Stanford, which relies on varied sources of water, is in better shape than many parts of the state. With its 8,000 acres of property situated on a watershed fed by several creeks, the university in the past enjoyed fresh water from a robust underground aquifer replenished by mountain runoff. But Stanford stopped using its groundwater after the 1960s, preferring the fresh Sierra snow melt from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.
That switch has given the aquifer time to recharge, since the university does not pull its drinking water from that source. The aquifer has replenished to 70 feet deep from the previous 100 feet, said Tom Zigterman, associate director of water services and civil infrastructure for the university.
Stanford also uses creek water at the dammed Searsville Reservoir for non-potable uses, such as irrigation. The reservoir is now 90 percent filled with sediment, however, and the university is studying whether to dredge it or create alternative water storage areas, Zigterman said.
Stanford is implementing various conservation efforts throughout the campus and has reduced its water use by 500,000 gallons per day from a decade ago. It uses recycled water for toilets and other non-potable uses and is researching measures to further conserve and capture water, Zigterman said.
The university is building a new energy plant that will reduce water use for energy systems by 70 percent.
Stanford plans to complete a sustainable water-management plan in the next year or two, and it plans to increase its use of recycled treated water. University scientists are busy conducting water-treatment research to improve the quality and safety of recycled water, Zigterman said.
In the meantime, in response to the current drought, Stanford has shut off its fountains, fixed over-spraying irrigation equipment and added "smart" controllers and leak detectors.
"In case the drought prolongs into next year, we have to be prepared," Zigterman said.
But conservation will only take the university so far. For the future, it will need to look at increased storage capacity as well, according to the panel.
This year was a wake-up call, Zigterman said. He said he's never reached Feb. 25 without being able to divert a "drop of water" from creeks on Stanford land.
Stanford's efforts have so far spared the university from the trials facing other communities where water is drying up. Barton "Buzz" Thompson — a leading expert in environmental and natural resources law and policy and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment — pointed back to the lesson learned from the university's backing off on its groundwater consumption as one that must be heeded statewide. In extreme drought, aquifer water may be what saves a community, and it shouldn't be squandered in wet years, he said.
California is one of the few western states without regulations on its groundwater pumping, Zigterman said. That has meant that communities and water districts decide what, if any, regulations are placed on groundwater use. Santa Clara Valley Water District does regulate how much can be pumped out, after decades of over-pumping caused land subsidence in the South Bay.
But regions such as the Tulare Basin, roughly between Fresno and Bakersfield, face potentially dire shortages because they have used groundwater in drought and wet years alike, preventing the aquifers from recharging.
Zigterman said Los Angeles water authorities have pumped water back into the ground during wet years, expanding their storage capacity, and that water is helping them in the current drought. The Bay Area and other parts of the state might likewise look to increasing underground storage capacity, he added.
While it is expensive to pipe water underground, increasing the water storage during wet years will be more efficient than building above-ground reservoirs. Large reservoirs are damaging to the environment, expensive to build, and inefficient — they lose precious water to evaporation, Thompson said.
Water should also be more expensive, Thompson said. He favors pricing that makes the top users pay much more for amounts above the average. Such a measure could in turn lead to additional conservation.
The panelists also discussed the current weather patterns, explaining projections for the coming year. Daniel Swain, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science, coined the term "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge," widely used to describe the stubborn high-pressure system that has been deflecting a jet stream to the north. He said the ridge has been in place since 2012. Blocking ridges of this type are not uncommon off California's coast, but they are usually short-lived.
"It's rare to see anomalies like this to last 12 months," he said.
While rain has already fallen in the area this week, with more storms predicted through the weekend, a high-pressure ridge is expected to slide back in during the first week in March. Some recent weather models indicate the return of a "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge" during the second week in March, but it isn't yet clear if that will come to fruition. Dry conditions are likely for the rest of the wet season, Swain said.
He said it is too early to tell if next year will be better than record-dry 2013. In the Pacific Ocean, sea conditions appear to be shaping up for an El Nino rain year for fall and winter 2014, Swain said. Warming sub-surface ocean temperatures are beginning to show activity, with the potential for a rain year similar to 1998. But there are caveats. Several factors, including movement of the warm water eastward and wind bursts that would bring the warm water to the surface, must occur in coming months. Weak and moderate El Ninos don't always produce much rain in California, Swain said.
Some climate models show that global warming could produce wetter weather in the future, but California could also have more intense droughts, he said.
A video of the panel discussion will be posted at waterinthewest.stanford.edu. More information about Swain's climate modeling and research, including maps, can be found at weatherwest.com.