In the latest fallout from the worsening drought, residents of San Jose — which received the lowest rainfall in its recorded history last year — and surrounding communities are about to be given tougher water conservation rules than any major city in California.
The San Jose Water Company, a private firm that provides drinking water to 1 million people in San Jose, Cupertino, Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Monte Sereno, has begun sending notices to residents informing them it is moving forward with mandatory rules to set monthly residential water budgets with financial penalties for homeowners who exceed them.
The system, which the company last put in place in 2015 and 2016 during California’s previous drought, will require residential customers to cut water use 15% from 2019 levels or pay surcharges on their water bills.
“The last drought was for five years. We’re in the second year of this one,” said John Tang, vice president of San Jose Water Company. “We don’t know how long it will go on. Every drop of water that we can save now is going to blunt the pain that we feel next year.”
Tang noted that reservoirs around Northern California and in Santa Clara County are at record-low levels.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “We’re hopeful Mother Nature is going to deliver this winter. But hope is not always a good strategy.”
The company will hold a public hearing on Oct. 28, and if its proposed rules are approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, as expected, they will take effect on Nov. 15.
The water conservation target comes from Silicon Valley’s largest water provider, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a government agency in San Jose. The district is the wholesale water provider for the county. It buys water from federal and state agencies, maintains groundwater and 10 local reservoirs, and sells it to cities and private water companies like San Jose Water that deliver it to homes and businesses.
“We’re all in this together,” said Rick Callender, CEO of the district, on Thursday. “Everybody needs to do their part. This drought is super serious.”
On June 9, the district’s seven-member elected board of directors declared a water shortage emergency and told cities and private water companies in the county to cut water use 15% from 2019 levels, the most recent non-drought year.
That cut is the equivalent of a 33% reduction from 2013 levels — the baseline before the prior drought. In response, local cities and other water providers have asked the public to conserve, by such measures as watering landscaping no more than twice a week. But there is almost no enforcement. And so far county residents are failing to meet the 15% conservation target.
In August, they cut water use by 9% from August 2019 levels, up from 6% in July.
“We’re heading in the right direction. We have to keep moving forward,” Callender said.
Statewide, California’s current drought is the most severe since 1976-77.
This past year, San Jose experienced its driest year in 128 years of record-keeping, receiving only 5.33 inches of rain from July 1 to June 30. That’s about the same amount as Las Vegas gets in a typical year. San Francisco had its third-driest year since 1849.
As the drought expands, Santa Clara County is worse off than many other counties. Its largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, was ordered drained by federal officials last year to rebuild the dam for earthquake safety. On Thursday, the 10 reservoirs in the county were just 11% full.
Water district officials are making up the difference by spending $35 million buying 58,000 acre-feet of water — about a quarter of the district’s annual demand — from farmers in the Sacramento Valley with senior water rights. They also are importing water they stored in past years in groundwater banks in Kern County, and pumping groundwater in Santa Clara County more heavily.
In San Jose, a key monitoring well the district owns shows that groundwater levels have fallen about 45 feet since they peaked after the soaking wet winter of 2017. They are still about 22 feet above their lowest point during the last drought, in 2014, but continue to trend downward.
District leaders say if too much groundwater is pumped, it could cause the ground to sink, a phenomenon known as subsidence, which happened generations ago in Santa Clara County and can cause roads, gas pipes and other infrastructure to crack.
So they are asking for more conservation, and hoping for a wet winter.
Under the San Jose Water Company’s plan, every residential customer will be required to cut monthly water use 15% from their 2019 level. They will be billed $7.13 in surcharges for each unit they use above that amount.
Each unit of water is 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons — the standard measurement on most water bills.
Hoping to curb lawn watering and preserve indoor water use, the company is setting a monthly floor of 6 to 13 units a month, with less in the winter and more in the summer months. Customers who use less than that will not be required to cut 15% and will not face surcharges.
Some water experts say that part of the plan is fair because it doesn’t penalize people who were already conserving. But they note that requiring a 15% cut of all medium-to-high water users — often wealthy people with large lawns — allows them to continue using lots of water without paying a penalty.
“The way they are doing it is not as fair as it could be,” said Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford University. “Targeting the bigger water users is a more strategic way to do it, and could lead to more permanent changes in total water use.”
Ajami said in a drought this severe, and with a changing climate, Californians should not be growing or watering lawns, which consume 50% of urban water in the state.
“These droughts are not going away. They keep coming back,” she said. “They are coming back stronger, hotter and more intense. We are experiencing a new normal. We should fundamentally look at how we use water, and change.”
(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)