The San Lorenzo River is the main source of supply for Santa Cruz residents.  (Amy Standen/KQED)
The San Lorenzo River is the main source of supply for Santa Cruz residents. (Amy Standen/KQED)

May is fast approaching, and with it, the end of the rainy season. At least, what passed for a rainy season this year.

Much of California is still in an “extreme” or even “exceptional” state of drought, the highest designation offered by the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor.

So communities are cracking down on water wasters, right? Demanding that residents take shorter showers and stop watering their lawns?

Not exactly.

Up and down the state, water agencies use words like “emergency,” “critical” and “dire” but make only modest requests of their customers: voluntary ten percent cutbacks (a few toilet flushes’ worth) or supposedly “mandatory” restrictions that, upon closer inspection, are virtually unenforced.

Take, for example, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, or East Bay MUD, which supplies 1.3 million residential customers from Oakland, Berkeley, Lafayette and other East Bay towns.

Last week, the utility’s Board of Directors summoned staff members to brief them on how much water is available in the system.

The picture presented by Eileen White, a Manager of Operations for the utility, was grim. Key reservoirs are at 50 and 60 percent capacity. Snowpack levels, which indicate how much fresh water is stored as snow in the Sierra, are less than 20 percent.

“It’s been a very dry winter,” White told the Board.

Armed with that information, the Board approved two staff proposals:

  • First,  purchase water from the Sacramento River — for the first time ever — at a cost of $8 million.
  • Second, continue a request that customers trim water use by ten percent.

Despite one of the worst droughts in history, board members agreed that it wasn’t yet time for anything more strict.

Different Communities, Different Water Sources, Same Drought

There is no single source of water for California residents; nearly every community gets its supply from a different combination of sources. But the drought is affecting everyone.

“For us, it’s actually quite serious, says Frank Jahn, a Public Information Supervisor for the Alameda County Water District, which supplies water to residents of Fremont, Newark and Union City.

Jahn’s district relies on flows from the State Water Project, a vast network of pumps and canals that brings water from the wetter north of the state to the drier south.

In a normal year, says Jahn, his district would get about 40 percent of its supply – some 17 million gallons of water – from the State Water Project. This year, says Jahn, they’re expecting zero.

The town of Cloverdale is in similar straits, says city manager Paul Cayler. “I guess you could call it an emergency,” he says, referring to the town’s primary reservoir, Lake Mendocino, which is at half capacity.

Cayler says it’s enough water to get them through the season. “Our concern is what’s going to happen later this summer and into the fall.”

No ‘Water Cop’ to Enforce Restrictions

A map maintained by the Association of California Water Agencies shows several towns which have imposed mandatory restrictions on water for customers in their service area.

But few of these restrictions are enforced, or even enforceable, and water managers concede they’re relying on the honor system to ensure that customers actually cut back.

For example, in towns served by the Alameda County Water District, homeowners are now prohibited from watering their lawns more than once a week. Hosing down sidewalks and re-filling pools are prohibited entirely.

But customers who break the rules will probably get away with it.

“To my knowledge we have not sent out any warnings yet,” says Frank Jahn. “We have a lot of reports that have come in that we haven’t been able to substantiate.”

Few, if any, towns have the resources to hire teams of enforcement agents, so must rely on citizen complaints, followed up by site visits from department staff. District officials can’t issue tickets unless they see the violation in progress.

Cloverdale’s mandatory restrictions also rely on “community compliance,” said Holley. “We don’t have a water cop,” he explains.

In towns where water use is metered, one way to lean on water hogs is through monthly water bills, levying a penalty on customers who exceed a monthly allotment.

But despite one of the worst droughts in recorded history, water managers say it’s not yet time for such measures.

This is short-sighted, according to Peter Gleick, who heads the Pacific Institute, a non-profit water policy think tank in Oakland.

If 2014 or 2015 are as dry as last year, says Gleick, “we’re going to be sorry that we haven’t kept more water in our reservoirs for next year or the year after.”

Even if the rains return, he says, water resources are finite. Over time, the pressures of population growth and climate change will only further squeeze water districts trying to supply their customers.

“The truth is there’s no place in California that should think they have enough water that wasteful or inefficient use can be condoned, or accepted.”

Reluctance to Ration Water

What many managers really seem to fear is making their customers unhappy.

Asked why the utility seems so reluctant to crack down on customers who waste water, Doug Linney, an East Bay MUD board member representing Alameda and West Oakland, says rationing gets customers “a lot more worked up.”

“It can create some adversarial relationships,” says American Canyon’s Jason Holley.

“We’re in the service business,” said Paul Cayler of Cloverdale. “If we are able to meet our demands for our customers, that’s what we want to do.”

