Published May 8, 2014
California's current drought is not the state's driest spell on record in terms of total precipitation. If the state feels this drought as a particularly severe one, says Peter Gleick, the blame may fall partly on humans.
"The severity of the drought has been compounded by poor planning, poor management, and population growth putting pressure on already overcommitted resources," says Gleick, president of the Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that conducts interdisciplinary research on water issues. "It is the third year of the drought, and we did not act in the first two years as though anything was abnormal."
That appears to be changing. This spring, water agencies across the state are taking dramatic actions to meet demands for water despite having less of it. Of the many large and small efforts, some are particularly creative. Here, National Geographic takes a look at five efforts across the state, from the Sacramento area in the north to the Santa Barbara area in the south.
Lompico: Linking to a Bigger Neighbor
In a typical year, the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Lompico relies on its local creek and three wells for its water supply. But this year, water levels are way down: "One of our wells that produced the most water is producing half" of its usual amount, says Lois Henry, president of the Lompico Water Board.
In January, the state formally designated Lompico as an area in danger of running out of water. That brought state money, about $160,000, to pay for an intertie, an emergency pipe connecting Lompico to the neighboring San Lorenzo Water District. Given the desperate circumstances, the state also waived the environmental impact assessments that otherwise would have been required for the project. The first week of May, the intertie was connected.
To avoid such close calls in the future, some Lompico residents want to merge water systems permanently with their bigger neighbor. That would be costly: To pay for the infrastructure improvements required for a merger, including bringing the intertie up to code, Lompico would have to pass a $2.75 million bond, assessed on taxes over 30 years.
But maintaining the status quo isn't cheap either, says Henry. With only 500 customers paying currently, "it costs a whole lot more money" per customer, she says. "We have the highest water bills in Santa Cruz County."
Gleick, the water issues expert, thinks a merger would benefit Lompico. "Combining small water agencies can help build resilience," he says.
Kern County: Reversing the Aqueduct's Flow
The Kern County Water Agency in the San Joaquin Valley serves the cities of Bakersfield, Tehachapi, and Taft, and the bulk of its water supplies agricultural customers. But this year its three key surface-water sources—the State Water Project, the Friant-Kern Canal, and the Kern River—are supplying far less water than normal.
Kern County farmers are already pretty efficient water users, says Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency. "Because we've experienced high costs for water in Kern County compared to other areas, we have some of the leading technology in the nation," he says. Farmers already are using micro-sprinkling and drip irrigation, and doing laser leveling of fields to reduce runoff.
In wet years, farmers banked extra water, storing it in a groundwater aquifer for dry years. "This year we're making withdrawals from those bank accounts," Beck says.
To deliver banked water to farmers in the northern county, the water agency is contemplating an extreme measure: investing in diesel pumps to run the California Aqueduct in reverse for about 47 miles.
The aqueduct normally flows just one way, south, like water flowing downstream. The water agency, with its store of groundwater, is situated south of some of its northern customers. Historically, to serve these customers, the agency relied on an outside entity to put water into the aqueduct north of its upstream customers.
In exchange, the agency put the same amount of water into the aqueduct farther south to serve other downstream customers (not its own). This year, there may not be enough water from the outside being added upstream to do a typical exchange. So the agency's solution could be to pump its own groundwater in reverse to serve its northern customers.
The water agency will make day-by-day decisions on whether to run the aqueduct backward, depending on emerging water delivery schedules. The estimated $5 million to $10 million capital cost, plus operational costs, would be borne by district water users.
"We think it's an important tool in our toolbox, should we need it," says Beck. "We will continue full tilt to get this permitted and begin the installation," in hopes of having it online by mid-June.
Sacramento: So Long to Lawns
Sacramento's water rights to the Sacramento and American Rivers are so senior that the city, the state's capital, has never had to worry about water. It is only now installing water meters, and currently just 51 percent of local customers have them. Without meters to charge them according to the amount of water used, customers have had no incentive to conserve, and the city has earned a reputation as a profligate water consumer.
