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Water-Use Restrictions Remain Despite Rain

Water-Use Restrictions Remain Despite Rain
San Diego County seems to be getting a lot of rain this year, but residents are still urged to conserve. We discuss what rainfall and snow pack numbers mean, how they compare to previous years and what this means for drought conditions in the region.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. El Nino seems to have come through for California this year. The Sierra snowpack is slightly above normal because of our wet winter. And forecasters say the spring showers may not be over yet for San Diego. So are Southern California's water worries over? Well, not quite. I'd like to welcome first my guest to talk about San Diego's water situation. Joe Dandrea is meteorologist with the National Weather Service. And good morning, Joe.

JOE DANDREA (Meterologist, National Weather Service): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So how much rain has San Diego County received this year to date?

DANDREA: Well, for the county it’s been actually we’re pretty close to normal. We’re running, for the county, between 90 and 114% of normal through the end of March.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s really good news because for the last couple of years we’ve been below normal, is that right?

DANDREA: Yes, we have been running a little bit below normal. We were 60 to 90% of normal in 2009, and in 2008 it was kind of a hodgepodge, 70 to 115% of normal. But the year before that, the season before that, we were only about 35% of normal across the county.

CAVANAUGH: Now when an El Nino is forecast for California, we expect to get, you know, a considerable, considerable amount of rainfall. Has this El Nino lived up to expectations, Joe?

DANDREA: Well, I think so far no.


DANDREA: I was looking back over some of the past El Ninos and we – a lot of times when we get a good one, we’ll run between 150 and 250% of normal. This year, of course, we’ve been running just about normal or average, which is good, but not nearly what we’ve seen in past years. I think some of that may be the fact that we never got a good, as they say, pineapple connection to the subtropics. We did tap them occasionally. We got a couple of storms that briefly brought us some subtropical moisture but they didn’t last very long. The stream didn’t last very long, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in the numbers.

CAVANAUGH: And does that hold true for the rest of California as well, that the El Nino brought us a wet winter but not as wet as we might have hoped for?

DANDREA: Well, I don’t have the numbers up to date for the entire state but up through February I believe they were running considerably more than we have.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, good.

DANDREA: And so that is good since we get a lot of our water from the north, of course.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s get back down to San Diego then. We’re in the month of April and despite the last couple of years, April is actually one of our rainier months.

DANDREA: Yes, it is. We normally see the rain kind of dwindle off after the middle of April but through the first half of April, it’s usually wet. For April, we run about two-tenths of an inch in the deserts and about three-quarters of an inch on the coast, and two and a half inches of liquid rain or melted snow should fall in the mountains, at least some of the wetter part of the mountains. So it is a wet month for us.

CAVANAUGH: And when it comes to San Diego, where are we in terms of a drought?

DANDREA: Well, in terms of the drought, the drought is a very subjective thing. We look at it in short term. It’s also looked at in longer term. For the short term, we are pretty much out of a drought situation right now. I think our water table and water levels are high and where they should be this time of the year, but for the longer term, not quite there. When you look at—and I’m not an expert on all the shrubbery and all of the plant life that we have out there—but I’m sure there’s still long term stresses in some of the trees and so forth. Also, when we look to the north, the reservoirs that hold our water for the entire year, those reservoirs are still quite a bit down from historical normals and that obviously has effect in terms of the long term drought here.

CAVANAUGH: And, Joe, just one last question. Any rain in the forecast, let’s say long term, next five, seven days?

DANDREA: Yeah, usually we can see out pretty well. I have to tell you, our computer models have gotten much better, looking out to about seven, eight days. And we are moving into a wet pattern again. It looks like by next – maybe not next weekend but toward the end of next weekend and into early next week, I think there’s a very good chance we’re going to hit our normals for April and maybe even exceed them.

CAVANAUGH: Wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DANDREA: Okay, you’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Joe Dandrea is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service here in San Diego. I’d like to introduce my next guest. Toby Roy is Water Resources Manager for the San Diego County Water Authority. And, Toby, welcome to These Days.

TOBY ROY (Water Resources Manager, San Diego County Water Authority): Right, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take it up from where Joe left off. He was trying to describe where we are in terms of drought here in San Diego. What, from the point of the – for this position of the Water Authority, what are you looking at in terms of allocation and water supplies for this coming season?

ROY: We are looking at really staying the course with the mandatory restrictions that we put in place last year. The wet weather, normal wet weather, that we got this year does help in that we’re not going to more severe restrictions and – but we have not come out of the drought and the customers last year really stepped up to the plate to save water and we would ask them to continue doing that into the next year.

CAVANAUGH: Now even though the Sierra snowpack is slightly above normal, there’s still a big restriction on the amount of water that’s being allocated to various member agencies, and I believe that it’s 20% of what these agencies are asking for. Why is that restriction still in place?

ROY: Well, the Sacramento delta, a lot of the restrictions on the delta are due to the ecology on the delta and collapse of fish populations. And so we started into pump restrictions that were court-ordered restrictions back in May of 2007 and we expect those restrictions to continue into the future until some of the issues on the delta are solved. So we really look at, on the long term, less water supply coming out of the delta.