There are some places where cities are putting meaningful water rationing into place.

Toby Goddard says he hopes resident cutbacks will make up for the low flows in the San Lorenzo River. (Amy Standen/KQED)
Toby Goddard says he hopes resident cutbacks will make up for the low flows in the San Lorenzo River. (Amy Standen/KQED)

Take Santa Cruz, where the drought has left water managers in particularly tight straits.

Santa Cruz hasn’t built a new reservoir in 50 years, largely because of environmental opposition. It imports no water from other parts of the state. Recent efforts to build a desalination facility were met with bitter opposition from environmentalists and some residents.

With the city’s primary source, the San Lorenzo River, running virtually at a trickle, the city has enacted some of the most restrictive water policies in the state.

Starting May 1, residents in most single-family homes will receive an allotment of 249 gallons a day. Use too much and the price-per-gallon jumps by a factor of ten. Customers who exceed their allotment could see bills climb to $500 a month, or more.

“It’s a big jump,” says Toby Goddard with the City of Santa Cruz’s Water Conservation Office. Goddard says local residents have already done a great deal to conserve water, even without expensive restrictions. But at a certain point, the requests aren’t enough.

“I’m not sure just a voluntary call is actually going to move many communities to do something differently,” Goddard says.

Selling Less Water Is Expensive

Goddard points out that these water restrictions will be a burden for his agency, which points to a harsh paradox in the water business: Selling less of it is expensive.

Goddard’s office is planning to hire up to 20 new staff members to run the program, respond to customer complaints and questions, and do outreach, Goddard says.

That’s $1 million on top of $3 million the agency expects to lose in revenue as a result of selling less water. The city plans to make up the deficit with surplus funds from previous years. But if the drought continues, Goddard says, those costs may have to be passed on to customers.

The Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick says water agencies have a financial disincentive to encourage conservation among their customers.

“If their conservation programs are really successful, they sell less water and their revenues drop,” says Gleick. He points out that water agencies often have expensive construction costs and overhead. If revenue drops, rates must go up, leaving customers paying more money for less water.

Gleick says there are ways around this.

For example, electrical utilities, like PG&E, structure bills in such a way that they don’t need to sell lots of electricity in order to make a profit. Regulators call that “de-coupling.”

“We need to do the same thing with water,” says Gleick. “We should have done this many years ago.”

Standing on a bridge overlooking the San Lorenzo River, Toby Goddard says if the rains don’t come, the city could face some tough years ahead.

“But we’ll get through,” he says. “I’m sure the community will rally and do what it takes to save its water supply.”

And if they don’t, it’s going to cost them.


True Water Restrictions Rare, Even in California’s Record-Breaking Drought 30 April,2014Amy Standen

  • Your Mirror Image

    Mandating at least 1 rain barrel for each household could help in the short and long term as well.

    • SparkleBunny

      What rain?

      • OhSay CanuSee

        It rained at least 3 days in April. You would know that if you looked up from your videogame and looked out the window.

        One 26 gallon properly placed rain can fill up on 1 day’s worth of rain.

        “What rain?”, you say? “What brain?”, I say.

        • SparkleBunny

          Yeah, what rain? Just because it rains in one area doesn’t mean it rained in another. Out here in the desert it hasn’t rained at all this year since Oct 2013…

          • OhSay CanuSee

            Well then a rain barrel doesn’t work for the desert dwellers does it? Residents who live in ‘rainy’ parts of Calif. can use a rain barrel to conserve water so you desert types can still tap the same outside water sources like you always do.

            See how a bit of thinking goes a long way? Try it sometime.

          • SparkleBunny

            Says the idiot who didn’t think about people living in the desert.

          • OhSay CanuSee

            Gosh, I always read that only rude, unintelligent and impolite cretins lived in the desert.

            Thanks for making it a certainty! 🙂

          • Hi there – quick note from one of the Editors. Your last exchange has been deleted due to name-calling and ad-hominem attacks. Respectful disagreement is encouraged but personal insults are not welcome. Thank you in advance for your civil contributions.

          • OhSay CanuSee

            I understand the need to delete my previous post, however it was in self-defense as I was personally attacked first by spacklebunny. Hopefully the Editors will continue to rid the site of bad apples.

          • SparkleBunny

            ‘What rain’ is an attack?? Wow…

          • SparkleBunny

            This is the internet! Let us trolls be trolls and go away silly moderator… no one cares about you evil party poopers. Shoo now BEGONE I COMMAND THEE!

            Plus this story is so old no one cares about it anymore. You should be ecstatic there’s still interests on the article.

  • Westheimer

    The city parks, esp, in Silicon Valley, should do their part. They continue business as usual – watering the grass profusely – and do not seem to care at all about the drought


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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