Assuring a Wet Future for California

By Bob Hazard   |   September 14, 2021
Some 50 of 58 California counties are subject to an emergency drought declaration

Lack of potable water is a more serious problem than COVID-19. Without water the average person dies within three days. A horse can go five days without water; a camel 10 days; plants can survive two to three weeks. Without water, all life perishes.

Water makes up more than 70% of the Earth’s surface; the problem is that only 2.5% of it is fresh water, and less than 1% of that is fit for human consumption. More than half of the world’s population now experiences some form of water scarcity in any given year.

By 2030, the world could face a 40% shortfall in potable water supply. Changing climate patterns, rising temperatures and increased urbanization could lead to more than one-third of the world’s aquifers being in distress. Fortunately, there are solutions that could bring the supply and demand of water into balance.

Drought… and More Drought

Unless your name is Rip Van Winkle, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and you have been asleep for the last two decades, you are well aware that the current water outlook for the State of California, and a good part of the Western United States, is grim — rising temperatures; lack of snow and rainfall; historic lows in key reservoirs; scorched earth; wells going dry; water rationing; construction moratoriums; depleted aquifers; thirsty farmers; and endangered wildlife habitats.

There is little doubt that California has a serious water shortage problem. Since 1900, California has experienced 10 major droughts: 1917-21, 1922-26, 1928-37, 1943-51, 1959-62, 1976-77, 1987-92, 2007-09, 2011-17 and now 2020-21.

Does anyone believe drought won’t happen again?

Water Use and Cost in California

California uses an estimated 42 million acre-feet (AF) of water per year. An AF of water (326,000 gallons) is the amount of water it would take to cover a one-acre football field to a depth of 12 inches. One AF of water is roughly the amount of water a family of four in Montecito uses in a year.

Water is purchased by California’s 537 water districts and more than 500 cities in acre feet (AF) at prices ranging from $450 per AF to $3,200 per AF. Water is then sold to customers in units of Hundred Cubic Feet (HCF). One HCF of water is equivalent to 748 gallons. Water sold by the Montecito Water District (MWD) to its residential users in Montecito and Summerland costs $6.75 per HCF for the first nine HCF used; $11.46 per AF for the next 10 to 35 HCF used, and $12.66 for each HCFused over 36.

The average U.S. family of four used 16.3 HCF of water per month and spent $72.93 in 2019, equating to $4.50 per HCF. Water in Montecito, like gasoline, is 80% more expensive than the U.S. average. The same use of 16.3 HCF of water purchased in Montecito would cost $8.65 per HCF, almost double the average cost in the U.S., but competitive with neighboring districts.

If our wells run dry, MWD users would be lining up at Costco to buy Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring water at $0.98 per gallon. An HCF of water purchased at Costco would cost MWD buyers $733 per HCF, which makes MWD water a bargain.

50% of California Water Use is for Environmental: 21 million AFY

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, water use in California is shared across three main sectors. Some 50% of California’s water is devoted to environmental uses, mainly “wild and scenic” rivers along the Northern California coast; recreational stream recharge; maintenance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta; wetland management; wildlife preserves; and urban environmental programs.

40% of California Water is for Agricultural Use: 16.8 million AFY

California water irrigates some nine million acres of farmland that produce 99% of all U.S. almonds, walnuts, and pistachios; nearly 95% of all broccoli and strawberries; 90% of all grapes and tomatoes; and 74% of all lettuce. Farms and dairies rely largely on groundwater wells.

For the over-drafted aquifers in the Central Valley/San Joaquin Valley, the requirement to manage groundwater sustainably has heightened interest in expanding water supplies and underground storage. Aquifers are still being over-pumped, and land is sinking.

Agriculture products in California generated some $50 billion in sales in 2018. Obviously, securing a reliable water supply, independent of rainfall for agriculture is a high priority.

10% of California Water is for Urban Use: 4.2 million AFY

Urban water use includes household use (drinking, toilets, showers, dishwashers, laundry) and outside use for landscaping, car washing, businesses and industrial processes. Some 50% of urban water use in California is used for landscaping. It is worth noting that only 5% of total California water use of 42 million AFY is for landscaping, and yet landscaping has become the ultimate water villain for the governor, the mainstream media, and the environmental community.

