Santa Clara County residents falling far short of water conservation target


When it comes to California’s worsening drought, Santa Clara County residents are falling far short in conserving water.

On June 9, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the county’s main wholesale water provider, declared a drought emergency and asked all 2 million county residents to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels as local reservoirs dropped alarmingly and state and federal water agencies reduced water deliveries.

But new numbers out Friday show that instead of hitting the 15% target, residents saved 0% in June — essentially using the same amount of water as they did in June 2019.

“It’s clear the message isn’t getting out,” said Heather Cooley, research director of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water research organization in Oakland. “People aren’t yet changing their behaviors and realizing how serious the drought is.”

Moreover, seven of the 13 cities and private water companies — commonly called ‘retailers’ — that buy water from the water district reported using more water this June than they did in June 2019. The places where water use went up were Palo Alto, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Mountain View, San Jose’s Municipal Water system and Purissima Water District, which serves Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. The increases ranged from 1% among San Jose Muni customers to 14% among Purissima Hills customers.

“It’s very important for us to hit this 15% target,” said Aaron Baker, chief operating officer of the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s water utility enterprise. “It is going to take a significant amount of rain to get us out of this drought this winter. We need to save water now so we have water for next year.”

Baker said there are some signs that Santa Clara County residents are beginning to step up conservation.

In May, countywide water use was up 9% from May 2019. So the fact that residents used the same amount of water in June as they did in June 2019 shows improvement, he said.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Baker said. “We know from the last drought that it does take some time. We did anticipate that.”

Baker noted that the number of people applying to the water district to be paid to remove their lawns under a long-standing conservation program — at a rate of $2 per square foot — increased to 592 in July, up from 185 in June. The number of people asking the district for free low-flow shower heads, garden hose nozzles and other efficiency gear jumped from 490 to 823 between June and July. And calls to the district’s hotline (408-630-2000) to report water wasting in communities also is on the rise, he said.

How bad is the drought?

The Northern California watersheds that fill the state’s largest reservoirs are the driest since 1976-77.

Over the past year, San Jose received the least amount rain in its 128 years of record-keeping, tallying only 5.33 inches from July 1 to June 30. That’s about the same amount as Las Vegas or Palm Springs gets in a typical year. Similarly, San Francisco saw its third-driest year since the Gold Rush in 1849.

All told, 88% of California now is in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NOAA and the University of Nebraska.

On Thursday, the water level at Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California and a source of water for San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities, hit the lowest level ever recorded since Oroville Dam was constructed in 1967. At only 24% full, the reservoir no longer has enough water to spin the turbines at its power plant, and the facility was shut down for the first time ever due to lack of water.

“I have been surprised at how quickly this drought has gotten so severe,” Cooley said. “It looks now like where we were in year three of the last drought.”

Some of that, she noted, is due to hotter temperatures from climate change.

Santa Clara County is in worse shape than many other counties because its largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, was ordered drained last year by federal officials to rebuild the dam to improve earthquake safety. The county suffered another hit when federal agencies announced they would be cutting water allocations to cities by half from the Delta due to a meager Sierra Nevada snowpack.

To make up for the loss, groundwater pumping in Santa Clara County is increasing, water district officials say. Groundwater levels are in decent shape now. But if next winter is dry, water tables could drop to emergency levels, they say. That would increase the risk of the ground sinking, a phenomenon known as subsidence which could lead to cracked roads, sidewalks, home foundations and natural gas and water pipes.

If the 15% target isn’t met by the end of August, San Jose Water Company, which provides water to 1 million people, has said it is likely to issue water allocations to all of its customers with surcharges for exceeding the limits. That last occurred during the 2012-16 drought.

“The numbers are concerning,” said  Liann Walborsky, a spokeswoman for San Jose Water Company. “We’d like to see more improvement in July and August.”

A staff report for the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s meeting Tuesday shows that many local cities still haven’t passed significant water conservation rules. Nine of the 14 cities and private water companies in the report haven’t limited the number of days that lawns can be watered each week, and only two — San Jose Water Company and Morgan Hill — have banned washing cars at home. Just one, Great Oaks Water Company in South San Jose, has banned filling swimming pools.

“We know how to do this,” Cooley said. “Cutting lawn watering from 3 days a week to 2 days can meet the 15% reduction by itself.”

A person fishes at Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, Calif., on Monday, June 7, 2021. The reservoir was just 14% full on Aug. 6, 2021.(Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 



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