California drought: Santa Clara County's water conservation efforts falling short of 15% cutback

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- In the South Bay, water conservation efforts are falling short of a mandatory 15% emergency goal, set for water customers across Santa Clara County.

"There can come a day when no water comes out of the tap," Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors Vice Chair, Gary Kremen told ABC7 News. "We've seen it in cities over the world."

A stern warning from Kremen on the same day he addressed the Purissima Hills Water District (PHWD) in Los Altos Hills.

During the PHWD board meeting on Wednesday evening, Kremen commented on the district falling behind in today's emergency conservation effort, and actually increasing its water use.

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"This is not getting Purissima Hills any friends," Kremen told board members.

In a statement from Purissima's General Manager Phil Witt, he explained, "Purissima Hills Water District (Purissima) receives 100% of its water from the San Francisco Regional Water System. Purissima does not receive any water from Valley Water."

Witt's statement continued, "Purissima is following Governor Newsom's Drought Proclamation of July 8, 2021 in which he has asked for a voluntary reduction of 15% compared to 2020 water use. The Purissima Board of Directors has adopted a resolution calling on its water customers to reduce their water consumption by 15% compared to their 2020 usage."

"One important factor about Purissima, is that the district is comprised of 95% residential water customers, which is very unusual compared to other areas. During COVID, the District has seen a general increase in water use as people continue to shelter in place and work from home," Witt shared.

The statement concluded, "For this reason, year to year comparator numbers are difficult."

In June, Valley Water's board implemented a 15% mandatory reduction from 2019 levels. It's a goal that has not yet been met.

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However, Valley Water said it is seeing a drop, with water use falling consistently. Pointing to a 6% reduction countywide in July.

"Being able to save 6% is better than 0%," Kremen said. "But it is not where we'd like."

Valley Water's Media and Public Relations Supervisor Matt Keller shared, "Overall, the numbers are going in the right direction. In fact, countywide we've seen a very dramatic drop in water use since March."

He included the following information:

Santa Clara County

  • March: +25% compared to 2019
  • April:+20% compared to 2019
  • May:+9% compared to 2019
  • June: 0% compared to 2019
  • July: -6% compared to 2019


You can find out more, here.

"I think what's happening is people are overloaded with crises, whether it be COVID, unemployed, the unhoused... it takes a bunch of time for to get people's mind that we have a drought," Kremen added.

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He said Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto were the biggest water savers.

"Stanford probably has everyone's email address at Stanford, so it's easy for them to send out an email. There's other communities who don't have everyone's email address as an example," Kremen said about what challenges other pockets of the South Bay may face.

"There's a lot of communities that don't have that same ability to do things like that," he added.

San Jose State University professor and Environmental Studies Department chair Katherine Cushing acknowledged, "15% can be hard for a household to cut back on, and I think that the only place where we can really do it is outside."

Cushing noted 50% of a households water use takes place outside.

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"So this means we need to rethink our landscaping, and really our hardscaping. What are we putting outside our homes? And does that make sense, given what we have now, which is a drought prone climate?"

Cushing explained that traditionally, California only gets about 17 inches of rain a year.

"And in the last really severe drought, we were getting five inches of rain a year- that's almost a desert condition. So I think we need to really think about what kinds of landscaping changes do we need to alter to make sure that our outdoor water use is as reduced as possible. So that we can still maybe maintain some semblance of still being able to use the water that we want inside."

Inside, and apart from relying on people, Cushing said long-term strategic water use should involve changes to plumbing, policies, building codes, planning and more.

"If there's one thing I've learned after 30 years of studying environmental behavior is that it is very hard to break habits," she told ABC7 News. "People are very used to taking long showers. And those are things I think some people may or may not be willing to give up."

However, Kremen with Valley Water emphasized Santa Clara County is in dire need to save every drop now. Adding, it's actually in worse shape than other counties with Anderson Reservoir drained for a major, years-long retrofit.

"Unfortunately, we have no water storage- or at least half our water storage is gone," he explained. "And that's not the only reservoir with problems."

Adding, "This isn't like when you conserve electricity for a Flex Alert- and you conserve and everything is solved the next day. It is not like that at all. We have to conserve now for drops next year."

He warned, if Valley Water's 15% emergency goal isn't met soon, it will lead to a tough 2022.

"If it's not in the next two months, and we have a dry winter, next year can be extraordinarily grim," he told ABC7 News. "And it's kind of looking like that. I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but it isn't looking too good. It's looking very bad actually."

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