A painful reckoning with drought

South­land wa­ter sup­plier is set to cut de­liv­er­ies to cities and dis­tricts by 15% to save dwin­dling re­serves.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Bet­tina Box­all

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter whole­saler Tues­day is poised to im­pose a 15% cut in wa­ter de­liv­er­ies to lo­cal cities and wa­ter dis­tricts, a move that would bol­ster Gov. Jerry Brown’s ag­gres­sive statewide con­ser­va­tion ef­fort in the fourth year of wither­ing drought.

A com­mit­tee of the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia rec­om­mended the re­duc­tion Mon­day, which would come with penal­ties that would sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease wa­ter costs for agen­cies that de­mand more de­liv­er­ies than they are al­lo­cated. The full MWD board is ex­pected to ap­prove the plan Tues­day.

The MWD cus­tom­ar­ily pro­vides about half the South­land’s wa­ter sup­plies, and this would mark only the fourth time it has cut whole­sale sup­plies for its 26 mem­ber agen­cies.

Some com­mit­tee mem­bers pushed for a deeper cut of 20% to pre­serve Metropoli­tan’s dwin­dling re­serves. But they lost to a ma­jor­ity who ar­gued that it would be dif­fi­cult enough for cities and lo­cal wa­ter dis­tricts to cope with a 15% loss of MWD sup­plies.

“Rep­re­sent­ing L.A., I don’t think we could hit [20%], and we’d get fined,” said board mem­ber Paul Koretz, a city coun­cil­man from Los An­ge­les, where res­i­dents have al­ready re­duced us­age by 10% in re­cent years.

But Keith Lewinger, a board mem­ber from the San Diego County Wa­ter Author­ity, said the staff was mak­ing risky as­sump­tions about MWD’s abil­ity to sup­ple­ment its wa­ter sup­ply this year.

With­out a 20% re­duc­tion, he said, “I’m con­cerned we’re go­ing to de­plete our sav­ings ac­count to a danger­ous level.”

The move comes as one of the most se­vere droughts in mod­ern Cal­i­for­nia his­tory per­sists. Ir­ri­ga­tion de­liv­er­ies have been slashed and farm­ers ex­pect to idle more than 500,000 acres of crop­land this year. Ground­wa­ter lev­els in parts of the San Joaquin Val­ley have sunk to record lows as grow­ers drill more and deeper wells. Some small com­mu­ni­ties de­pen­dent on lo­cal sources have run out of wa­ter.

Although ma­jor reser-

voirs in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia hold more wa­ter than they did a year ago, the Sierra Ne­vada snow­pack that nor­mally pro­vides the state with about a third of its wa­ter sup­ply hit a record low for April 1.

Metropoli­tan, which has a 37-mem­ber board, sells wa­ter im­ported from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Colorado River to cities and re­gional agen­cies that in turn sup­ply hun­dreds of lo­cal dis­tricts that pro­vide wa­ter to res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial cus­tomers.

The MWD re­duc­tions will take the form of al­lo­ca­tions. Mem­ber agen­cies that need more than their al­lot­ment will have to pay puni­tive sur­charges that would make the ad­di­tional wa­ter as much as four times more ex­pen­sive than the base cost.

Although the ra­tioning is in­tended to re­duce MWD de­liv­er­ies by 15% over­all, that will not trans­late into the same level of cut­backs for each dis­trict. Rather, in­di­vid­ual al­lo­ca­tions will be made ac­cord­ing to a com­pli­cated for­mula.

A 15% drop in de­liv­er­ies would con­serve about 300,000 acre-feet of wa­ter, slow­ing the draw­down of Metropoli­tan’s dwin­dling re­serves. One acre-foot of wa­ter is nearly 326,000 gal­lons, or enough to sup­ply two house­holds for one year.

MWD be­gan the drought in 2012 with record amounts of wa­ter stored in ground­wa­ter banks and re­gional reser­voirs. By July 1, when the re­duc­tions would take ef­fect, staff projects those re­serves will have fallen from 2.7 mil­lion acre-feet to slightly more than 1 mil­lion acrefeet.

De­spite mem­bers who ad­vo­cated a steeper cut­back, oth­ers on the Wa­ter Plan­ning and Stew­ard­ship Com­mit­tee said 15% was a good bal­ance. “If we take too much too fast … it can have a bru­tal im­pact,” said Larry Dick of the Mu­nic­i­pal Wa­ter Dis­trict of Or­ange County.

Metropoli­tan was pre­par­ing a ra­tioning pro­gram well be­fore Brown is­sued a his­toric ex­ec­u­tive or­der April 1 that re­quires Cal­i­for­ni­ans to chop ur­ban wa­ter use 25% com­pared with 2013 lev­els.

Jef­frey Kightlinger, MWD’s gen­eral manager, said the al­lo­ca­tion plan com­ple­ments Brown’s ac­tion, which will have a more di­rect ef­fect on lo­cal agen­cies. The MWD cuts will give lo­cal dis­tricts more ammunition to re­duce de­mand so they avoid the penalty sur­charges.

Metropoli­tan has trimmed de­liv­er­ies sev­eral times in pre­vi­ous droughts — 10% in 1977, 17% in 1991 and 10% in 2009-10. In each in­stance, MWD’s mem­ber agen­cies have reined in use enough to avoid fi­nan­cial penal­ties.

But of­fi­cials pre­dict it will be tougher this time to at­tain the nec­es­sary wa­ter sav­ings to avoid sur­charges, given that many South­land cities have sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced their use in re­cent years.

“It’s go­ing to be a real chal­lenge,” said board mem­ber Don Calkins of Ana­heim.

In ad­di­tion to re­serves, Metropoli­tan is ex­pect­ing full de­liv­er­ies from the Colorado River this year and will get 20% of its re­quested amounts from the State Wa­ter Project, com­pared with 5% last year. The agency also is ramp­ing up a long-term pro­gram un­der which grow­ers in the Palo Verde Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict in southeast Cal­i­for­nia idle land and sell the con­served wa­ter to Metropoli­tan.

But Metropoli­tan’s plans to buy as much as 100,000 acre-feet of wa­ter from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers have been frus­trated by a lack of sell­ers, forc­ing MWD to shop for sup­plies in the Colorado River basin.

Although Kightlinger said he thought a 15% de­liv­ery re­duc­tion would be ad­e­quate, the staff will re­view wa­ter de­mand and sup­ply ev­ery month. If con­di­tions worsen, the board could make ad­di­tional cuts.

Say­ing the public doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate the sever­ity of Brown’s or­der, some board mem­bers called for Metropoli­tan to step up public out­reach.

“Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand what they’re go­ing to have to do in the fu­ture,” said Rus­sell Le­fevre of Tor­rance.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

A LAND­SCAPER wa­ters a Bev­erly Hills yard. Gov. Jerry Brown is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der this month re­quir­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans to re­duce ur­ban wa­ter use by 25%.

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