Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - February 7, 2014

Facing drought

Water is challenge of 21st century -- locally and globally

by Jeremy Walsh

Drought conditions are prompting unprecedented moves at the state level and raising real concerns for water agencies locally.

The California Department of Water Resources announced last Friday that for the first time ever, the State Water Project would allocate no water to its 29 contracting water agencies that serve about 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

"(The) action is a stark reminder that California's drought is real. We're taking every possible step to prepare the state for the continuing dry conditions we face," Gov. Jerry Brown said.

The SWP accounts for a significant majority of the typical yearly supply for the Zone 7 Water Agency, which helps supply water to more than 200,000 people in Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin and Dougherty Valley.

The Pleasanton Water Division would normally receive most, but not all, of its annual supply from Zone 7.

In response to supply concerns, the Pleasanton City Council on Tuesday asked its residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 20%. Zone 7 has also called for voluntary 20% reduction and declared a local drought emergency in its service area.

"I think right now we're going through the biggest crisis we've ever had concerning water in this valley," John Greci, Zone 7 Board of Directors vice president, said during a special meeting Jan. 29 at its headquarters in Livermore. "It's going to take a cooperative effort by every citizen in this valley."

Water sources

The next night, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird spoke at a Jan. 30 public workshop on water that was held in Dublin.

"Probably an overwhelming majority of Californians think their source of water is the tap that they have at their house," Laird joked.

In the Pleasanton Water Division's case, 20% of its supply is generated internally from city-maintained wells.

The remaining 80% is purchased from Zone 7, a local wholesaler that also sells water to Livermore Municipal Water, Dublin San Ramon Services District and California Water Service Company, Livermore District.

Zone 7 would normally receive more than 80% of its annual supply from the SWP.

Its local water originates from melted snowpack in the northern Sierra Nevada, which is captured in Lake Oroville. The fresh water then gets transported through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and is delivered to Zone 7 via the South Bay Aqueduct.

But with the state cutting off water deliveries to its SWP-contracting agencies statewide, Zone 7 is faced with relying on its other water sources -- which would typically account for less than 20% of the agency's annual supply.

One such source is the local groundwater basin, which is about 57% full.

The other is Lake Del Valle, a reservoir southeast of Pleasanton that is currently less than three-quarters full, Zone 7 officials said. But only 47.5% of the water there is reportedly available for use, and that amount would be divvied up among Zone 7 and the Alameda County and Santa Clara Valley water districts, which also are served by South Bay Aqueduct supplies.

Another issue for Zone 7 is that some of the water it's saved up from wetter years is stored remotely. The agency would not access that water directly, but rather indirectly by getting extra Delta water as a result of exchanges with out-of-area storage facilities and the State Water Project.

So, Zone 7's ability to call back on that supply "may become impossible" if water isn't being pumped through the Delta via the SWP system, according to agency officials.

As a result, Zone 7 could face water shortages this year but still meet all health and safety requirements if supplied only by the two regional sources, agency staff said.

State officials could revisit the zero SWP allocation decision if precipitation increases in the coming weeks and months.

Rainfall

California followed a dry 2012 with its driest year on record in 2013.

The same held true locally, with the Livermore and Amador valleys getting 4.5 inches of rain last year, Zone 7 staff members told the board. That total was 31% of the area's annual average and a new record low by nearly 2 inches.

The northern Sierra -- the primary SWP water source -- received 16.6 inches of precipitation in 2013, marking the lowest total in the 90-plus years of tracking, Zone 7 officials said. The year 1932 was the only other recorded in which the range saw fewer than 20 inches of precipitation; the yearly average is 50 inches.

The dry spell has continued early in 2014.

The Sierra snowpack was 12% of normal Jan. 30, the most recent California Department of Water Resources data available. Additionally, Lake Oroville -- the main SWP reservoir -- is at 36% capacity, state officials said last week.

