As summer heats up, the news is focused on the severe drought gripping the state and much of the western United States.
While some northern and central California communities already face stringent water restrictions, the impact on our south Orange County community has been less dire so far. Still, as a state, we must all pull together to get through this drought by using water as efficiently as we can.
Southern California’s brighter outlook stems from years of planning and investment in water storage and management. Key local initiatives include promoting water use efficiency measures, our community’s embrace of waterwise living principles, and regional and local projects such as the Trampas Canyon Dam and Reservoir and the Oso Creek Water Reclamation Plant optimization project that increase regional recycled water use. Our main supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has also invested millions in water storage around the region as a hedge against this kind of situation.
Drought is Part of Life
Even though two consecutive dry years have made their mark on our landscapes and watersheds, the Santa Margarita Water District is prepared to meet the challenges of the drought, whether it lasts another year or several.
Drought is no stranger to those living in southern California. The most recent severe drought lasted five years, ending in 2016. That’s why water managers at Santa Margarita Water District and other water agencies plan for these dry stretches as a regular occurrence.
It is all part of the state-mandated planning process water agencies go through every five years when producing their Urban Water Management Plans. The latest version includes a Water Shortage Contingency Plan that analyzes water supply reliability, describes annual water supply and demand assessment procedures, and sets out water supply shortage stages and actions.
Using Water Efficiently
SMWD customers have a track record of success using water wisely, drought or no drought. During the last dry spell, we met the state’s requirement of reducing water use by 23 percent, thanks to our community’s willingness to cut back water use inside and outside the home. For some, that meant swapping out thirsty lawns for waterwise plants, fixing plumbing leaks, or adjusting sprinkler timers to apply the right amount of water for plant health. Small actions taken together make a big difference.
Tiered water rates put into place in 2014 remind customers to use water efficiently. Tiered pricing means that water customers pay water rates based on their actual water usage. Each household has a water budget and if they stay within that budget, their pricing remains in the lowest tiers. Exceed the budget and the water rate rises. It’s an approach that helps customers combat water overuse while still allocating costs fairly among water users.
In the short-term, a budget-based, tiered rate structure means that customers no longer worry about which days are okay to water outdoor landscaping. Restrictions such as three-day-per-week watering are no longer in place under normal conditions – simply stay within your monthly water use budget and you will be using water efficiently.
A Plan for Worst Case Scenarios
Should the drought extend for several years, as the last severe drought did, SMWD has a plan to handle potential future water supply shortages. It is the kind of planning that the agency does for drought as well as the impacts of earthquakes, aging infrastructure, and more.
If SMWD declares a water shortage, a phased approach to restricting water use goes into effect. The varying water shortage levels are ranked across six stages. Stages one and two are classified as “warning” and “moderate” respectively. During these stages, water users must fix leaks quickly and abide by voluntary outdoor water use limits while awareness of conservation needs is raised. The four higher levels of water shortage are labeled “significant,” “severe,” “critical,” and “emergency.” Mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use go into effect and, at upper stages, recreational water features cannot be filled and no new connections can be created. In the highest “emergency” level when a water shortage over 50 percent exists, strict mandatory restrictions on water use go into place as the District takes drinking water from emergency storage.
Today, SMWD monitors water supply and demand, monthly forecasts of imported water availability, and drought indicators such as precipitation and reservoir levels. As we keep a close eye on conditions and update our contingency plans, we ask that our customers continue to practice wise water use to preserve supplies.
The Bigger Picture of Regional Reliability
Planning for extended droughts and possible water shortages is about more than water conservation and watering restrictions. Over the long-term, vital investments in local projects have helped increase SMWD’s local water supply reliability. Additionally, SMWD supports regional efforts undertaken by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that improve regional water supply storage and reliability.
It is our responsibility to prepare our community for inevitable drier conditions to come. We believe we can achieve this by building on the lessons learned in successfully meeting the challenges of the last drought. We could not do this work without the strategic community partnerships established over forty years of providing water and wastewater services to our customers and collaborating with our water wholesalers to invest in regional water reliability. Working together toward water resiliency will be key to ensuring that drought conditions do not cause a water supply shortage. But we’re prepared if they do.