San Diego County Water Authority says drought is over; but will State go along?



In the midst of what may be the wettest year on record in California, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) last week January 26 declared an end to drought conditions in the region. Question is, will the State of California go along? Or does the State prefer to maintain a permanent “state of emergency”?

Record-setting winter precipitation in the Northern Sierras, coupled with heavy local rainfall and a significant snowpack in the upper Colorado River basin, prompted the SDCWA action last week. The Board resolution called on Governor Jerry Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board to rescind the statewide emergency water-use regulation for areas of California that are no longer in drought conditions.

As of January 23, San Diego’s official rainfall measurement station at Lindbergh Field had recorded 172 percent of average rainfall since the start of the water year on October 1. More importantly, the water content of snow in the Sierra Nevada, a prime water source for much of the state, was 193% of average as of January 23. Meanwhile, snowpack levels were at 161 percent of average in the upper basin of the Colorado River.

The Hidden Meadows News talked to Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, which serves the Hidden Meadows community to get his take on the question of drought/no drought.

Arant, who is the district’s representative to the SDCWA board said, “I wholeheartedly supported and voted for the resolution stating that the drought is over. It is consistent with the message we conveyed earlier to the State Water Resources Control Board and letter we wrote to the governor, urging him to direct to State Water Resources Control Board to let the regulations expire and to withdraw his emergency proclamation of January of 2015 (Executive Order B-29-15).”

Arant continued, “For those of us who watch the snowpack and rainfall numbers on a regular basis we are headed for what could be the wettest year on record—better than 1982-83, the wettest year they have on record at the state. Even if everything stopped today and we received no more rainfall and snowpack we are in an above normal year. The Colorado River basin, which is one of our suppliers, is 160% above normal.”

Arant calls it “surreal that the state would hold onto a drought emergency regulation while the governor has proclaimed flood disasters in six or seven counties, including San Diego. It’s hard to maintain credibility with the water consuming public that they are still saying there is a drought emergency.”

Signs from Sacramento are that the state board may resist ending the emergency regulations. Water districts have been given notice that the at the State Water Resources Control Board will hold a hearing on this issue on February 8 in Sacramento. “The letter tells us the board will be considering a modification and extension of the drought regulation,” said Arant. “The initial indication is that they are not going to let the regulations expire. One option they could have is to focus the regulations on areas of the state that are still in drought conditions.”

Arant noted that Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board, defines drought as being any part of the state that is undersupplied. “California is a big state, so there is always a possibility that there will be areas that have below rainfall but that doesn’t mean the whole state is in in a drought,” he said. “Whenever there is a fire in two or three counties, the governor doesn’t call for a statewide emergency. We think they need to be a little more surgical in how they deal with the drought in California.”

The end of the San Diego drought won’t materially affect Hidden Meadows people or other customers of the Valley Center-based district at all.

This is because the last time the state modified emergency regulation to a water supply “stress test” methodology that took actual levels of local supply reliability into account.

“Because of the variety of water supplies that we members of the Water Authority have, such as the Carlsbad desalination plant, we have one hundred percent to meet all of our needs for the next three years. So for now our mandated reduction is zero,” said Arant.

The San Diego region has invested about $3.5 billion over the past three decades to increase regional water supply reliability, including seawater desalination, additional water storage capacity and upgraded conveyance systems.

If that’s the case, why does Arant care or the other districts care if the State doesn’t end the water emergency? “While it doesn’t affect us, what it does affect, and the point I will make to the state board on the 8h, is that for the State to hold that there is an emergency, hurts the credibility of the state and the credibility of the water district with its customers,” said Arant. “If we are saying there is a drought emergency when there is no emergency, then when I ask my customers to respond the next time there is a real drought emergency, they won’t believe us and understandably won’t respond. They will say ‘You guys are crazy!’ It’s an issue of credibility and it’s something we keep trying to make the State understand. They seem focused on maintaining an emergency so they can control on how we deliver our water in our systems.”

Of course, it’s hard to fight an executive order of the governor. Nevertheless, Arant and others are making the point that what the State seems to want is a long-term definition of “drought” that will always leave the State in a drought. “If you do you will have long-term ramifications for business. You have to be careful how you describe your water situation.”

The State’s response, says Arant, has been, “We don’t know what’s going to happen for the rest of this water year, we want to keep an air of emergency so water consumers don’t go back to their old ways.”

Arant points out that although mandatory water conservation has been gone in the Valley Center Municipal Water District since 2016 that water consumption is still down 30% over the year before.

“We think in VC and in Hidden Meadows and in the county that the water efficiency measures that we asked people to incorporate into their lifestyles they have incorporated. It’s a limited resource. It’s a new ethic among our customers and it’s built into what people do now. A lot of people have changed their landscaping, brought in artificial turf to save water. We will always encourage people to conserve by using water efficiently, avoiding waste. But we can’t say there is a water emergency when you see flooding or when some reservoirs are releasing water to make up for the spring melt that will come in March and April.”

Like many water executives, Arant advocates building more water storage in the state. California hasn’t built a state-funded dam in more than 30 years. Currently two proposed reservoirs are being studied: the Sites Reservoir, north of Sacramento in Colusa County and the Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River west of Auberry, California in the Sierra foothills.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to use the $2.7 billion from the 2014 Prop. 1 water bond,” said Arant. Although the bond was authorized, the State still is developing regulations on how the money will be spent. “Hopefully in the next two to three years we will see some action on those projects. We have such limited storage in the state that when we have a lot of rainfall and snowpack like we are right now that a lot of it is lost to the ocean.

“When we hear that we need to save water, the answer is that we aren’t saving it because most of the water that comes in a high-water year is lost to the ocean,” said Arant. “It would be nice to be able to have another bit of storage. We only have enough storage in the state to get us through a couple of years. It would be great to add another 4-5 million acre feet to the system. We need ways to create links to use excess water to replenish the ground water basins. When that water runs out to the ocean it is lost. If we could capture and control it  and restore it to our groundwater basins.”

Bottom line, Arant believes that the State has grasped power in an emergency that it is now very loathe to relinquish. “As we know how government works, when they have control they are very reluctant to give it back. Even though it is obvious to anyone that the drought is over they are reluctant to let it go.”