It’s not easy being downstream.
Much of Southern California relies on water piped from Northern California and the Colorado River. Dry years and a judicial action to protect endangered fish up north are acting as a dam to slow the flow southward, where voluntary water use reductions are touted as a way to stave off mandatory restrictions.
Below-normal rainfall and snow pack contributed to dry conditions in the central valley river basins. Lake Oroville, which supplies the State Water Project, is at 50 percent of capacity; so is the Colorado River Basin, after an eight-year drought.
It adds up to situations of extreme fire danger in counties including Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, according to a proclamation of statewide drought issued by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 4.
In some parts of the state, crops are going unplanted.
The executive order called for localized help from the Department of Water Resources.
The governor also proposes an $11.9 billion bond in his 2008-2009 budget for improving water storage and efficiency of use, a sustainable resource management plan, river restoration, and reducing groundwater contamination.
The Web site of Thousand Oaks-based Las Virgenes Municipal Water District sums up supply and demand: two-thirds of California’s population lives in the semi-arid south, while two-thirds of the state’s water supply lies in the north.
No tri-county water districts have imposed mandatory restrictions yet, but Ventura County consumers are encouraged to reduce their consumption.
The Metropolitan Water District, serving six southern California counties, has used up nearly half of its dry-year reserves over the last two years, “leaving the region’s reserves vulnerable to continued low-levels of imported water and emergencies, such as a major earthquake,” stated a June 10 release.
Its Colorado River supplies are half of what they were in 2003, the release continued, and pumping restrictions cut its state water supplies by 20 percent this year.
MWD’s customers include the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which serves 75 percent of Ventura County’s population.
“There are no plans today for mandatory rationing,” but another dry winter may make the difference, said Eric Bergh, manager of resources at Calleguas. In the meantime, MWD and Calleguas have enacted an awareness advertising blitz.
Conservation has been promoted since the last big drought, 1987 to 1992, with millions spent to encourage irrigation efficiency, low-flow plumbing, and other measures. “You name it, we’re pushing it,” Bergh said.
Conservation can’t do it all, however. Ventura County is also developing its natural resources. Many communities use a combination of state water and resources including groundwater and Santa Clara River water through the United Water Conservation District.
If MWD does enforce cutbacks, Calleguas will leave it up to the city-level retailers to implement the cuts in ways that fit the communities, Bergh said.
Across the Los Angeles County border, Las Virgenes Water District plans mandatory restrictions starting July 1.
With no natural resources in its 122 square mile Conejo Valley service area, Las Virgenes imports 100 percent of its water.
A call for voluntary reduction looked promising in January and February, topping the 10 percent reduction goal, said Jeff Reinhardt, manager of public affairs. But an unusually warm and dry spring undid the savings.
Initial measures include bans on watering between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and washing “hardscape” such as driveways; drinking water in restaurants and a daily linen change in hotels are to be offered only when requested.
Las Virgenes last enacted mandatory bans and financial incentives during the 1980s drought, Reinhardt said. People who took measures then may actually be at a disadvantage now, he added. Homes and businesses sporting low-flow plumbing and drought-resistant vegetation will be hard-pressed to find new ways to reduce water use.
Homeowners can still reduce water use without making radical changes. But they do need to understand that it’s not a matter of conserving water this summer and then going back to old habits, said Jimmie Cho, director of resource conservation and public outreach at Las Virgenes.
Water shortages are not expected to ease anytime soon, and wildlife protection in the delta remains the wildcard it has been for some 20 years, Bergh said.
San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties are somewhat insulated from the shortage, relying largely on local resources, including lakes, reservoirs and groundwater.
A few communities do use state water supplies, however, and others may turn to it in a pinch.
“The city of Santa Barbara has been fortunate,” said Bill Ferguson, city water resource supervisor.
Gibraltar Reservoir and Lake Cachuma filled to capacity in January, but in a dry situation, Santa Barbara could turn to the state.
During the emergency conditions of 1987 to 1992, the city enacted strict measures to reduce overall water use by 45 percent, Ferguson said.
It continues to encourage long-term conservation strategies which, along with water recycling, have helped reduce water use in the city by 15 percent since the 1980s, in spite of population growth.
The city of San Luis Obispo also promotes ongoing conservation, though it is in “really good shape” with Salinas and Whales Rock reservoirs filled over the winter, said Gary Henderson, water division manager.
“We do keep a close eye on the water systems,” especially those based on groundwater, said Doug Bird, hydraulic operations administrator for San Luis Obispo County.
The recent heat wave “helps focus everyone’s attention,” but for the most part water supplies are in good shape.
Many tri-county residents recall the last extended drought. Bernd Schroeter, manager of La Sumida Nursery in Santa Barbara, remembers Lake Cachuma’s water line falling below the outflow tunnel.
“We sold a lot of mulch,” Schroeter said, and even a green dye to make dry lawns look livelier.
Anyone who did buy plants went the drought-resistant route.
Although the nursery still carries a selection of drought-tolerant plants and encourages mulching and deep watering, drought “isn’t a crisis like it was 10 years ago,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be a crisis in people’s minds.”