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The sibling act & future of California water supplies
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Not to rain on Mother Nature’s parade, but there are growing indications that the current El Nino that has created an above normal Sierra snowpack for December has peaked or is about to do so. Forecasters in Japan and Australia believe that is the case as water temperatures have shown signs of cooling in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
If they are right the wetter precipitation that often comes with an El Nino will start falling off in early 2016. Then there is evidence that El Nino’s weather sibling — La Nina — where waters start cooling off below normal in the eastern Pacific Ocean — is brewing. Often, but not always, a La Nina follows an El Nino weather event, resulting in a heightened chance of below normal precipitation in many parts of California.
This is a quick overview of weather phenomenon that may sound like mumble jumble to most of us and still isn’t fully understood by researchers. What we all really need to understand is simple: Don’t bet too much that the storms we are now experiencing is a signal that the next two to four years — a reasonable period to get reservoirs and nature itself back up to pre-2012 conditions when the current severe drought started — means normal times are here again.
A solid case can be made that the weather year Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015 is the new norm.
The most reliable historic record of weather patterns — tree rings — show what today we call the Western United States has been marred by reoccurring periods of mega-droughts lasting 50 years or more. The aberration based on tree rings has been the last 200 years and not the last four years.
We have been told repeatedly that it will take 120 percent of normal precipitation on the Stanislaus River watershed this weather year based on how much water we used in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30 for New Melones Reservoir to be at the level it was on that date. It was at a historic low of just above 10 percent of its capacity of 2.4 million acre feet. And while current readings aren’t nearly as critical by a long shot as April 1, the level of New Melones Reservoir on Thursday was just 305,427 acre feet.
It would be foolishly dangerous to not start shifting to water conservation as the permanent way of life for Californians. Even before the current drought started per capita water consumption was dropping thanks to more efficient washing machines and toilets, low-flow showerheads, bubblers for irrigation that is now decidedly old school, and the trend for coastal areas for smaller and smaller lots for single family due to scarce land and sky high land prices.
Over drafting water tables — that also was the case in many areas before the current drought — have been accelerating.
And Manteca, Ripon and Lathrop have been doing a fairly decent job of cutting back water use by 28 percent collectively as a region over 2013 levels but it is not enough.
And while Manteca — mandated by the state to reduce its water use 32 percent — might be tempted to apply for a relaxation of that goal to a lower number based on one of the exemptions the state indicated last week it would consider which is population growth, elected leaders should refrain from doing so.
Manteca since 2013 has added almost 2,500 more residents. And everyone that net gain represents moved into a single family home as not one single apartment was built.
That means the biggest water consumption category in Manteca — and most California cities for that matter — has expanded. The water hog is landscaping.
Las Vegas prior to the current drought did the math and realized even in normal conditions there weren’t adequate water supplies. So they did what Manteca, Ripon, Lathrop, and every other city in California should do which is outlaw turf or grass from being placed in front yards or in new commercial developments.
Grass is the biggest use of water in cities like Las Vegas, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Lathrop, and Stockton that grow horizontally and not vertically.
In reality it is the least painful sacrifice. Kids rarely play in front yards. It is not where family BBQs take place. Front yards in almost all cases simply are for curb appeal.
Banning non-native grasses for front yards of new homes makes sense. Requiring instead low water use landscaping makes sense.
Manteca alone in four years of drought has added over 1,200 new front yards. Virtually every one is planted in turf.
Manteca needs to go from its current limit on grass and turf in front yards imposed earlier this year to an outright ban. As for existing homes, serious consideration should be given to requiring at the time of resale that any grass be removed and replaced with landscaping that uses less water.
That may trigger a lot of squawking from real estate agents that will argue it will add to the cost of buying homes and delay transactions but elected officials have a moral and arguably a legal obligation to take steps to assure there are basic adequate water supplies available in the coming years for current residents as well as future residents that will be buying existing homes.