Stanford panel lays out drought-survival strategies

Innovative technologies, increased conservation and new water storage needed for the future

As the state's drought deepens, Stanford University's water conservation efforts and strategies for expanding water resources for the future could serve as a helpful model for the rest of the state, a panel of Stanford experts said at a public forum on Tuesday night.

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 soon at More information about Swain's climate modeling and research, including maps, can be found at

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Like this comment
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Feb 27, 2014 at 10:08 pm

We've all known that droughts were in our future, just as we know our population will continue to grow and our climate is changing rapidly. It's dumbfounding that Stanford continues to add more and more lawns, both purely decorative and for various playing fields. This isn't any less worrisome than the swimming pools in every backyard and plethora of golf courses in Arizona. We aren't as smart as we think we are at Stanford and in Palo Alto. We need drought tolerant landscaping.

Like this comment
Posted by bobgnote
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2014 at 9:20 am

bobgnote is a registered user.

True, Rose. It turns out, ENSO and other oscillation-affected weather has recently featured drought, to the west, of any jet-stream, during neutral conditions, which Cali broke out of, last night, with lots of needed rain.

Generally, humans will need to dam first and ask questions, later: see Oregon's PAC 12 schools, for a CLUE, as to whattup, with survival, of any predictions, by modern or other scientists, such as Nostradamus, da Vinci, or Mayan priests.

FYI: The Dresden Codex, by Mayan priests flat-out predicts the Earth will blacken and perish, by flood. Read into that, what does not burn and wash out will simply wash out.

Anthropogenic climate change means humans are causing the changes, and from my knowledge, of humans, alive, during my time, these are a habitual nuisance, with a pollution footprint, tied to persistent CORRUPTION, so don't expect any changes, which would make the Mayans looks less aware, than are people, who read PA Online.

We will suffer deprivation or downpour, during desertification, acidification, and finally, vulcanization, to yield alternating volcanic winters, floods, and more warming, with fire, and REPEAT, until humans perish, and reglaciation then occurs, to end the Anthrocene Epoch.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Lusvardi
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 3, 2014 at 7:36 am

Barton 'Buzz' Thompson's statement that Stanford should conserve water and refrain from using groundwater sounds like something from an absurd existential play, novel or movie. If you don't irrigate lawns and landscaping and instead install drought tolerant plants, the aquifer will gradually deplete. Most communities that have water police or designate certain days to water lawns have the same problem -- their water basins won't get recharged and will eventually deplete without watering lawns.

Environmentalism is an ideology that often doesn't have much to do with the empirical environment. The state of California's policy to continue with water conservation as it priority over building new water storage reflects the same absurdity.

Oddly, where most of the water is wasted in California is on the environment. Some 65% of all wholesale system water in California's reservoirs and canals is dedicated to the environment where it is flushed to the sea through rivers. Where California could get its greatest water savings is through quantification and greater efficiency of environmental water, not agricultural or municipal and industrial water.

In my community when I brought a hydrologist and water engineer in to explain how not watering lawns would deplete the precious water basin that the community relies on for 30% of its supplies, the reaction was what might be called "cognitive confusion." Many said: "But isn't always conservation good?" No, not all conservation is good. Water needs to be returned to the water cycle.

It's interesting how so-called experts tout recycled water programs (reused effluent water) but don't tout natural recycling of water.

Environmentalists have propagated the myth that agriculture uses 80% of all water that it has become a pseudo-fact. Agriculture uses 80% of all water dedicated to human use but only about 40% of all water in California's water system and only 8% of all rainfall in a wet year.

There is enough rainfall in California in an average year to support a population of a billion people with full allocations to agriculture and the environment at the same time. The problem is management and storage not conservation.

If someone wrote an absurd existential play or movie script about water conservation it wouldn't sell; but a feel-good book like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sells in the millions and is probably a textbook at Stanford.

Like this comment
Posted by resient 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2014 at 7:47 pm

We have other on-line topics of water in which the diversion of water at the top of San Francisquito Creek for watering the SU golf course is negatively affecting the attempts to correct the flood control issues which occur at the bottom of the creek as it flows into the bay.
There are now law suits related to that issue - specifically the ability of fish to travel upward in an active stream.
Little - or no water is going into the bay which is causing the inflow of salt water, build up of sludge at the bottom. The buildup of sludge flattens the bay so that when we have storms with high tides water can easily flood upward affecting homes at that end of the city.
This creek is a flood control effort from top to bottom and needs to function as such. Diversion of water in the creek needs to be in conformance with FEMA standards which is looking at cleaning up Searsville Dam so it is functional with spaces for holding pools at the top to collect overflow, as well as a clear passage of water to the bay.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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