This is sooooo California.
The same day the state Water Resources Control Board announced it would continue the state’s drought emergency, so much water had to be let out of Lake Oroville that it broke the spillway.
OK, so those optics were a bit confusing.
But Water Resources was absolutely right to keep us mindful of the drought, which is still a big, big problem for areas like Santa Barbara, missed by most of the recent storms, and parts of Tulare County, where residents have relied on bottled water for several years now.
Not to mention flooding in the Tahoe area as warm rains melt the snowpack.
We are not past the drought.
In fact, I would argue that California is never “past” drought.
Our natural climate is drought, interspersed with brief periods of wetness.
Which is why I was highly disappointed with the City of Bakersfield’s conservation target of a piddling 9 percent.
You may not remember, but back in June, Water Resources relaxed its mandatory conservation targets and allowed water suppliers to set their own targets based on their unique water supply portfolios and demand.
Given Bakersfield’s wildly out-of-whack water use (nearly double the residential gallons per person daily of the state average) and its lack of existing conservation efforts, in 2015 the state saddled us with a mandatory conservation target of 36 percent compared to 2013 usage.
We never hit that high note, but residents did tighten their water belts by between an average 15 percent and 25 percent, depending on the month.
So, when the state said, “OK, figure out your own conservation rate,” I would have thought 15 percent, at a minimum.
But the state gave water suppliers a formula with some hypotheticals and that gave the city the perfect opportunity for a lot of hand waving that resulted in the “very conservative” conservation target of 9 percent.
The state’s formula seemed pretty straightforward to me:
Assume the next three years are going to be as dry as the last were in terms of water supply.
Then subtract your demand from that supply.
Whatever supply you can’t meet, boom, there’s your conservation target.
But the state let suppliers start that formula from water on hand in June 2016, a relatively wet year compared to 2015, 2014 and 2013.
What that meant in Bakersfield’s case was that it could add a water supply stored in Isabella Lake of nearly 40,000 acre-feet, which it knew in June 2016 it would have that year.
As far as numbers go, I thought that was more than a bit fudgey since the city’s water stored in Isabella was only 9,000 acre-feet at the end of 2013; 8,100 acre-feet at the end of 2014; and only 869 acre-feet at the end of 2015.
Assuming we're always going to get enough water to have a 40,000-acre-foot buffer is denying reality. (Aside from that, there were a number of legal entanglements on the 40,000 acre-feet city Water Resource Manager Art Chianello was using, but that's a whole other story.)
If the object of the state’s exercise was to plan for the worst, why not use those much drier years?
“We did assume the worst case,” Chianello said. “Now we have this extra water up there because we’re purposely storing it to plan for a dry future. It’s really reasonable.”
He and I went round and round and round on the issue of worst-case scenarios and reasonable conservation.
But the bottom line, I believe, is Bakersfield continues to whistle past the watery graveyard (so to speak) mostly because we can always make up a shortfall with groundwater, our single largest water supply.
Two problems with that.
No. 1: Cal Water’s northeast treatment plant, which serves about 20,000 people, nearly ran out of water in summer 2015.
That plant relies on the city’s supply of Kern River water.
The city ran out that year and Cal Water had to do some fast deal-making with Kern Delta Water District and Kern County Water Agency to keep toilets and taps from going dry.
So, I think it’s imperative for the city to use our absolute worst drought year and plan backward from there to make sure those residents never come that close to going dry again.
No. 2: SGMA.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will be a factor in how much the city can pump in the future.
Once a “groundwater sustainability plan,” or GSP, is in place and wells are being monitored, no amount of hand-waving and fudgey numbers will matter if water tables start to drop.
One of the best ways to guard against both those problems is a consistent, sustained effort toward conservation.
And yes, that means even during a massive water year like this.
Using water wisely simply needs to become a way of life for all of us.