The good news is that urban water use has been falling even as the urban population grows. Per capita urban water use has declined significantly from 231 gallons per day in 1990 to 180 gallons per day in 2010, reflecting greater environmental consciousness, mandatory installation of water-saving technologies like low-flow toilets and shower heads, drip irrigation, less grass (but more cannibals), and other water conservation techniques.

In 2015, per capita California urban water use fell again to 146 gallons per day in response to drought-related conservation mandates. Per capita use has since rebounded slightly, but a new state law will require further long-term reductions.

The State Water Project: SWP

SWP was designed to deliver nearly 4.2 million AF of water per year to California farms, homes, and industry with some 30% of SWP water used for irrigation, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, and about 70% used for residential, municipal, and industrial use.

SWP stretches 705 miles southward from Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, and Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir in California, to transport rain and melted snowpack from the High Sierras to Northern, Central, and Southern California. The SWP system includes 29 dams, 18 pumping plants, five hydroelectric power plants and 600 miles of canals and pipelines. Designed and constructed when California had 20 million residents, the SWP is now expected to serve some 40 million residents. The predictable result is a system that is chronically over-promised and under-delivered.

Most of its reservoirs, pumps, and pipelines were constructed 60 years ago and are aging badly. Major problems include reservoirs filling with excessive silt; undersized and aging pipes; inefficient pumps; required releases for endangered fish; and massive losses of water due to surface evaporation and leaks. SWP is also the No. 1 user of electrical energy in all of California.

SWP has 29 long-term water supply contractors, dominated by the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people through a consortium of 26 cities and water districts in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. Metropolitan contracts for about 2 million AFY from SWP and 1.35 million AFY from the Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA), but actual delivery amounts depend upon rainfall and regulatory conditions. 

On August 18, 2021, the Metropolitan Water District, for the first time in seven years, issued an official supply alert, noting the “perfect storm” of both a drought in the High Sierras and a drought in the Colorado River basin.

The Montecito Water District (MWD) has an SWP allotment of 3,300 AFY (compared to Metropolitan’s 2 million AFY). Last year, the MWD allotment of SWP water was reduced to 5% or 165 AFY, a dribble in a drought. The SWP allotment in 2021-2022 for Montecito is anticipated to be zero.

Historic Drought on the Colorado River

The 1,450-mile Colorado River is a lifeline for drinking water for 40 million people in eight states; irrigating 5.5 million acres of farmland; and supporting 16 million jobs.

On August 17, the federal government declared the first-ever shortage of water in the Colorado River system. The water level at Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s biggest reservoir, now stands at 35% of capacity, its lowest level since 1937. The second biggest reservoir, Lake Powell, stands at just 33% of capacity, its lowest level on record since it was first filled more than 50 years ago.

Arizona will see an 18% cut in 2022 deliveries of promised Colorado River water. Nevada will see its allocations decreased by 7%. Mexico will receive 5% less water. California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have senior rights, and for now, will not see substantial cuts.

California’s Response to Water Warnings

On July 8, 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked all Californians to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15%. He also, added five more counties, including Santa Barbara County, to his list of 50 out of 58 counties subject to an emergency drought proclamation. On July 13, the Board of Supervisors for Santa Barbara County proclaimed a local water emergency.

In mid-August the City of Glendale in Southern California imposed mandatory conservation requirements for its residents because of shrinking reservoirs, limiting landscaping water to three days a week for no more than 10 minutes per day. A drought surcharge of $0.30 per HCF has been added to every customer bill.

On August 13, Mendocino, a foggy coastal hamlet in northern California without a municipal water system, had its wells run dry. Underground aquifers were depleted from overextraction. In a community where redwoods meet the sea, businesses closed, tourists and residents were directed to portable toilets and tankers began hauling in water from 40 miles away.

Moving Forward . . .

Business as usual is not an option. In a world where change is measured in nanoseconds, it is unacceptable for our elected leaders to delay development of bold and imaginative plans for conservation and for increasing the supply of reliable water that is not dependent of rainfall. 

There is a cost to taking bold actions, but there is a far greater cost for 20 years of wishful thinking, where leaders “pray for rain.”

Technological solutions are staring us right in the face.

About This Series

This is a five-part series, with next week featuring “Part II: Will Montecito Run Out of Water?”

Editor’s Note: This series on water will run for the next five weeks, with topics such as whether Montecito will run out of water, desalination, committing to green living, and water independence


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