As of this month, the San Joaquin Valley has survived a four year drought. Even if the dry spell ends, area residents will never see an end to water rationing.
When construction of our local water delivery system started in the 1870’s, the spring runoff seemed limitless. As time passed, the water system was expanded via dams and canals. The Modesto Irrigation District secured rights to water supplies long before other parts of the state.
Even before the California Water Project in the 1960s, the entire supply of water from the Sierra Nevada had been claimed. Every drop of water coming down the rivers had a precise destination, be it San Francisco, the San Joaquin Delta, Stanislaus County, or other regions.
Today, after the 4th year of drought, most people have realized that natural water is a finite resource. Since the 1800s, groundwater has been an alternate source of water statewide. The drought put even more stress on an already overused resource; the water table is dropping and wells are going dry. The primary back-up source to Sierra water is severely endangered.
The City of Modesto started water rationing in the late 1980s, when Modesto residents complained about low water pressure in summer months. During the decade, the city had allowed many new urban water connections without upgrading system capacity. The water system became unable to maintain pressure in hot months, when everyone wanted to water lawns and landscape.
To solve the problem of low pressure, the city council issued Stanislaus County’s first permanent water rationing order. Half the city was allowed to water three days per week. The other half watered the other three days per week.
The low water pressure problem was quickly solved. And since few citizens complained about the rationing ordinance, the city council decided not to upgrade the water system. Residents would never again be allowed daily use of water for outdoor use.
The rationing ordinance was intended to solve the water pressure problem, not conserve water. But the net effect was to reduce total daily water consumption. Every customer could still use all the water he wanted three days per week while paying the same fixed monthly rate for water. Residents didn’t get serious about conservation until water meters were installed.
Ever since the first rationing ordinance in the 1980s, Modesto residents have been encouraged to conserve water, but with no sense of urgency. As Modesto grew, conservation enabled home builders to add thousands of new customers without paying for an upgrade to Modesto’s water infrastructure. Developers’ fees for infrastructure improvements were kept low. Income from the water fund was diverted to subsidize non-water projects; Proposition 218 and a citizens’ outcry ended the practice in the early 2000’s.
A Desert Community
As the drought that has progressed, water rationing throughout Stanislaus County has spread. The residents most greatly affected by the drought have been people whose wells have gone dry and residents in the cities of Stanislaus County.
When Governor Jerry Brown ordered all cities in California to cut back water use by 36 percent, he was either unaware or ignored the fact that citizens of Modesto had already been rationing water since the 1980s and the recently installed water meter system had resulted in substantial conservation. The baseline for measuring water use was lower than other parts of the state.
Because residents were already making sacrifices, Modestans had a much harder time meeting the new goals specified in the governor’s orders than communities that previously had no rationing. As Modesto failed to meet the mandate month after month, the city council looked for ways to force greater conservation. First, residents were ordered to cut back outdoor watering to two days per week. When that measure was insufficient, the cutback went to watering only one day per week. Fines were established for failure to follow new and arbitrary rules.
Ironically, even though supplies in Stanislaus County were not as short as other parts of the state, residents were forced to cut back water use much more severely than drier places such as Palm Springs.
In addition to water rationing, citizens were offered incentives to replace lawns with drought tolerant plants and rock gardens. In short, Modesto has been encouraged to become a desert community.
For decades, Californians have used more water than nature has delivered. Over time, lakes dried up, rivers shrunk, and water tables dropped.
The drought has demonstrated that more people live in California and have a greater demand for fresh water than nature can deliver. The state’s annual water deficit is so great that it can no longer be ignored.
Absent recycling and/or desalinization of water, rationing is a logical answer to shortages. Rationing will continue and intensify as long as the population continues to grow and new sources of water are not tapped.
As rationing becomes more drastic, the Valley’s economic growth will be hindered, if not completely stalled. If the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles and farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley are successful in sucking more water out of Northern California via Governor Brown’s twin tunnels project, the negative consequences for the Valley cannot be overstated.