Faced with a five-year drought approaching epic proportions, the Metropolitan Water District voted Tuesday to require Southern California water agencies to reduce their consumption by 17%--a step that officials said will force mandatory rationing in much of the region.
The decision came five weeks after the giant water agency imposed a 10% conservation requirement on the 27 water agencies that serve 15 million customers from Ventura County to the Mexican border.
All water agencies in Orange County receive some portion of their supplies from MWD, particularly South County. But officials with the local agencies say the county’s supplies are in better shape than most, so conservation is expected to remain voluntary for now.
Local governments have the ultimate say over rationing plans, but the decision limits the amount of water that cities and counties can expect from local water agencies. Officials said that MWD’s action will force many jurisdictions to adopt mandatory rationing to make up for the shortage.
“It’s always hard to generalize, but the decision to implement this stage (of conservation levels) makes it likely you’ll see mandatory rationing throughout Southern California,” said MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay.
Under the new conservation requirements, mandatory cutbacks in water usage will rise to 10% for residential consumers and 30% for agricultural users, amounting to 17% overall. Last month, already worried about the possibility of a fifth drought year, MWD adopted cutbacks of 5% for residential users and 20% for farm irrigation.
For residential water users, the new cutback levels would require a typical family of four to conserve between 16,000 and 20,000 gallons of water a year, said Don Adams, director of resources for MWD.
“That’s about the size of a residential-sized swimming pool,” Adams said.
The new conservation levels will go into effect Feb. 1. The MWD had planned on a March 1 start-up date, but advanced the date after hearing a gloomy assessment of state water storage levels during a briefing Monday by California Department of Water Resources officials.
High-ranking MWD officials said they were particularly concerned by reports that the Oroville and San Luis reservoirs, which normally store 3.3 million acre-feet of water, now hold no more than 980,000 acre-feet. Even in 1977, the last drought year that forced mandatory rationing in Southern California, the two reservoirs held 2.2 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, about what two average families use in a year.
“The reservoirs are essentially empty,” said Duane Georgeson, MWD assistant general manager.
Officials from about 30 agencies that supply water to Orange County households met Tuesday in Santa Ana to figure out how to respond to MWD’s latest action. They agreed that the county’s large supplies of reclaimed water and water stored in ground-water basins and reservoirs would enable local communities to stay with voluntary rationing programs.
“My impression is yes, voluntary will still be enough,” said Keith Coolidge, public affairs manager of the Municipal Water District of Orange County. Coolidge said consumers reduced their water consumption by 10% last year, “and this time around we will do some more work to get the word out to the people about the severity of the drought.”
But whether conservation will remain voluntary in Orange County for much longer “is up to Mother Nature and what happens between now and the end of February in rainfall,” Coolidge said.
South Orange County is almost totally dependent on water imported by MWD, but it has compensated by becoming a statewide leader in the use of reclaimed water. Areas north of Irvine get most of their supply from the ground-water basin that underlies the northern half of the county. The ground water is considered in good shape despite the drought.
Boronkay and other water experts said that in Los Angeles, which obtains water from other sources as well as the MWD, mandatory rationing appears more of a certainty. City officials still cling to hopes of getting by on a voluntary conservation plan. But they acknowledge that without a last-minute blizzard in the eastern Sierra Nevada--a key city water source--rationing may be inevitable.
“At this point, no one could accuse us of being imprudent in saying that mandatory rationing is becoming much more of a possibility,” said John Stodder, Mayor Tom Bradley’s environmental policy assistant.
Such a program could begin March 1, Stodder said. City Department of Water and Power officials have been asked to brief the City Council on Feb. 1 about the state of the city’s water reserves.
“If the bad news we see now stays as bad as it’s been, there’ll be a discussion of mandatory rationing at that point,” Stodder said.
Normally, the city gets most of its water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which carries water here from Owens Valley. This year, because of the drought and recent court rulings against the city, the flow from Owens Valley is minimal. As a result, Los Angeles now relies on the MWD for about 60% of its water.
The MWD--which serves Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties--gets most of its water from two sources--the state Water Project and the Colorado River. Neither supply will be as great as last year’s.
MWD officials said cutbacks approved Tuesday are Phase 3 of a five-phase plan. Phase 1, implemented Dec. 1, was designed to achieve voluntary cutbacks of 10% for residential and industrial use. On Dec. 7, the MWD board voted to go to Phase 2--mandatory cuts of 5% for residential and 20% for agriculture.
With worsening conditions, the cuts would rise to 15% residential and 40% agricultural in Phase 4, and 20% and 50% in Phase 5.
Before the vote, MWD resources director Adams warned that Phase 4 looms as a “distinct possibility” if there is as little precipitation this month and next as there was in December.
Water authorities say that the 15% figure is about as high as residential users can easily conserve. Cutbacks beyond the 15% level would “start to really pinch,” Adams said, adding: “We hope we don’t have to go that far.”
Between April and September of last year, a voluntary program of water conservation reduced consumption in Los Angeles by about 11%. Conservation dipped by about 5.5% in October and about 7% in November.
If Los Angeles residents are required to conserve 10% under a mandatory program, “most people won’t feel a great hardship,” said Jerry Gewe, a senior engineer for water resources planning at the DWP.
“If you stop hosing down the drive, wash your car with a bucket instead of a hose, stop any leaks and use low-flow plumbing, that’ll probably do it,” Gewe said.
In San Diego County, which received 95% of its water from the MWD last year, water officials said the stricter MWD measures would translate into a 15% cutback for its 24 member agencies--up from the 7.8% cut the county approved last month.
Unlike the MWD plan, the county requires equal cutbacks for residential and agricultural users, according to James R. Melton, a spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority.
Officials said that the stiffer rationing will present a challenge for the city of San Diego, the county authority’s largest consumer and the only member agency to have rejected mandatory conservation.
Milon Mills, the city’s water utilities director, acknowledged that the MWD’s new guidelines will be difficult--especially because the city’s voluntary program, widely hailed as successful, averaged only a 10.7% saving over four months last summer.
“There’s no doubt that this is a challenge,” he said. “It’s going to take greater discipline. But the people have proven that they will respond, and I think they’ll do it again.”
Times staff writers Marla Cone, Amy Wallace and Psyche Pascual contributed to this story.
METROPOLITAN WATER DISTRICT
The Metropolitan Water District serves 27 water agencies in an area that stretches from Ventura County to the Mexican border.