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It’s raining, but a tough past year keeps drought-watchers wary

on October 14, 2009

For water carriers in a precipitation-finicky state such as California, a stormy day like Tuesday can save or deceive. In a dry year, heavy rain elicits hope of avoiding droughts and tough water-saving decisions.  But the rain doesn’t make promises, and that’s how the East Bay Municipal Utility District got caught in a bind in 2008.

Last year started out promisingly by EBMUD standards. Heavy winter rain meant nearly full reservoirs and dense snowpack. It appeared the agency, which supplies water to much of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, had survived 2007, one of the area’s driest years in recent history. Customers had complied with a voluntary rationing program and the summer had been cool. As spring 2008 approached, it seemed the district was in the clear for the coming year, as the formal water calendar marks it–from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2009.

But the rain this time had deceived.

“Nobody was assuming we were going to have a drought,” EBMUD Board of Directors member Katy Foulkes said in interview recently, looking back on a season that surprised water experts and perplexed many bill-payers.  “We fully expected to have rain in March, then April and then May. But nothing happened.”

Water board members get monthly precipitation storage and summer outlook reports, but in California these reports are notoriously hard to plan by. So it wasn’t until late April that the board received the bad news. Spring 2008 would be one of the driest springs in the district’s recorded history. The district’s water supply was precipitously low and about to fall below the drought threshold of 500,000 acre-feet, or 163 billion gallons.

With the hot summer (when water usage reaches its peak) just around the corner, and without a detailed drought policy in place, EBMUD staffers crunched numbers quickly to deliver the board conservation need figures, a drought budget, and rate structure recommendation. The goal for the next year: a 15 percent overall consumption reduction based on average water usage over the past three years.

The staff recommended that cutbacks vary among customer classes. Industrial: 5 percent. Irrigators: 30 percent. Single-family homes: 19 percent unless fewer than 100 gallons of water a day were used. That exemption, which applied to all residences and excluded qualifiers from drought rate increases, was the first in the district’s drought policy history, said EBMUD Director John Coleman.

EBMUD anticipated $48 million in revenue loss from decreased usage and $5 million in un-budgeted drought-related costs like pipe repairs, computer programming, customer service and public awareness campaigns. Which meant that along with mandatory conservation came a 10 percent rate increase for all customers and a $2 drought surcharge, a fee for every 748 gallons of water a customer used above his or her individual allocation.

Residents throughout the district objected to the 19 percent required cutback and 10 percent rate increases. Patrick Dundon, one of the many customers who sent letters and emails to the board, wrote that the cutbacks were unfair to single-family residential customers who had already been conserving.

“I personally think they should allow people a certain number of gallons,” Dundon said recently. “I think that would be fair. But they chose to do the other thing. It’s water, the next big war.”

Dundon said that he still thinks the drought policy should have been different. But he said he also found that he was able to save a lot more than he thought. Dundon, for example, used the water he runs every morning for 20 seconds, before he makes his tea, to water his flowers instead of letting it run down the drain, he said.

The board considered a few alternatives, including even higher rate increases and surcharges and more drastic rate differences between usage tiers.  But ultimately, they went with the across-the-board mandatory conservation, surcharges, and the recommended rate increases.

“We had division on our board about mandatory conservation,” said EBMUD board member Andy Katz.  “Many of our customers were treated unfairly during rationing.”

But after a short deliberation, in May 2008, the board passed the allocation requirements and corresponding rate policy 6-0.

“In order to have any effect at all, it was imperative that we set rates immediately,” Foulkes said. “So we went with the staff recommendation. We didn’t have the luxury to be thoughtful. If I had had a chance to think about it longer, I would have thought about it more.”

Director John Coleman said that 93 percent of EBMUD’s revenue comes from single-family homes, and that shifting the numbers would have meant a few users would subsidize the rest. Also, he said, the policy included an allocation appeals process – and 90 percent of the 14,700 appeals were granted.

While some of the board members disagree about whether the 2008-2009 Drought Management Plan was fair, they all agree it was a success. The district conserved 13 percent and rebounded from the drought. According to EBMUD water data reports, storage supply currently covers around 600,000 acre-feet – more than the 10-year average, Coleman said. As a result, mandatory rationing was lifted and rates were reduced on July 1.

EBMUD continues to encourage voluntary conservation, as does the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, The Contra Costa Water District, and the Dublin San Ramon Services District, to prevent a mandatory water restriction like the ones still enforced in the Santa Clara Valley and North Bay.

“One of the reasons EBMUD is better off is because it’s the third year we have been asking for cuts,” Coleman said.

The two biggest issues facing North Oakland now, said board member Andy Katz, are protecting the region’s current water rights – threatened, he said, by Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta legislation in the state Legislature – and increasing the district’s water supply to lessen the blow of future dry years.

While EBMUD lobbyist Randele Kanouse fights in Sacramento to safeguard the district’s water rights in what Kanouse called “the most important water bill I have seen in my career of 30 years,” the EBMUD board is working on several projects that will increase the district’s water supply, including a significant long-term plan called the Water Supply Management Program 2040.

The program, a revision and extension of a plan passed in 1993, aims to increase the district’s water conservation, recycling, and ground water storage in what Katz described as “a controversial way”: expanding the Pardee Reservoir at the cost of flooding several miles of the Mokelumne River basin, a wildlife and recreation refuge.

The Freeport Water Project, a part of the 2040 plan, includes building new pipelines and water plants near the American River and will provide additional water resources to EBMUD during a drought. The system, Foulkes said, will be usable come January 2010.  The project, 30 years in the making, partners EBMUD and the Sacramento County Water Agency.

“I am so happy that Freeport will be on line this spring,” Foulkes said via email. “Had we had it in place two years ago, we would not have had to declare a drought.”

The 2040 plan, which EBMUD passed Tuesday by a 4-2 vote, will also lower the current permissible district-wide rationing cap to 10 percent by 2040, from its current 25 percent.  Given the organization’s varied rationing structure, this translates to a decrease from 40 percent to 17 percent for single-family homes, according to board director Coleman.

“The [district] drought’s over,” Foulkes said. “The future of water has to be more cooperation among agencies.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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