Local water agencies are asking residents on the San Mateo County coast to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 15 percent this summer as the state grapples with drought conditions.
So far, their recommendation is to bring down outdoor water use like irrigation as much as possible, but water agency leaders say conserving water now could make a difference in the future as the region faces its second drought year in a row.
“Every drop that is saved now is a drop that can be used later,” Montara Water and Sanitary District General Manager Clemens Heldmaier said.
MWSD is the only local water agency that is self-sufficient, relying entirely on local sources. The other two local agencies — Coastside County Water District and North Coast County Water District — are member agencies of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. As such, they rely on water that’s piped in by the San Francisco Public Utilities District from the Sierra Nevada mountains and held and treated in large reservoirs across the state.
All three of the local districts are following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 8 executive order expanding the state emergency to San Mateo County. The order asks all Californians to reduce water use by 15 percent from 2020 levels.
BAWSCA Water Resources Manager Tom Francis said the statewide water shortage is severe, after the Sierra snowpack completely melted out by mid-June. Precipitation totals are the lowest since the historic 1977 drought. But even as many of Northern California’s reservoirs dip below 50 and even 25 percent of capacity, Hetch Hetchy’s supplies have remained relatively strong at 84 percent. With lower-than-average snowfall this year, the reservoir is lower than normal, but not as bad as some water sources elsewhere in the state.
Although it normally has some local sources to draw from, CCWD Water Resources Analyst Cathleen Brennan said the Half Moon Bay water district is currently relying entirely on imported water from SFPUC. Denniston Creek’s flows decreased early this year, cutting off CCWD’s access, and Pilarcitos Creek is a winter-only source for the water district. Although the SFPUC’s sources remain strong, Brennan said she knows just how quickly conditions can change.
“As a water district it’s not a comfortable place to be 100 percent reliant on SFPUC,” Brennan said.
Pacifica’s NCCWD, too, sources 100 percent of its potable water from SFPUC sources, including Hetch Hetchy.
This year, Coastside and Pacifica resources are not in crisis, and local agencies don’t expect to issue additional cutbacks unless they come from the state. But all eyes are on the weather forecasts to see if conditions will improve.
“If we have a dry winter, next year is going to be a lot worse,” Francis said.
Heldmaier said the current voluntary reduction is simply a constant for MWSD customers, who have always been asked to conserve water and cut unnecessary outdoor use. That’s because when the district purchased the water system from a private company 16 years ago, it was required to set aside 50 percent of its capacity for drought conditions. To Heldmaier, much of the current drought discussion feels disingenuous because the statewide water supply really never recovered from 2016.
“This is not a new drought,” Heldmaier said. “The past 50 years California has seen an increase in dry times. We’ve all seen reports and understand that California had been in a wetter period 150 years ago and its actual climate is more on the average side.”
As for a regional solution to prepare for a drier climate and share resources across the state? It’s not as simple as trucking water from one place to another, Heldmaier said. That’s caused some regions to rely too heavily on water imports, which are not sustainable. But Coastsiders who conserve water during drought, even when local water supplies are stable, can help other regions that will be forced to purchase water.
“The reality is, next year might be significantly worse,” Francis said. “If we have more supplies, we don't have to go on the open market and compete against those agencies that are really suffering next year.”
There are a number of local solutions that BAWSCA and each of the local agencies are exploring, from retreating wastewater to make it potable instead of discharging it into waterways to installing graywater systems in new homes. CCWD is always looking for local sources, Brennan said, but the agency has come up relatively dry so far and faces limited storage options.
“To climatologists and others, it seems like the droughts are worse since the year 2000, they’re getting worse and more often,” Brennan said. “Some think this might be the new normal for us with climate change.”