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Punishing Bay Area Drought Prompts Calls for Major Water Rethink

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A man drives a blue tractor through a field of brown grape vines, a cloud a dust billows behind him.
A farmer riding a tractor cleans out the weeds in an old vine zinfandel vineyard on March 22, 2022, near Healdsburg. After record winter rainfall battered the North Coast last year in October and December, Mother Nature's water spigot went dry, with January, February and March being the driest period on record.  (George Rose/Getty Images)

Each morning for months, Amelia Morán Ceja has peered out her window, searching Sonoma’s wine country for dark clouds or the residue of rain on the leaves of her grapevines.

Her searching has proved futile, and now she’s worried as California faces its third consecutive summer with drought.

The dry conditions threaten her thirsty vines at Ceja Vineyards and elevate the risk from fire and heat waves. The triple threat is a “perfect storm during harvest,” she said.

Smoke from wildfires can ruin a year’s worth of wine and is harmful to the health of harvesters.

Ceja is banking that last October and December’s heavy storms filled aquifers below her vineyard.

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“Nonetheless, we’re still conserving,” she said. “We literally only water the vines when they need it, and it’s barely a couple of gallons of water at most.”

Ceja is just one example of the millions of Bay Area residents learning to live with seemingly perpetual dry times.

California’s snowpack is far below average again this year. Less than 31% of the snowpack remains, and state reservoirs are about 48% full. Millions of Bay Area residents rely on this water.

“We have less snow than we did last year,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of the state’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting section. “California’s only received about half the amount of rainfall recorded in comparison to 2013, which ended up turning into the driest calendar year on record.”

The state’s traditional rainy season is over, and California’s summer forecast looks to be hotter than average. Meteorologists expect a heat wave this week, which poses a critical threat to what’s left of the snowpack.

The odds of any rain or snow making a dent in the drought are “slim to none,” said Brian Garcia, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service located in the Bay Area.

“We are looking at the driest start to a calendar year in recorded history,” he said, referring to records that date back to the mid-1800s.

Megadrought bakes the West

Regionally, the American Southwest is in the grips of a 22-year megadrought, the worst in recorded history and the driest since at least the year 800, according to a new analysis of tree ring records.

It will take several wet years to end the drought cycle, said UCLA hydroclimatologist Park Williams, the study’s lead author.

“Without climate change, the past 22 years would have probably still been the driest period in 300 years,” Williams noted in a release. “But it wouldn’t be holding a candle to the megadroughts of the 1500s, 1200s, or 1100s.”

The burning of fossil fuels — the lead driver of climate change — must be stopped, or quickly shifted away from, according to the most recent UN climate report, in order for the world to reach its goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Warming beyond that point will mean even more severe droughts, water scarcity and increased wildfire.

Bay Area drought deepens

With around 8 million residents across nine counties, each part of the Bay Area is grappling with the drought differently. To the south and north, Santa Cruz and Mendocino counties are similarly affected.

During the multiyear drought ending in 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that all residents curb water use by 25% — a goal that Californians nearly met.

This time around, people are less adherent. Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked for a 15% water reduction, but urban water users saved less than half of that from June to January.

Still, some cities, like Healdsburg, saved more than 50% last summer and fall.

Newsom’s administration is entrusting local water agencies to impose restrictions, compelling them to save water through a late March executive order.

Man holds a hollow blue pole that when pierces the ground tells how much water is in snow in a certain spot. Blue skies and green mountains in the distance. A patch of snow in view.
Sean de Guzman, manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting unit uses a tape measure to pinpoint the next measuring location during the fourth media snow survey of the 2022 season. (Kenneth James / California Department of Water Resources)

“What we learned from the last drought is, it’s really important to listen to locals,” said Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, on a recent press call. “We live in a state that has many different hydrological zones, many different water usage scenarios, and that the one-size-fits-all doesn’t really work in California.”

The order presses major water retailers and agencies to conserve an average of 10%-20% come June. More than half of the state’s urban water providers don’t yet have restrictions to provide this kind of savings, he said.

At the same time, state leaders are touting efforts to build new dams, reinstalling the drought salinity barrier in the delta — literally a pile of rocks blocking saltwater from tainting the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They also are granting millions of dollars in drought aid and using innovative climate forecasting models to inform how they manage reservoirs.

“We get to expand the time horizon of our decision-making,” said Nicholas Malasavage, chief of the operations and readiness division at the San Francisco District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“When there are two weeks of dry weather, and we got a lot of water coming into the lake, we don’t need to make space for the next storm because there isn’t one,” he added of efforts to better manage reservoirs in Sonoma County.

Digging out of a hole. Again.

Local water leaders will decide how deep restrictions should cut in the upcoming weeks. At 10%, San Francisco and parts of the East Bay have the lowest conservation targets in the Bay Area. Cities in the North Bay like Sonoma and Healdsburg are at 20% or higher.

Janet Pauli, who co-manages the water district at the eastern headwaters of the Russian River in Mendocino County — which is reliant on rain — says the creeks that feed into the river are already dry. Valley pastures are browning and fire-scarred trees on the hills surround the agriculture basin.

