“Water cops” likely this summer as Santa Clara County misses drought goal by large margin

Since last summer, Santa Clara County residents have been asked to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels to conserve as the state’s drought worsens. But they continue to miss that target — and by a growing amount.

In March, the county’s 2 million residents not only failed to conserve any water, but they increased use by 30% compared to March 2019, according to newly released data.

Now, faced with the alarming prospect of water shortages, the Santa Clara Valley Water District — the county’s largest water provider — is proposing to hire water enforcement officials to issue fines of up to $500 for residents watering so much that it runs into the street, or watering lawns too many times a week, or wasting water in other ways.

Not all details have been worked out yet. The water district’s board is expected to discuss the enforcement plan on Tuesday and vote on a detailed ordinance on May 24. If the crackdown goes forward as expected, it will be the first time in the agency’s history it has taken such a step.

“These trends are alarming. We are in a serious drought emergency,” said Aaron Baker, a chief operating officer of the water district, on Monday. “We are looking to take additional actions to help us meet the goals.”

California has had three years in a row of below normal rainfall. Overall, 95% of the state is now in a severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, a weekly federal report. That level is similar to 2014 when the state was in the depths of its last drought, an emergency that began in 2012 and finally ended in 2017 with heavy winter rains.

But this time, Santa Clara County is in a more severe predicament than many other parts of Northern California and the Bay Area. Federal dam regulators in 2020 ordered the district’s largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, drained for earthquake repairs. The $1.2 billion job, which involves constructing a huge new outlet tunnel and essentially tearing down and rebuilding the 235-foot high earthen dam, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, and is not scheduled to be finished until 2030.

On Monday, all 10 of the district’s reservoirs were just 24% full. The agency has also been told it will receive little water from state and federal suppliers. It has been spending millions to buy water from Central Valley farmers with senior water rights, and also has been pumping groundwater to make up the difference.

But this year, water sales are more scarce. And district projections show that without more conservation, groundwater could drop to dangerously low levels next year in Santa Clara County if the drought continues into 2023. That could cause subsidence, a condition where the ground sinks in some places, potentially breaking roads, building foundations , water lines and gas lines.

“We are looking to end the year at adequate groundwater levels,” Baker said. “But if we are unable to meet the call for conservation, groundwater levels will be below our subsidence levels, and wells will go dry in South County.”

Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels — missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District)

The water district has asked the public to water landscaping no more than 2 days a week. Most of the cities in Santa Clara County have passed local ordinances requiring that. But some, Milpitas and Sunnyvale, still allow 3 days a week. Several others — Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford University — have put no limits in place on weekly watering.

More significant, cities and private water companies that have imposed 2 days a week rules have not been enforcing any consequences on homes or businesses who violate the rules.

“Fines aren’t the only thing we need to be doing but they are an important component of a drought strategy,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland non-profit that studies water issues.

“There are individuals who may not respond to conservation requests,” she said. “And if people are allowed to waste water, that makes other people feel like ‘I’m not going to save because that person isn’t.’ It creates a culture of ignoring the requests.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District already asks people to report if residents are watering lawns so much water runs into the street, or watering more than twice a week. They can call the district at 408-630-2000 or email waterwise@valleywater.org and the district sends a letter or puts out a door hanger asking them to conserve. But until now, it has not taken the additional step of issuing fines for repeat violators.

Data from the Santa Clara Valley Water District shows that many of the wealthiest areas are using the most water — much of it to water lawns during January, February and March, which were the driest three months to start any year in Northern California since 1849.

While the 1 million customers of San Jose Water company increased water use 28% in March compared with March 2019, Palo Alto residents increased water use 58% over the same time period, and Purissima Hills Water District in Los Altos reported a 119% increase.

Cooley said that water used on lawns this summer is water that can’t be used to fight fires or serve hospitals or keep sewer systems running. Fines may not be enough of an incentive in some areas, she said. What does work is making public the names of the biggest water users.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District does that in droughts. Under rules passed last month, it will begin doing it later this summer. But many other public agencies do not, even though they are allowed, but not required to, under state law.

“There are users who aren’t sensitive to price,” Cooley said. “It does get their attention. I don’t know why more agencies aren’t doing it. Given the intensity of the drought, we need to be using all the tools in the tool box.”

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