CAVANAUGH: So you say, excuse me, you say that because we’ve had a relatively wet winter that you don’t expect additional restrictions on water. What restrictions are in place right now in San Diego?

ROY: We expect to maintain those restrictions that are in place and so with the drought ordinances that we put in place last year, we went in the summer months to three days a week watering and time of day watering, and we would expect those restrictions to continue in the next year.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So we’re going to – basically the same this summer as we had last summer.

ROY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you speak about the Sacramento delta and there’s a major water bill on the ballot this November, and it has to do with how water is stored and a whole bunch of infrastructure reforms that are being proposed. I wonder what impact that would have for us here in Southern California if, indeed, the voters do approve that?

ROY: It will definitely have a positive impact. There was a set of bills that the legislature passed last year including water conservation, delta governance, and the water bond. The water bond is funding many of the ecological improvements on the delta. Any water supply infrastructure is being funded by the water agencies. But it’s very important to help correct the problems in the delta. It also provides funding for water supply reliability, including some local storage, recycled water, desalination, so it really does a lot to help our water situation.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of local storage, what do our reservoirs look like here in San Diego County?

ROY: Right now, we’re at about 55% of capacity on our local reservoirs. Normally, the local reservoirs collect local runoff. In addition, they store imported water. So in the fall period, we would have the reservoirs fairly low to capture local runoff, and so we did bring them up to 55% of capacity with these rains that we’ve had.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’ve heard, let’s say, better news this year than we have in the past couple of years about how much rainfall and snowfall the state has received. But there are a lot of people who say, you know, we just, here in Southern California, kind of have to get used to the idea of using less water, conserving water as a way of life no matter what our rainy season brings us. Would you agree? Would the Water Authority agree with that?

ROY: We would absolutely agree. We think for the long term people are going to be more conscientious about how they use water. And, interestingly, this last year people really did step up to conserve water and I think a lot of that water use that people had was more than they needed for their landscape, so some of it’s just bringing it back to what does your landscape really need for water? And then how do we do landscapes that are still beautiful and use less water. So we don’t see that there would be any change in quality of life if people use water a little bit differently, and so we would hope that people would step up to do that for the long term.

CAVANAUGH: And is there still the concept of the 20-gallon challenge here in San Diego?

ROY: We do still have the 20-gallon challenge in place and I think we’re going to shift that message to more of a long term message because we do want people to really think about how they use water.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, we just had a really sort of significant earthquake here in San Diego and it got some of us to think about, you know, how the Water Authority perhaps prepares for earthquakes and other natural disasters.

ROY: We did – We do have a significant emergency storage project going on where we are connecting all of our local reservoirs and we are expanding the capacity of the San Vicente Reservoir so in the event of a earthquake that might shut down the aqueducts coming from the north, we would have a local supply. And we do have local treatment plants that – one that the Water Authority operates as well as our member agencies do have local surface water treatment plants.

CAVANAUGH: And there was some indication that perhaps there was a problem with the Imperial Valley Water Authority during this recent shake. Did you hear anything about that? Do you know what challenges they faced?

ROY: I – Actually, I do not know…


ROY: …the answer to that question.

CAVANAUGH: We’ll just move on then. How do we recover from the drought. When will we able to say, you know, the drought conditions are over and we’re no longer in a drought situation even though we still perhaps should always conserve water. When does – Who makes that kind of determination?

ROY: Usually the board of directors. They made the call when we went to mandatory restrictions and they would also make the call when we’re coming out of the drought.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so – But you don’t see that happening anytime soon.

ROY: It’s not happening this year.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So, okay, so now we have the mandatory water restrictions going into the summer for the second year. We heard a lot about people, you know, sort of like not reporting on their neighbors but basically kind of calling and saying, you know, I think that there’s a problem here. There seems to be a leak here. Do we see that the water police will be stepping up in their monitoring of how well people are actually conforming to those restrictions this year?

ROY: I think we’ll continue as we did last year, and we would hope – there’s been a lot of information out to the public to educate them on their water use and we – we’re seeing the landscape industry folks step up to the plate and the residents, and if it becomes a way of life then we really don’t need those water cops.

CAVANAUGH: What is one or two things that you have as tips for people on how to reduce their water use if they didn’t, you know, as you say, most people stepped up to the plate, cut things down last year, but if they really want to do something this year that can promote that kind of conservation.

ROY: The biggest area where folks can conserve water is in their landscape, and I talked to a gentleman who last year told me he reduced 41% his water use. And I said, wow, you must’ve gone to significant changes in your landscape to do that. And he said, no, I just went to the day restrictions. And his landscape looked the same, didn’t change, and so if we stick with the watering restrictions and are really efficient about how we water our landscape, that’s probably the most important things that people can do. If they want to go further, they can modify their landscape as well.

CAVANAUGH: And let’s keep our fingers crossed for a couple of more showers.

ROY: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Toby. I appreciate your coming in and speaking with us.

ROY: All right. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Toby Roy, Water Resources Manager for San Diego County Water Authority. You can go online, post your comments,