At a meeting on June 9, the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Members voted unanimously to declare a water shortage emergency for the county, including a mandatory 15% reduction in water use compared to past restrictions put in place in 2019.
The declaration comes amid a record drought that has gripped California and the inopportune timing of the as ordered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission due to seismic safety concerns.
The drought is deemed as severe as one in 1977, leaving water managers around the state scrambling to secure imported water supplies to bolster dwindling groundwater and reservoir levels. In May, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought state of emergency for 41 of the state’s 58 counties, not including Santa Clara, which has the second to worst drought condition rating. However, the draining of Anderson Dam puts Santa Clara County in especially dire straits. So Valley Water officials are hoping that the county will be added to the state’s list, which could help it secure more imported water.
“We’re having trouble buying water on the open market because everyone else is buying it at the same time,” said Valley Water Board Vice-Chairperson Gary Kremen at a June 7 press conference. “Prices are about 10 times what they were two years ago.”
At the Board meeting, Valley Water officials explained that the 15% mandatory water reduction is designed to target outdoor water usage, particularly for maintaining lawns and ornamental landscaping. Public health uses of water such as cooking, drinking and bathing should continue though not wastefully. Concerns were raised by members of the public who said that many county residents are already engaging in conservation measures based on the 2019 restrictions and that further use reductions would be onerous. Others pointed out that water conservation behaviors are far from pervasive among residents, and much more should be done.
Although Valley Water officials emphasized that the restrictions primarily target outdoor use, it’s unclear how the measure will be implemented and enforced. As stated at the meeting, the plan is for the agency to work with water retailers to come up with a fair and effective way of implementing the restrictions. Valley Water is also calling on Santa Clara County to issue a similar emergency declaration.
Beginning July 1, Valley Water’s lawn to low-water-use garden conversion will increase to up to $3,000 for residential applications.
The impacts of the drought could extend far beyond mere inconveniences. Valley Water’s supply comes from a mix of local water supplies, recycled and imported. Over 50% is imported and is used to supplement drinking water treatment supplies and groundwater basins, according to Valley Water COO Aaron Baker, who spoke at the Board hearing.
“The imported water we use comes from the state’s snowpack, particularly from the Northern Sierra, which has dwindled to 5% of average this spring, and the snowpack is currently 0% of the average for all of California,” Baker said. “This means that the amount of imported water we may receive this year is in jeopardy and highly uncertain.”
Loss of groundwater can cause permanent land subsidence in the county, leading to infrastructure damage, increased risk of saltwater intrusion and flooding compounded by sea-level rise.
Rising temperatures due to climate change are expected to put more strain on water supplies in the coming years.
“If this goes on next year — when it will be not very bad, which we are right now — it will be dire with a capital D,” said Kremen.