Pauli says it looked similar last year when crops “were dramatically impacted — pears and vineyards,” she said. “We’re certainly not looking forward to going through this again this year. But it looks as if we’re moving in that direction pretty quickly.”

Further south in Sonoma County, the region’s largest reservoir, Lake Sonoma, is 60% full but has less water than last April.

“We have a huge hole we got to dig out of,” said Brad Sherwood, spokesperson for Sonoma Water. “It’s almost like Groundhog’s Day in the situation that we’re facing in Sonoma County.”

South of Sonoma, Marin County got a stroke of luck this past rainy season when two atmospheric rivers parked themselves over the county, dumping more than 40 inches of rain, said Adriane Mertens, spokesperson for Marin Water.

A white-haired woman in blue flannel and blue jeans leans on a cement bridge with a river and greenery behind her.
Janet Pauli, with the Potter Valley Irrigation District, says farmers are already feeling the impacts of drought. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

Before those two brief, very wet storms, the county was contemplating emergency desalination or piping water from elsewhere over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Now their reservoirs are filled to 91%, a two-year water supply, Mertens said.

“We were projecting to deplete our local reservoir supplies by summer of this year,” she said. “The rain was a gift.”

About 70 miles south of Marin in Santa Clara County, the drought scenario is more dire — and a lot dryer.

Water supplies for the South Bay are particularly precarious because local reservoirs are only a quarter full — the largest, Anderson Reservoir, is out of commission for seismic retrofitting for the next decade.

Officials expect that Valley Water, which supplies water to around 2 million people, won’t receive any of the imports it typically relies on, except for what’s absolutely necessary for health and safety.

Normally, more than half of the county’s water originates from the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

Valley Water put in place a 15% mandatory water restriction last June, but residents have not met the target, said John Varela, Valley Water chief pro tem.

“Since then, through January 2022, residents, businesses and farmers reduced overall water usage by only 8%,” he said.

Almost no measurable rain has landed on San Jose this year.

Water restrictions could intensify in Santa Clara County, said the water supplier’s spokesperson Matt Keller.

“We can hope for rain, but you know hope is not enough — we have to take action,” he said. “Everything is on the table heading into the summer.”

That could mean boosting mandatory water restrictions or increasing penalties for water wasters.

San Jose Water already charges residential customers $7.13 for each 748-gallon unit of water used over their limit, but the restrictions don’t apply to businesses. Ninety percent of the agency’s customers are residential, said Liann Walborsky, director of corporate communications.

“Mother Nature has not been very helpful,” she said of the lack of rain this winter. Customers used 2% more water in February than before the drought.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We’ve had people focus on outside irrigation. It’s very hard to cut water use inside your house because that starts to affect your quality of life.”

Nibbling around the edge

Restricting water and limiting flows to farms, parks or golf courses are quick ways to deal with the drought, but they are not long-term solutions. If restrictions are overused, they can lose their desired effect.

Water experts like Susan Leal say we need to stop nibbling around the edges and rethink how California and the Bay Area use water. Twelve years ago, she co-authored the book “Running Out of Water,” and raised remedies for the very crisis the state is in today.

“I believe we will still be able to deliver water to people, but they’ll have to use less of it,” she said. The climate whiplash the state experienced this past year — flooding rains followed by months of dry conditions — stresses the state’s water system, she said.

“We may get to the point where we have to start subsidizing water because the cost of recycled water is going to be much more expensive,” she added.

An Asian man in a white polo shirt holds a beaker full of water that's been filtered. A system of tubes behind him.
Associate Engineer Zachary Helsley holds a beaker of treated wastewater at the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center in San Jose on Sept. 23, 2021. (Beth LeBerge/KQED)

Leal was once the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. She wants the state to invest billions in cleaning wastewater for drinking.

Recycled water encompasses only a small fraction of the state’s water supply; the majority is in Southern California. Valley Water pledged to double the amount of water it recycles over the next decade, but even that would only augment 10% of its supply.

“If we don’t actually put some dough into it now, it won’t happen,” Leal said.

It can take decades to change or build infrastructure.

Close the loop so we don’t depend on snowpack

Newsha Ajami studies water in the West as the chief development officer for research at the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She says water agencies will have to start valuing people over a revenue based model.

“If we shift this mindset, eventually these utilities [will] survive these new realities they’re facing with climate change,” she said. “If they don’t, then eventually they will fall apart. Because every drought leads to a reduction in demand.”

Ajami would like to see agencies split operational costs among all customers equally, while having people cover the energy costs necessary to get their water to them. This would make the price of water more equitable, she says, and allow water agencies to flourish instead of merely remaining afloat.

“It separates people who are actually mindful from the people who use more and put a lot more pressure on the system,” she said. “If you and I live in the same building, and I’m using 10 units of water, and you’re using two, I’m putting a lot more demand on the system.”

Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, co-authored a bill that aims to decouple California water agency sales and revenue. He wants to incentivize water conservation and force water utilities to restructure.

“We need to make sure that we’re decoupling water use from profits, because otherwise, we get perverse incentives,” he said. “We want people to use less water. And so decoupling helps us achieve that.”

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Even if the bill doesn’t pass this year, Becker and Ajami believe it’s doing something good: It’s rethinking how California uses water. Their hope is that these ideas become reality.

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