Mandatory water restrictions coming to Santa Clara County

In a major sign of California’s worsening drought, Santa Clara County’s largest water provider announced Monday that it is moving forward with plans to declare a water shortage emergency and to urge cities and water companies that serve 2 million residents in and around San Jose to impose mandatory water restrictions.

The move will be the first time since the historic drought of 2012 to 2016 that Santa Clara County residents will face mandatory restrictions as the county becomes the most populous area in California to impose such severe measures.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District, a public agency and water wholesaler based in San Jose, is seeking a 15% reduction in countywide water use from 2019 levels. That amounts to a 33% reduction from 2013 levels. By comparison, during the height of California’s last drought, the county cut water use 28% from 2013 levels.

“This is an emergency,” said Rick Callender, the district’s CEO. “Our water supplies are in serious jeopardy.”

Santa Clara County will become the second Bay Area county to impose widespread mandatory water restrictions. The Marin Municipal Water District on April 20 approved a plan to cut water use 40%. But other large Bay Area water agencies, including East Bay Municipal Utility District, Contra Costa Water District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, have requested voluntary conservation from their residents so far, saying that they have adequate water supplies in their reservoirs. But if next winter is dry, mandatory restrictions are likely there too.

To achieve the kind of cutbacks the Santa Clara Valley Water District says are needed, the agency is asking the dozen cities and private water companies across Silicon Valley to whom it provides water to pass rules limiting residents watering lawns and landscaping to no more than three days a week, prohibiting filling of swimming pools and enforcing other rules against water wasting, such as letting water run into streets.

CUPERTINO, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 7: The southern section of Stevens Creek Reservoir at Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, Calif., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

That could include the return of “water cops,” or code enforcement officers, who issue warnings or fines to people who break the rules. Many Bay Area cities still have water wasting ordinances on the books from the last drought, but California has no uniform statewide water wasting rules.

The district’s move also could prompt cities and private water companies to raise water rates, and to re-impose water allocations for each home, with penalties for overuse, as happened during the 2012-16 drought, as a way to hit conservation targets.

San Jose Water Company, which provides drinking water to 1 million people in San Jose, Saratoga, Campbell, and Los Gatos, said Monday it is still reviewing the district’s request, but that any new rules the company considers must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, which could take several months.

“We’ve typically followed the guidance provided by Valley Water,” said Liann Walborsky, a company spokeswoman. “But it’s going to take a little while.”

The district’s board is expected to approve the drought plan on Wednesday and ask Santa Clara County to also declare a local emergency. Because the water district does not have the legal authority to order cities and water companies to impose mandatory water restrictions, they are expected in the coming weeks and months to put in place measures to help the district hit its targets.

Callender said that a combination of events has aligned to create the water shortage.

First, the federal government reduced the district’s water allocations from the Delta after the Sierra Nevada snowpack came up short for the second winter in a row and largely melted in May. Locally, rainfall was only 41% of normal in San Jose this year. And Anderson Reservoir, the district’s largest, has been emptied for major earthquake repairs. With Anderson drained, the district’s 10 reservoirs on Monday were at just 15% of their capacity.

As a result, the district will have to rely heavily on pumping local groundwater this year and attempt to buy water from farm districts in other counties at high prices. It also has about a year’s supply of water stored at the Semitropic groundwater bank in Kern County.

CUPERTINO, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 7: The southern section of Stevens Creek Reservoir at Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, Calif., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

But if the drought continues into next year, with another dry winter, local groundwater levels could fall dangerously low, Callender said. That would result in some wells going dry, district officials warn, and the risk of the land sinking by a few inches, even a few feet. That phenomenon is known as subsidence, which can lead to cracked roads, underground pipes and gas lines.

“Valley Water will protect our groundwater resources by all reasonable means necessary,” Callender said, adding “every drop of water saved is a drop we can use in the future.”

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