State considers tighter water limits, hopes for relief this week

By Kurtis Alexander

California water officials are considering tightening restrictions on outdoor watering, even as they hold out hope that a series of storms late this week will provide some relief for the drought-stricken state.

On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to discuss whether to go beyond the current statewide prohibitions on hosing down driveways and overwatering lawns, and enact additional limits on outdoor water use such as regulating times for sprinklers. The board could also add new rules such as requiring households to be audited for leak detention.

A decision on whether to act — and how — isn’t expected until late February or March.

“Our goal isn’t to keep building a regulatory mousetrap,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the water board, adding that she would rather local agencies act on their own to reduce water use. “Our goal is to figure out how we can get more conservation.”

Much of California saw one its driest Januaries in decades. While December was wet, water experts have said the state needs at least 150 percent of average precipitation this rain season to begin climbing out of a three-year deficit — something that’s hard to get when a whole month passes with little rain.

San Francisco had no measurable rain the entire month, a first since record-keeping began in 1849. Making matters worse, Bay Area temperatures soared into the 70s over the weekend, setting heat records in many spots.

The dry spell could end with a bang, though. A large plume of tropical moisture is developing over the Pacific, which forecasters say could bring a series of storms to Northern California starting Thursday. It would be the first measurable rainfall in much of the Bay Area since Christmas Eve.

“There will be rain off and on through Monday,” said forecaster Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services. “This next week is much more encouraging than the last five.”

How much relief comes depends on where the Pacific storms make landfall, Null said. Points north of the Bay Area are likely to see the brunt of the system, with Santa Rosa forecast to receive at least 4 inches of rain through Monday. The San Francisco area could see 1 to 3 inches, depending on how far south the front tracks.

The same weather pattern, known as an atmospheric river — essentially a narrow band of moisture in the sky that delivers rain — brought heavy downpours to much of the state in early December.

If the storm holds off until Thursday, as forecasters expect, San Francisco will have gone 42 days without rain — tying the second-longest wintertime dry streak in recorded history, Null said. The city saw 42 back-to-back rainless days in the winter of 1976, another drought year.

The longest dry spell was 60 days, from Nov. 17, 1876, to Jan. 15, 1877, Null said.

This week’s storms, like the ones in December, are expected to bring rain but not significant snow.

“It’s going to be relatively warm,” said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Snow levels in the Sierra are forecast to be 8,000 feet and higher. Higher-than-average temperatures this year — and the past few — have diminished the state’s snowpack, which is vital for filling California’s biggest drinking-water reservoirs.

Snowpack statewide Monday was just 22 percent of the average for this time of year.

Valley Voice: Golf & Water Task Force gains footing

The Coachella Valley Golf & Water Task Force is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary. It was a year in which we learned some things, accomplished some things, and established a solid foundation for achieving the goal that prompted the golf community and the Coachella Valley Water District to create this Task Force: Making sure that golf reduces its water footprint to the extent necessary to bring it into alignment with the Coachella Valley Water Management Plan.

The first thing we learned is that what the Coachella Valley Water Management Plan refers to as a 10 percent reduction in water consumption is really a 17 percent reduction from normative use. The “Plan” uses an artificial baseline methodology that understates the reduction. Based upon blending various different 5-year averages taken with any one year as the starting point yields a number that oscillates just above and just below 17 percent. The challenge is greater than we had anticipated and greater than has been reported. But we intend to meet it nonetheless.

The second thing we learned is that there are indeed many aquifers in the state of California that are genuinely “at risk.” Aquifers in the Central Valley, San Luis Obispo County, and Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley come immediately to mind. But the rich one under our Coachella Valley is not among them, according to the experts we consulted. As long as all parties, including the golf community, meet their goals under the Coachella Valley Water Management Plan, today’s mild overdraft will be replaced by mild replenishment by 2021. A cause for vigilance, yes; a cause for alarm, no.

The third thing we learned is counterintuitive. Whereas our coastal brethren in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties are impelled to conserve by a combination of carrots and sticks, otherwise known as generous turf rebate programs and high water prices, we here in the desert were confronted one year ago with zero golf course turf rebate programs and comparatively low water prices. With CVWD’s recent announcement of its first ever golf course turf removal incentive, we have taken the first step in creating our own version of a “carrot.” As for those low prices, that’s something dictated by California law. CVWD is legally precluded from charging more for water than it costs the District to purchase, provide, replenish and deliver.

Among the things we accomplished in our first year were a small reduction in consumption over the previous year, the turf rebate program, the connection of more courses to nonpotable sources, the presentation of a series of CVWD/golf community joint educational meetings, and the amassing of the data necessary to enable the golf community to develop a credible strategy for meeting the reduction goal by 2020. Remember, the golf community is no more able to secure private usage data from CVWD than is any other party — another complicating factor dictated by state law.

To those cynics who might suggest that we learned more than we accomplished, we would say that the hardest step in any ambitious effort is the first one. We’ve taken that first step and in the process begun to change the culture and expectations of the Valley golf community. The rest won’t be easy, but it should come easier — and with any luck a little faster, too.

Stu Rowland is director of golf course operations for Rancho La Quinta Country Club and immediate past president of the Hi-Lo Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Email him at

Craig Kessler is director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. Email him at

Both are members of the CVWD Golf Industry Water Conservation Task Force.

California drought: Jerry Brown unveils proposal on how to start spending $7.5 billion water bond

By Paul Rogers

Two months ago, in the grip of a historic drought, California voters overwhelmingly approved a $7.5 billion water bond to fund everything from new storage projects to modernizing drinking water treatment plants.

On Friday, as part of his budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown identified how he would like the first wave of that money to be spent. State residents expecting construction on huge new reservoirs will have to wait, however.

Brown’s budget — much of which is expected to be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in Sacramento — calls for spending $532 million from the water bond, which was Proposition 1. The main areas where he would allocate money this year:

  • $178 million for restoring streams, rivers and watersheds, the source of much of the state’s water.
  • $137 million for water recycling projects, in which sewage is treated to high levels to be reused for landscape irrigation and other non-drinkable uses, freeing up other supplies for drinking.
  • $135 million for upgrading drinking water treatment plants and wastewater plants.
  • $23 million for funding water conservation projects, such as rebates for people buying water-efficient appliances.
  • $22 million for groundwater management and cleanup.

The most controversial part of the water bond, which voters approved by 67 percent, was whether to spend money building new reservoirs. Although many of the state’s largest environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, in the end endorsed the measure, some critics said the money would be spent on taxpayer-subsidized dams to continue providing cheap water for corporate farmers in the Central Valley who are growing water-intensive crops like almonds to ship to China.

The bond earmarked $2.7 billion for “storage,” although it left the definition vague. “Storage” could mean construction of one or more new large reservoirs, but it also could mean increasing storage underground, in managed aquifers.

The decision on how to spend that money will come from the California Water Commission, an obscure agency whose nine members are appointed by the governor. The commission has not yet taken any votes on how to spend the money from the November bond.

Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, said Friday that he expects the commission will make a decision by 2017. He noted that the commission has a timetable spelled out in the bond language to write regulations defining how to rank projects by the “public benefits” the provide.

Despite a wet December, California remains in a serious drought, with the Sierra snowpack at only 40 percent of normal and major reservoirs less than half full. Brown was asked about the storage issue at a news conference Friday morning, but didn’t address specifics about how, when or whether the state will be building new reservoirs.

“We have a lot of different programs that we are going to spend on this year,” the governor said. “We have a very good array of things we are doing.”

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at

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