Southern California water suppliers in good shape to weather the drought

While storage and conservation are key to meeting demands during the dry cycle, drought declaration paves the way for policy actions and federal assistance—especially for communities facing a more dire situation.

Governor Brown’s drought declaration has stirred up a flurry of responses—everything from water districts reassuring their consumers that there is no cause for immediate alarm to individuals asking those of us in the water industry, “So what are we going to do about water?”

Shortly after the drought declaration, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) General Manager Jeff Kightlinger issued a statement echoing the governor’s call for conservation and stating, “Lowering water demand in Southern California is a big reason why this region has sufficient supplies short term, but this drought is a wakeup call to re-examine all of our water uses and redouble the commitment to conserve every possible drop.”

Later Kightlinger wrote in the Los Angeles Times that while the state is in a drought the situation is not dire—because of conservation and planning. Since the dry cycles of the 1970’s and the 1990’s, Californians have embraced water saving devices, like low-flow toilets and showerheads, and have significantly reduced demand.  In addition, water managers have developed new reservoirs and groundwater banks to store water in wet times, allowing for sufficient supplies in these dry cycles.

His sentiments have echoed throughout the region with member agencies and municipalities urging voluntary conservation—but stating that they are not issuing mandatory conservation plans at this time because water supplies currently are sufficient.

The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) also announced that it has adequate supplies.  While SDCWA relies heavily on MWD, the Authority credits efforts to diversify their water portfolio with more reliable supplies—including water from the QSA conservation and transfer programs and the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which is in progress and expected to begin commercial production in 2016.  In addition, SDCWA is urging its customers to continue their strong record of conservation.  The Authority has already seen a 27% drop in per capital water use since 2007 and a 24% in total consumption of potable water.

Outside of MWD’s jurisdication, California Water Service Company (Cal Water) also indicated that it has sufficient water supplies to meet demands in its service areas.

“Regardless of what happens at the state level, water supply availability varies by community. We plan for dry conditions, and where possible, we secure multiple sources of supply. So we are prepared. Having said that, water is a precious resource that should never be wasted, and we encourage our customers to continue using water as efficiently as possible,” said Vice President of Engineering and Water Quality Robert R. Guzzetta.

So with alternative supplies and sufficient storage to meet water demands, why declare a drought emergency?

First, note that while municipalities generally are in good shape, there are 17 rural communities that are at risk of running out water in the next two to four months.

But beyond that, declaring a drought emergency carries with it a number of policy directives.  Included in the governor’s 20-point proclamation are orders to

  • streamline the approval process for certain water transfers
  • call on municipal water suppliers to implement their local shortage contingency plans
  • accelerate funding for water supply enhancement projects that can break ground this year
  • notify water right holders of possible curtailment
  • modify reservoir operations in order to maintain water quality
  • reduce water use at all state facilities
  • execute a statewide conservation campaign calling on the public to reduce their water use by 20%.

Additional points in the proclamation direct certain state agencies and the Drought Task Force to engage in certain monitoring activities and to implement emergency preparedness actions.

A formal drought emergency declaration also allows for federal action.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Emergency Drought Relief Act program—which allows Reclamation to undertake actions and construct temporary projects to mitigate drought effects—cannot be implemented until the governor makes a formal drought declaration.

After the governor’s announcement, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) issued a statement calling for the President to move quickly on approving a federal disaster declaration and appointing a drought task force to assist the state.  Sen. Feinstein has also announced her intention to introduce legislation to improve water supplies in California.

On January 29, President Obama told Governor Brown that the White House is working to provide California with needed support, and federal efforts, which involve the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Agriculture, are being coordinated by the National Drought Resilience Partnership.

Written by Marta Weismann