Drought: How bad this time? 

Drought is back — at least the threat of it — in California. Despite occasional storms, this winter was the fourth driest on record and delivered far less than the usual wet-season rainfall. Those of us residing in Northern California during the previous drought in the early ’90s retain vivid memories of our brown lawns, short showers and postponed flushing.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission warned its 2.4 million Bay Area customers last week that mandatory water rationing might be imposed as early as this summer if we do not voluntarily cut our consumption by 10 percent right now.

All the usual ominous signs are already in place. The Sierra snowpack — source of 65 percent of the water supplying San Francisco, the Peninsula and Silicon Valley — is less than half of normal. The SFPUC’s 117 billion-gallon Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is only 27 percent full.

Most of California’s major water providers joined SFPUC in issuing the first call for immediate water conservation, which now seems like an almost obligatory overture to the now-familiar inconveniences of cyclical drought in the western U.S.

However, there are some worrisome differences this time around. For one thing, California already made major strides in reducing its water use, so another new round of significant cutbacks could be harder to achieve. Impressively, the state’s total annual water consumption has held steady since 1970, even while population more than doubled to some 37 million.

This means water use is less than half of what it was 37 years ago. But with the state’s population on track to reach 55 million by 2050, overall water demand is going nowhere but up.

Meanwhile, even those experts remaining unconvinced that man-made pollution contributes greatly to long-term climate changes now generally agree that the Earth seems to be entering oneof its recurrent warming cycles. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this month presented detailed projections from hundreds of scientists about the harmful local effects of even mild global warming.

Much of California and the West have a predominantly dry climate. Our water supply relies heavily on an annually replenished snowpack and rivers. But both of these sources would shrink considerably as a result of even a few degrees of long-term temperature increase. Salt water from rising ocean levels could contaminate the crucial Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water supply.

Remedies suggested range from building more dams to spending billions on consumer rebates for installation of water-saving low-flow toilets, shower heads and washing machines. Large-scale measures with potential promise include greatly increased use of recycled water for irrigation, and improved coordination of reservoir water releases in response to weather conditions.

As SFPUC general manager Susan Leal put it, Californians will really need to become accustomed to drought-time water habits for the long term.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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