One of the largest water districts in the San Francisco Bay Area is falling dramatically short of water conservation goals amid extreme drought conditions across California.
Santa Clara Valley Water declared a water shortage emergency in June with its reservoirs reaching historically low levels, requiring customers to reduce water use by 15% compared with 2019 levels. In July, the district fell short of the goal with residents only reducing water use levels by 6% compared to 2019 levels, according to newly available data first shared by the San Jose Mercury News.
Santa Clara Valley Water with 10 reservoirs and about 5,000 wells serving 2 million customers is a wholesaler, selling water to retailers within the region. The county depends on its reservoirs that have shrunk dramatically after two, consecutive dry winters. It also gets more than half of its water from outside the region and those sources are also drying up.
“In Santa Clara County, it’s going to be very grim,” said Gary Kremen, Valley Water board vice chair and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Match.com and Clean Power Finance. “Our wells depending on where you’re in the county, may start to run dry … If we’re unable to get imported water in and it’s not looking like there’s much water out there, it’s going to be grim.”
Noting the need for people to conserve more water, he added, “I know we all have crisis overload. This is serious. This is really serious. It’s not like Mark Zuckerberg can write some code and fix this problem.”
Stanford was the only retailer to meet Valley Water’s goal, cutting water use by 15% compared to 2019 levels, while the city of Santa Clara and Mountain View reduced water use by a mere 2%.
Here’s a complete rundown of how much all the retailers that purchase water from Santa Clara Valley reduced water use in July compared to 2019:
-City of Santa Clara: 2%
-Mountain View: 2%
-Morgan Hill: 5%
-Purissma Hills Water: 5%
-San Jose Municipal Water: 6%
-San Jose Water Company: 6%
-Great Oaks: 6%
-California Water Service: 7%
-Palo Alto: 13%
While these numbers may seem discouraging Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller said things are going in the right direction when you look at where the county stood in March when use was up 25% compared to 2019 levels.
“We knew it would take a little bit of time (few months) to reach that 15% goal as our retailers put their water shortage contingency plans in place,” Keller said. “What we’ve seen so far has been positive, with no water-use increase or plateau.”
The water board’s Kremen added, “I hoped for more, but I’m not surprised. Why? Because it takes time for people to rip out their lawns. It’s not instantaneous.”
Santa Clara launched several conservation programs and Keller said that interest in them is promising and in August Valley Water received 360 applications for the landscape rebate program, 965 orders for water-efficient devices from its website (a new record high) and 230 water waste reports.
Santa Clara Valley Water’s 10 reservoirs were at over 85% capacity combined in April 2017 after a wet winter replenished supply. At the start of September 2021, the reservoirs are at 12.2% of capacity.
Exacerbating the issue, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered that the district drain Anderson Reservoir (pictured below), the county’s largest reservoir, for public safety. The reservoir is expected to be out of use for 10 years as the district completes a seismic retrofit.
Reservoirs across the state are at historically low levels, and this also impacts Santa Clara Valley Water, which typically imports more than half of its water into the county.
Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir and a linchpin in the State Water Project that stores and delivers water across California, is at 22% of capacity. Santa Clara Valley Water has an annual allotment of 100,000 acre-feet from the State Water Project, and while the district rarely receives its full allotment, this year it will only get 5,000 acre-feet, Keller said.
San Luis Reservoir, a part of the federal Central Valley Water Project, is at 13% of capacity. The district’s allocation of 152,000 acre-feet from the project was cut in May from an initial 55% to 25% of that amount for manufacturing and industrial purposes and zero percent for agriculture.
Keller said Valley Water requested additional water for public health and safety from the Central Valley Water Project. “Based on Reclamation’s calculation method our 25% allocation is 43,122 acre-feet,” Keller wrote in an email. “We will also receive, contingent on the ability to transport the water and environmental regulations, a public health and safety increment of 28,378 acre-feet.”
With reservoirs low and allocations reduced dramatically, Kremen said, “Santa Clara County that includes the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara and Palo Alto are probably the worst part of the state [in terms of water] other than way far northern California because of our low storage.”
While Valley Water took a big step in calling on residents to reduce water use in June, the measures could become more drastic in coming months for some customers.
Valley Water’s largest retailer is San Jose Water, a private utility with 1 million customers. It filed a proposal for a plan with state regulators that would require customers to reduce monthly water use by 15% from 2019 and pay $7.14 in surcharges for every unit of water they use above that amount.
San Jose Water spokesperson Liann Walborsky said the surcharge will only be implemented if it’s approved and if water use still isn’t meeting goals after all steps to encourage customers to conserve have been expended.
“It’s not a decision we take lightly,” said Walborsky, noting that the utility will assess the situation in coming weeks.
Kremen said people across the county need to take more steps to reduce water use. “We really have to conserve,” he said. “Rip out your lawns, stop washing your car … I know people don’t like that. It’s definitely not fun.”
Giving the Match.com dating site he founded in 1993 a nod, he added, “You have to mix dating and water conservation. Find some one to take a shower with.”