The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)’s recent announcement that its drinking water reservoirs have reached full capacity might sound alarming after the spillway crisis in Oroville, but staffers say that is actually good news. It means a steady water supply to over a million of its customers in the East Bay, including Oakland and Richmond.
After several years of drought followed by the wettest October (in 2016) and January (in 2017) on record this winter, the agency is assuring users it will not have to worry about a water shortage for at least a year. But despite that, it isn’t giving customers the green light to recklessly use water.
“We encourage wise water use to make conservation a way of life,” said EBMUD spokesperson Jenesse Miller.
To achieve that, EBMUD has made permanent some of the restrictions it put in place during the drought emergency of 2014 and 2015. That includes asking users to avoid run-off on sidewalks when watering outdoor landscapes, using only hoses with shut-off nozzles, and turning off fountains on decorative water features, unless the water is re-circulated.
Only the most radical measures were lifted, like the “excessive use penalty” that imposed fines on customers for using more than 80 units of water per billing cycle, charging them $2 for each extra unit. The penalty was in effect for about a year in 2015 and received mixed reviews from customers, according to Miller.
But residents share EBMUD’s views on tough ordinances and think it is fair to charge extra for overuse. “Conserving must be in our DNA,” said Oakland resident Udette Flesch, who intends to keep drought-era restrictions in place in her own home. “We have buckets in the shower, take short showers, our lawn is replaced by drought-tolerant plants, we follow the rule of outside water containment.”
According to EBMUD, by 2015, its customers had reduced their water use by 24 percent compared to consumption rates in 2013, right before the drought, according to Miller.
EBMUD provides consumers with incentives to follow their conservation strategy. “We gave rebates for almost 9,000 efficient toilets, 14,000 high efficiency shower heads and 13,000 residential clothes washers,” Miller said.
The agency will soon start trying smart meters that allow the monitoring of water use practically in real time and can identify the cause of uncommonly high charges. “For example, if you are coming home after being away, checking your water meter and saying ‘Hey, why does it look that I have been using all this water?’ the meter will indicate whether the leaks are happening much quicker than usually,” said Miller. “Often, people don’t see that they have a leak until they get their water bill.”
Over the next two years, the agency plans to install over 10,000 automated meters as part of a pilot program.
Leaking pipes have been an in issue for a long time, with EBMUD receiving complaints about poor infrastructure conditions, which often drive customers’ bills up. Water charges in East Bay are notoriously high, with customers paying $6 per 100 cubic feet of water (748 gallons). By comparison, in Los Angeles this fare is $4. Oakland residents who live in the hills, beyond paying for water and sewer use, have a fee for pumping water up the hill. Leaking pipes add even more to the bill.
“When we first moved from LA two years ago, the home we landed was ‘staged’ with brown bark in both front and back yards. A really high water bill alerted us to the fact that there was a broken pipe in the back yard under all that bark. Once that was fixed, the bill was much better,” said Melinda Maxwell-Smith, who lives near Oakland’s Chabot Park.
EBMUD uses about 4,200 miles of pipes in the East Bay, and is replacing them piece by piece, trying to increase its pace from 10 miles a year to 40. Service teams are also looking at innovative pipe technology and improved installation methods to increase the shelf life of the pipes, according to Miller.
But aging water system infrastructure remains a problem for the whole Bay Area. “Much of the pipes were built over 80 years ago. It is a miracle how this infrastructure continues to function. It was not that long ago that we found during some construction a 123-year-old pipe in Oakland and it was still delivering water to customers,” Miller said.
The cost of dam and reservoir maintenance is also priced into user rates.
Most of the state’s 1,400 large dams were built at least 50 years ago need major upgrades in infrastructure and operations, according to an article by Public Policy Institute of California senior fellow Jeffrey Mount. The flooding emergency in Oroville almost two weeks ago triggered by the hole in the spillway, which led to the evacuation of almost 200,000 residents, illustrates the point.
“It is a wake up call for other dam operators around California, the U.S. and the world,” said Paul Rogers, the environmental writer for the San Jose Mercury News and the science team managing editor for KQED, who has been covering the Oroville flood. He said dam operators need to assess their safety procedures, make sure they are inspecting their spillways properly, reducing the risk of cracking and cavitation and “learn from what happened in Oroville.”
Pardee Reservoir, the heart of EBMUD’s drinking water supply, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, is the source of most East Bay residents’ drinking water. EBMUD staffers have assured the public that reservoir is safe and solid, even though it was built in 1920.
Xavier Irias, the agency’s director of engineering and construction, said they have a comprehensive dam safety program, with annual emergency drills and a reevaluation of safety criteria every time scientific studies reveal new information about flooding or earthquakes. He also said that the Pardee spillway received a major upgrade about 10 years ago.
“The original design was not adequate, after we looked at the ability of the spill to handle an enormous flood under the worst-case scenario,” Irias said. “And so we modified it.”