Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 28, 2014

Rain does little to dent drought concerns

Palo Alto to discuss state's water shortage, city's response on Monday

by Gennady Sheyner

With drought conditions still plaguing California, Palo Alto has a simple message for its water customers: There is no need to panic, but there is a need to conserve.

The city draws its water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which means it's not subject to the 20 percent cutback that the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked of the cities and agencies it supplies earlier this week. Instead, Palo Alto and other agencies that get their water from the SFPUC were asked for a voluntary 10 percent cutback as part of a strategy for dealing with the three-year drought.

According to the city's Utilities Department, the SFPUC is expected to make updated predictions about water conditions soon before making a final declaration about possible water cutbacks in mid-April. The department is scheduled to present an update about California's water shortage and its impact on Palo Alto at Monday's City Council meeting.

In a recent announcement, utilities officials acknowledged that the February storms have helped increase the Sierra snowpack, which flows to the Hetch Hetchy system that in turn supplies water customers. The good news is that these storms have increased the snowpack from 10 percent to 22 percent of normal. The bad news is that this is still "well below normal," according to utilities.

The presentation from the Utilities Department will go over the city's 2010 Urban Water Management Plan, which includes guidelines for dealing with water shortages. The plan is divided into four stages, with the most dramatic one (known as Stage IV) aiming to reduce water usage by 35 to 50 percent and including allocation of water for each customer and severe penalties for those who exceed allotment.

But even though California is now officially in a statewide water emergency, these drastic measures remain distant. So far, the Utilities Department has been using carrots of encouragement rather than sticks of penalty to urge conservation. In its most recent announcement addressing the drought, officials said this is "a good time for residents and businesses to keep calm and save water!"

The city is still in Stage I, which seeks savings of 5 to 10 percent of the water supply and that relies primarily on informational outreach and audit programs. According to the staff, the SFPUC requested voluntary reductions in this range in 1987 and in 2009, and the city was able to achieve these savings. No rationing was imposed in either year.

The staff presentation Monday will also cover the city's actions in addressing the drought and water-saving tips for customers. These include fixing leaks in toilets and hoses; adjusting sprinklers to avoid runoff; resetting sprinkler timers based on rainfall and eschewing extra-long showers and needlessly running faucets.

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