Anderson Reservoir

The Anderson Reservoir in Morgan Hill, which serves Santa Clara County, is at only 3% capacity due to required seismic retrofitting to the Anderson Dam.

Gary Kremen has taken to comparing California’s drought conditions to a plane with a stalled engine: The vehicle is quickly losing altitude. At what point does the pilot radio for help?

Early last month, Kremen and other members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors pronounced a water shortage emergency for Santa Clara County and imposed mandatory water use reductions of 15% compared to 2019 levels. The county’s Board of Supervisors made a similar emergency declaration June 22.

“It’s actually not just problematic,” Kremen said Thursday during a virtual town hall hosted by State Assemblymember Marc Berman. “It’s a horrible situation. And we’re really worried.”

Kremen and fellow panelists painted a sobering picture for the 100 or so forum attendees: precipitation in much of the state this year has been half the annual average; the Anderson Reservoir in Morgan Hill requires seismic retrofitting and remains nearly empty; the federal government is limiting water allocations; and the cost of transporting water across the state keeps rising.

Provisional U.S. Geological Survey data indicates the 2020 water year (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30) will rank as the 13th-driest in 126 years for statewide precipitation and the fifth-driest in 121 years in terms of statewide runoff, according to panelist Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager and drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources.

The San Francisco Regional Water System, which serves 2.4 million residents of Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda counties, however, is faring better than much of the state, said panelist Tom Francis of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. The water system sources 85% of its water from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt stored in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The reservoir is currently 87% full, whereas much of the state reservoirs are at 50% capacity.

Panelists urged attendees to safeguard these valuable resources by cutting back on residential water use, which accounts for 55% of local consumption, according to Valley Water. They emphasized incentives like rebates available for installing low-flow water fixtures and for replacing grass lawns with landscaping requiring minimal irrigation.

Lifestyle changes – like eschewing a bathtub soak, which uses 40 gallons of water – make a difference, too, said panelist Robert Seeley, regional community affairs specialist for California Water Service.

He boasted of Cal Water education and conservation programs that helped the retailer’s Los Altos customers in 2020 surpass a per capita urban water reduction use goal of 20%; instead of consuming 185 gallons per day, each person consumed approximately 166 gallons per day last year.

Residents’ questions submitted prior to the forum inquired about the effect of increased residential density, but Berman discouraged allowing the drought to “exacerbate” the housing crisis.

“As we’ve heard today, there is enough water for current users, but we all need to use less water more efficiently,” he said.