Water use continues as normal despite California drought 

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California is still in the throes of an epic drought. But Bay Area water users are running taps, using hoses and watering gardens as usual, prompting warnings that The City is edging closer to mandatory water rationing in the coming months.

Water use by Bay Area homes and businesses is at or above normal levels this year despite the ongoing dry spell and pleas from officials to conserve water, according to San Francisco Public Utilities Commission records.

And if this trend continues into the summer months — when water usage hits its peak — there is a very real possibility of officials declaring mandatory water-use restrictions in The City for the first time in more than 20 years.

That would mean an end to watering outdoor plants, and it would put all water customers — including homes and businesses — on a strict limit based on the prior year’s consumption. Anyone exceeding the limit would pay higher water bills and, in some cases, fines.

Californians were first told to use less water beginning in January, when the bone-dry winter was at its driest.

The SFPUC asked its 2.6 million customers in San Francisco, San Jose and the Peninsula to cut water use by 10 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown went even further and asked homes and businesses to reduce water use by 20 percent.

That hasn’t happened. In fact, water use has increased, according to records.

On average, the SFPUC has delivered more water than it did last year — when no conservation was requested.

The 10 percent conservation goal was met only six times over the past 18 weeks, according to the SFPUC.

Water deliveries exceeded last year’s usage in six of those weeks, with water usage at or above the SFPUC’s five-year average in 10 of those weeks, according to water usage records that are updated weekly.

SFPUC reservoirs are currently at 67 percent of capacity. Hydrologists will next assess supply levels and projected demand for the rest of the year June 15.

At that time, if cutting water use by 10 percent for the rest of the year is judged inadequate to ensure sufficient water reserves, officials could declare mandatory water-use restrictions for the first time since the 1989-92 drought, SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue said.

Mandatory water rationing is a “definite possibility,” he said. “We have not been hitting our [conservation] targets … we need people to start conserving.”

Daily water use ranges from as low as 170 million gallons a day in the winter to 270 million gallons a day in the summer. The SFPUC is trying to cut water use to an average of 209 million gallons a day.

This month, the SFPUC asked its wholesale customers — including the ones in Palo Alto, San Jose and the East Bay — to heed Brown’s proclamation to stop washing driveways and sidewalks with drinking water, and to cut watering gardens to twice a week.

Some of those customers have had to rely more heavily on SFPUC water since the State Water Project stopped delivering water in January, said Ellen Levin, deputy manager for water at the SFPUC.

Snowpack in the Hetch Hetchy watershed, a good indicator of water supplies to come, is at 22 percent of normal, Levin said Tuesday, slightly above levels in the drought of 1976-77.

That means California is “still in a severe drought,” SFPUC Commissioner Anson Moran said. “It’s a statewide problem, and conservation is going to be incredibly important."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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