Now that's changing. River flows are projected to be so low this year that water levels may fall below the city's pumps. On January 14, for the first time in history, the Sacramento city council enacted a water shortage contingency plan—targeting a 20 percent reduction in consumption.
In the hot valley city, 60 percent of residential water goes to watering yards, says Terrance Davis, the drought and sustainability manager for the city's Department of Utilities. So since the plan was announced in January, the department has spent $200,000 on a public outreach campaign to educate water users on new restrictions that limit yard watering to just two days a week. "That allows us to target our enforcement," says Davis.
Sacramento residents seem to be embracing conservation. They've made more than 4,000 calls already this year to report water-wasting neighbors, up from 233 during the same period last year. Water wasters first get a warning; those who receive a fourth notice face a $1,000 fine.
After the city council enacted the 20 percent reduction target in mid-January, February saw a 12 percent reduction in total water demand and March a 16 percent reduction, says Davis.
A new pilot program, passed on March 4, will pay people up to $1,000 to replace their front lawns with drought-resistant or native plants. The department has set aside $200,000 for the program through July 2015, says Davis, and 700 people are on the waiting list. "The water savings will be pretty dramatic," he says. "We're selling them on the idea that it can actually look really good," he says.
Gleick supports the program. "It is long past time that Sacramento and other western cities got serious about eliminating lawns," he says.
Fair Oaks: Caring for the River
Fair Oaks, a town of about 30,000 northeast of Sacramento, benefits from abundant access to the American River, so its water supply is not directly affected by the drought. But the town derives a lot of tourism dollars and local pride from its setting on the lower American River, a draw for rafters, kayakers, and bikers. The dry conditions threaten to diminish that.
To preserve this resource, Fair Oaks made an agreement with local business groups, environmental organizations, and other water districts to protect the American River.
The town has invested millions in drilling wells to develop a backup groundwater supply. In years when surface-water supplies get tight for neighboring water districts, Fair Oaks pumps groundwater for some or all of what the city needs. In that way, it leaves the city's surface-water allocation in the river to benefit neighbors and the river's ecosystem.
"Being a utility isn't mutually exclusive to being a steward of the environment," says Tom Gray, general manager of the Fair Oaks Water District.
Montecito: Buying Water From Farmers
Montecito, the idyllic seaside village near Santa Barbara that's home to one of Oprah Winfrey's residences, is working to impress on its water users that conservation is a virtue.
Like many cities in dry southern California, Montecito had a long-standing policy to encourage conservation by pricing water in tiers, depending on water usage—but didn't restrict total consumption. With this drought, that has changed. The water board declared an emergency on February 11 and began water rationing on February 21.
Rationing means a moratorium on issuing new water service permits, a ban on draining and refilling pools, and strict limits on outdoor watering, with penalties imposed for violations. Several residential customers have received penalties of $1,500 to $2,000 for exceeding their allotments, says Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District. "We're finding the fine gets their attention quickly."
But for the most part, "the community has responded well beyond our expectation," he says. Montecito water customers cut usage by 48 percent in March, compared with the preceding year, and when final April figures are tallied, officials expect a similar reduction.
Still, the district is working to line up other sources. One possibility: buying water from rice farmers north of the Sacramento Delta, who would fallow their fields and profit from the sale of their water rather than their crop.
Such creative measures may get these water districts through the current year of drought. But with projected population growth and the predicted loss of the Sierra snowpack due to climate change, water managers need to be thinking longer term, says Gleick.
"If we continue to pretend that the future climate is going to look like the past, we will fail to put in place the policies needed to bring our water system into any sort of sustainable balance," he says.
And it's not just the human influences on climate change and water availability that must be considered: California's paleoclimatic record shows that extreme droughts have plagued the state over the past two millennia, including mega-droughts of 100 years.
Statewide, planning for longer-term drought isn't happening yet, says Curtis Creel, assistant general manager of the Kern County Water Agency. "This is a new area for a lot of water managers within California and something we're really wrestling with," he says.
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