The northern Sierra would need more than 3 feet of precipitation to reach the yearly average, officials said.

The rainfall forecast appears optimistic in the short term, with a 40% chance of above-normal precipitation in the Bay Area into next week, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The long-term predictions indicate California would see below-normal precipitation through mid-April, according to the most recent NOAA seasonal outlook.

Local action

"This is much worse than anything on the records, certainly worse than anything the state project has ever seen," Zone 7 general manager Jill Duerig said Jan. 29.

With no imported water all year and no water conservation, Zone 7 could be facing a 42% shortage for 2014, agency staff said. That shortage could reduce to 27% with voluntary 20% conservation.

However, the prospect of a 20% cut doesn't seem fair to those who already intensely conserve, Pleasanton resident Ann Montgomery said in a letter to the Zone 7 board.

"I have never been a water pig. I cannot conserve any more than I already do," she said. "If someone as exemplary as me who can't possibly conserve any more is punished for being good, it is not fair."

Daniel Smith, operations services director for Pleasanton, said city staff is working to develop a base to use as a "level playing field" across the current water-use spectrum, should conservation requests become mandates.

For now, during the voluntary stage, "Whatever we can save now is only going to help us later," Smith added.

Zone 7 would be able to meet safety needs with or without conservation, but the potential shortages underscore the need to explore other water options, according to agency officials.

That message, in part, prompted the Board of Directors to sign off on three system-enhancement projects in Pleasanton on Jan. 29.

The directors approved immediate construction of Well No. 5 at the Chain of Lakes, a $3.6 million project set to be completed by August -- almost four years earlier than originally scheduled.

They also moved up installation of a water pipeline between Cope Lake and Lake I to facilitate the Chain of Lakes operation. Set for completion in May, the pipeline could cost as much as $1.2 million.

Thirdly, the board authorized staff to enter into an estimated $1.4 million contract for the design phase of a well project on the northwest corner of Valley Avenue and Stanley Boulevard.

Zone 7 has capital-improvement reserves available to pay for each effort, and all of the projects already went through environmental review, according to agency officials.

The board also directed its staff to explore other potential projects as well as the possibility of obtaining water from nearby agencies, such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The city of Pleasanton has offered its well system as a possible outlet, according to Smith. "That's surely available to work together with the zone to use," he told the Zone 7 board. "We offer that up and we're ready to help in any way we can."

California Water Action Plan

"It seems like with water, the window opens every 20 or 30 years where people are willing to make tough decisions," Laird said at the Jan. 30 meeting in Dublin. "That window is open right now ... so it's the time to make some of those tough decisions."

About 100 local residents, business owners and government officials turned out that night to hear Laird serve as the keynote speaker during a presentation on the California Water Action Plan.

The 22-page document -- developed by the state's Natural Resources Agency, Department of Food and Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency -- aims to guide short-term state actions related to California's water resources

Laird called the plan "a real statement about all the things we have to do together in California."

It calls for actions in 10 key areas, such as making conservation the norm statewide, better preparing for dry periods, protecting and restoring ecosystems, finding sustainable financing opportunities, and increasing regional self-reliance, flood protection and operational and regulatory efficiency.

The need for a multifaceted approach to addressing the state's water issue was a theme throughout the presentation in Dublin.

"The challenge of the 20th century was oil and energy," said Smith, another speaker at the event. "Not that that's not still important, but the challenge of the 21st century is, without a doubt, the global water crisis and our crisis of quality and quantity."

Water conservation tips:

* Halve shower times

* Run only full loads in dishwashers and clothes washers

* Don't leave water running when brushing teeth, shaving, rinsing hands or washing dishes

* Install water-efficient devices such as washing machines, toilets, showers and irrigation systems

* Water outdoors when temperatures are cooler, early in morning and late in evening

* Avoid over-watering plants and lawns

* Fix leaking water pipes

Source: Association of California Water Agencies. For more tips, visit www.saveourh2o.org.

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