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Water Woes

As fallout from California’s drought continues, Gov. Jerry Brown last week ordered a 25% mandatory reduction in water use by cities and towns. The cutbacks, and other mandates announced last week, are the strictest measures to combat the drought ever taken in the state, and go into effect immediately.

The governor’s executive order comes as the state moves into its fourth summer of drought. Although welcomed, this week’s rain and snow are considered a ‘spit in the ocean’ for any drought relief.

It was a year ago that Brown declared a State of Emergency, asking Californians to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20% - an effort that resulted in about a 10% reduction statewide.

In addition to saving water, Brown’s new executive order will increase enforcement to prevent wasteful water use, and invest in new technologies that will make California more drought resilient.

The $1 billion package will also replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments - direct the creation of a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with more water and energy efficient models - require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use - and prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used. A portion of the funds will be used for emergency food and water for suffering Valley towns.

Last week’s California Department of Water Resources manual survey found no snow at 6,800 feet in the Sierra Nevada. This was the first time in 75 years of early-April measurements that no snow was found at the same survey location.

Brown observed the survey which confirmed electronic readings showing the statewide snow-pack with less water content April 1 than any other April 1 since 1950.

Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said Californians can expect to receive almost no water from the meager snow-pack as it melts in the coming weeks.

Previous record low snow-packs were 25% of average, both in 1977, and last year. The latest survey puts the state at 5% of average.

“The survey underscores the severity of California’s drought,” Cowin said. “Water conservation must become a way of life during the worst drought in most Californians’ lifetimes.”

“We’re in a new era,” Brown said standing on a patch of brown grass near Lake Tahoe that is usually blanketed by up to five feet of snow this time of year.

“The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past. This historic drought demands unprecedented action,” Brown said.

Farmers and oil companies exempt

The reduction in water use does not apply to the $40 billion agricultural industry, except for the requirement that it report more information on its groundwater use.

The exclusion prompted some criticism.

Many feel leaving the agricultural community out of the mandatory cutbacks puts the burden unfairly on cities, counties, and individuals.

According to the Public Policy Institute, about nine million acres of farmland in the state are irrigated, representing about 80% of water used by people.

Other water observers feel that some farmers continue to drill deeper to pump groundwater at a rate that is unsustainable.

On-line Slate magazine writer Eric Holthaus wrote that “wasteful agriculture is literally sucking California dry.”

The California Farm Bureau counters the criticism, pointing to the loses already suffered by the industry.

“Growers have suffered enough, having had their water allocations cut by 50, 80, and 100%,” said bureau spokesman Dan Merkley.

Brown said farms in the state have already taken a big hit, with reduced water allocations and thousands of farm workers laid off.

Others are upset that Brown’s orders do not require oil producers to cut usage or temporarily stop the water intensive practice of hydraulic fracturing.

According to a recent CNN report, it was estimated that the state’s oil and gas industry uses more than two million gallons of fresh water a day to produce oil through well stimulation practices such as fracking, acidizing, and steam injection.

“Governor Brown is forcing ordinary Californians to shoulder the burden of the drought by cutting their personal water use, while giving the oil industry a continuing license to break the law and poison our water,” said Zack Malitz of environmental group Credo.

Mountain Area residents doing their share to conserve water

With respect to the 25% reduction, Hillview Water Co. officials are optimistic that the company’s 1,500 customers in Raymond, Coarsegold, and Oakhurst will respond positively to the conservation efforts.

“Last year when the governor asked for the 20% voluntary reduction in water use, the state average was about 10%, but our customers did better than that,” said Hillview General Manager Jim Foster. “System wide during January and February, our customers reduced their water use by 14.5%, and 21.3%, respectfully, from those same months a year ago.”

Foster said that even though the company currently has no problems with water quantity, it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be issues in the future if the state-wide crises continues.

Hillview’s Compliance Resource Officer Ralph Fairfield said the company is monitoring its wells and storage daily, and currently they are where they normally would be this time of year.

“We encourage all our customers to help us comply with the new mandate of 25% reduction in water use, and conserve water as much as they can,” Foster said.

Hillview customers are currently under Stage 2 water conservation measures, which limit outside watering to two days a week (even numbered addresses Tuesday and Saturday - odd numbered addresses Wednesday and Sunday), before dawn or after dusk. No washing of vehicles, boats, trailers, RVs, or patios is permitted.

“These voluntary measures will, hopefully, enable us to provide water to our customers,” Foster said. “ Should these steps prove insufficient, we may need to place further restrictions on our water delivery.”

Foster said company employees visit neighborhoods every day to make sure customers are watering on the right day, and that there is no over-watering taking place. The company also monitors billing summaries that show the meter readings of household water usage.

Customers not in compliance with the new restrictions will receive a verbal warning, but if there is continued abuse of water consumption, citations and fines up to $500 a day can be imposed, as well as having the water shut-off to excessive abusers.

Since most water companies make money based on the amount of water used by their customers, the governor has approved utility companies can raise rates to offset customers’ conservation efforts.

“We are currently reviewing our rates and do not see any major rate increases in the near future,” Foster said. “Possibly a 3 to 4 % increase that would not be realized any sooner than late to mid-summer.”

Fairfield said the company has recently added a few new customers due to wells going dry in the Mountain Area.

Emergency program for dry wells

A portion of funds from the drought package will be used for the California Disaster Assistance Act, administered by the State Office of Emergency Services. According to Jill Yaeger, Madera County Deputy Director of Environmental Health, funds will soon be available to install large water storage tanks for property owners whose wells have gone dry. Currently there are about 70 Valley properties on the list to receive tanks at an estimated cost of $4,000 each. Installations are expected to begin within 60 days.

For details of the program, homeowners can call Yaegar at (559) 675-7823.

Another program in the works - by the State Water Board - is for homeowners with dry wells. This program provides funds for qualified applicants to hook-up to a water company system such as Hillview. This program, funded through Community Development Block Grants, will be administered through the county planning division. For details of this program, call Hillview Water Co. at (559) 683-4322.

To read Brown’s complete Executive Order, go to c a.gov.

Learn easy ways to save water every day by visiting SaveOurWater.com. California’s efforts to deal with the effects of the drought can be found at drought.ca.gov.

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