Santa Clara County residents exceed water conservation targets

After months of falling short, the residents of Santa Clara County are finally starting to meet their goal when it comes to water conservation.

After two record dry years, the Santa Clara Valley Water District declared a drought emergency in June, asking the county’s 2 million residents to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels.

After failing to meet that target for four months, water consumption in the province fell by 16% in October. But there was a catch: Unusually heavy rainfall that month caused people to turn off the garden sprinklers. Now the trend looks firmer. New figures released this week show a 20% saving in November, with dry weather, compared to November 2019.

The trend is a good thing, water experts say, because while major storms in December ended the wildfire season in Northern California and built up snowdrifts in the Sierra Nevada, reservoirs in much of California remain below normal levels — and significantly more rain is needed over the next three months to fill them and end the drought.

“It’s way too early for football to soar this year,” said Jeff Mount, a professor emeritus at UC Davis and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute at the California Water Center. “We are halfway through the rainy season. We still have a very long way to go.”

South Bay water management agrees.

“We’re not out of the drought yet,” said Aaron Baker, a chief operating officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the county’s water wholesaler. “We continue to beg the community to continue their great work.”

Other parts of the Bay Area were also protected in November.

Customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water to 1.4 million people in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, reduced water consumption by 22% in November compared to November 2019. So far, the district has only had about a ​voluntary cut of 10% requested.

A Possible Reason for the Growing Water Conservation in Santa Clara County? The threat of higher bills.

In November, the San Jose Water Company, a privately held company that provides water to 1 million people in San Jose, Cupertino, Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Monte Sereno, began imposing monthly water budgets on its residential customers, with fees for usage. in excess of the allocated amount.

To meet the water district’s 15% conservation target, San Jose Water Company required its customers to cut 15% from their 2019 levels or pay $7.13 in fees for every unit of water above that amount.

Each unit of water is 100 cubic feet (or 1 CCF), which is 748 gallons — the standard measurement on most water bills.

“I think that has something to do with it,” said John Tang, vice president of San Jose Water Company. “We’ve been very proactive in getting the message out about our plan and the drought allowances.”

Following on from savings across the province, San Jose Water customers reduced their usage by 20% in November from November 2019.

The two years ending June 30 were the driest two-year period in Northern California since 1975-77. Drought conditions, exacerbated by climate change, led to record years for wildfires in 2020 and 2021.

The wet December helped, experts say. But so far January has been fairly dry. And more sunny weather is forecast.

“The next two weeks look dry,” said Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services in Half Moon Bay. ‘There is a high-pressure ridge off the coast. The jet stream hangs on the left and goes to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.”

Computer models indicate that some storms could return to California in late January, Null said.

“But that’s so far away, my confidence level is in a few numbers,” he added.

December’s rain helped raise reservoir levels. But one or two months of heavy rain cannot wipe out two years of severe drought, experts say.

In Santa Clara County, the 10 reservoirs operated by the Santa Clara Valley Water District on Wednesday were 26% full — up from 11% on Dec. 1. The district has a particular problem: The largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, is empty for earthquake repairs imposed by the federal government.

To make up for the lost water and the drought, the district has pumped up the local groundwater. It has also asked residents to save. It spent $35 million in the past year buying water from other districts, primarily Sacramento Valley farm districts with senior water rights.

And it’s taken 35,000 acre feet of water — about 15% of last year’s demand — from Kern County’s Semitropic Water Storage District, which has stored excess water in recent, wetter years.

Only part of the Bay Area, Marin County, has almost completely reversed the drought. After Marin hit the bullseye for several drenched atmospheric river storms in December, the Marin Municipal Water District’s seven reservoirs rose steadily. On Friday they were 95% full.

The district has postponed a $100 million contingency plan to build a pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge by at least a year to avoid running out of water. And it is preparing to relax water restrictions.

But in much of the rest of the state, large reservoirs have also not been restored. Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, near Redding, was only 33% full on Wednesday. Oroville, the second largest, in Butte County was 43% full.

Snow cover in Sierra Nevada was 130% from normal, down from 160% two weeks ago.

“The jury isn’t here yet,” Tang said. “The water industry is now breathing a sigh of relief, but we still have three months to go in the winter and those three months will be critical.”

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People play a snowball fight the day after Christmas at Mount Hamilton in San Jose, California, on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

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