency” in California as statewide precipitation fell to the lowest level in 100 years of recorded state history. In his declaration, the governor announced a campaign for residents to cut back on water usage and for cities to voluntarily implement water-conservation measures.
According to the latest state data, there has only been a cumulative daily precipitation of 3.5 inches of rain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains since Oct. 1, which is when the “water year” begins. This level of rain is currently 16 percent of normal and slightly lower than the state’s driest year on record, which was from 1923 to 1924. What’s more, forecasts for rain are dismal.
The drought is most dire for parts of northern California, where farms and communities rely heavily on water supplies from the state’s largest watersheds, including massive reservoirs, such as Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta.
The main goals behind the governor’s declaration is to encourage water conservation and streamline permitting processes for water transfers between agricultural entities, enabling them to bypass certain environmental-review processes.
Local water officials say that raising awareness to conserve water is critical to maintain water supplies, but Southern California is in a much better position than the northern part of the state to withstand drought conditions, at least for the near term.
Kevin Wattier, general manager for the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD), said water agencies across the local region have already prepared for the worst by investing billions of dollars over the last 20 years in water storage. A long-term drought, on the other hand, would create more of a cause for concern in the local area, he said.
“Even though there’s a good chance it will be the single driest year ever, that’s not what challenges us here in Southern California,” Wattier said. “It’s a major problem for those other water utilities that haven’t invested in storage like we have here in Southern California. We have enough storage to go several years for these dry periods.”
Wattier said it’s unclear what the coming months will bring, adding that most forecasts based on Pacific Ocean temperatures are inaccurate.
Long Beach currently gets the majority, or 60 percent, of its water from groundwater supplies, which Wattier said are “reliable.” The other 40 percent is purchased from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which imports water from the Colorado River and Northern California to supplement local supplies.
MWD, however, has been able to save money by relying more on local reservoirs rather than pumping water from Northern California, Wattier said. In some cases, MWD is able to generate electricity from water that flows out of reservoirs by gravity.
He said MWD currently has no plans to restrict water allocations for at least the next two years, or until 2015. While MWD is expected to make a decision in the next few months on whether it plans to raise water rates, Wattier said he doesn’t expect the water agency or the LBWD to raise rates any more than 3 to 4 percent for the next few years.
“They’re actually in a very, very strong financial position right now and will be for the next couple of years,” Wattier said. “The last really good wet year we had was 2011, and MWD did a very good job of filling up all their storage reserves. So their storage reserves are very strong right now.”
The last time MWD put restrictions on imported water was when California experienced a three-year drought from 2007 to 2009. During that time, the agency cut back water allocations by 10 percent and raised water rates by double digits, forcing Long Beach and several other cities to impose mandatory water restrictions, such as allowing lawn-watering only three days per week.
Wattier said he doesn’t expect Long Beach to impose restrictions anytime soon. “We haven’t put that in yet, and I wouldn’t expect us to do that for the near future,” he said.
Local water agencies are also fortunate to now be able to lean on a recently approved water-storage plan, which has been in the works for 14 years.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court on Dec. 18 approved the Central Basin Water Storage Agreement, which permits more than 140 water-rights holders in southeast Los Angeles County to store water during wet periods and use stored water during droughts, which previously wasn’t allowed.
Though the agreement was held up in litigation for years and was first opposed by Downey, Cerritos, Signal Hill and other cities that called for more oversight, the cities and water agencies, including the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD), negotiated with Long Beach to eventually work out an agreement.
“It’s very good news for Long Beach because Long Beach has been storing water in this basin since 2003 and the judgment previously couldn’t recognize that,” Wattier said. “We now have a large amount of water in our storage account for our use for the future.”
He added, however, that, if the agreement were approved sooner, cities could have been able to store even more water, particularly during the deluge in 2011.
“Nobody is going to put money in a bank account if you can’t take it out, and nobody is going to put water in a storage account if you can’t take it out,” Wattier said. “So we missed a big opportunity in 2011 to store water in our aquifer because of the opposition from several other parties who held this thing up.”
Still, the governor’s announcement has sent shock waves across the state, and some cities are already looking at water-restriction measures.
The Signal Hill City Council, for instance, brought up the issue at its Dec. 21 meeting and has asked city staff to report back on whether the Council should propose a resolution.
“We’re not the kind of city that waits for things to happen,” said Councilmember Tina Hansen. “I don’t think there’s any question that this is going to be a dry year. Anytime you read anything about the weather or reports or the meteorologists… they’re predicting basically no rain in the remaining months. I don’t think we want to wait to start putting these things in place to start reducing water.”
Public Works Director Steve Myrter said the City completed the first phase of a water-efficiency study on maximizing water use throughout the city, including using low-water-use landscaping in medians. He said the City is expected to next look at any available grants to pay for the new measures.
In response to the governor’s drought-emergency declaration, MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a statement that, while MWD’s water supplies are “sufficient” for the short term, the state announcement is a “wakeup call” for all Californians to think about conserving water.
“This is likely the first of many actions by the Brown and Obama administrations to manage the state’s limited water resources as prudently as possible,” he said. “The governor’s challenge to each and every Californian to reduce water use sends the right message that we are one state and can never take water for granted. Lowering water demand in Southern California is a big reason why this region has sufficient supplies short term, but this drought is a wakeup call to re-examine all of our water uses and redouble the commitment to conserve every possible drop.”
Wattier noted that one of the main ways residents can conserve water is by replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscape, adding that Long Beach provides incentives, through its Lawn-to-Garden Program, of up to $3 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-conserving, California-native plants. He said there are also a number of other ways to conserve water on a daily basis.
“Not running your sink while you’re shaving or not letting the hose run while you’re washing your car; all those things together all add up, and everyone can figure out for them what is the best way to do it,” Wattier said. “I think the declaration of an emergency should get everybody thinking again about what [they] can do to save water and how [they] can do it in my everyday life.”
According to the governor’s statement, state agencies, led by the California Department of Water Resources, will execute a statewide water conservation campaign to encourage all Californians to be aware of the drought and encourage personal actions to reduce water usage. The campaign will be built on the existing Save Our Water campaign, coordinating with local water agencies and calling on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent.