Los Altos Weather – Dry July and No Water Conserved

This post is part of a monthly series about weather in my home town in California’s Silicon Valley, California’s drought, and what we’re doing about the drought.

As expected in the dry summer of California’s Mediterranean climate, my home town of Los Altos, California, received no rain in July, our third consecutive month with no rain. We normally receive little or no rain for two more months, and California’s drought continues. California is using more water than a year ago. Surface water deliveries have been cut back due to the drought; therefore, farmers and water suppliers have increased pumping of groundwater, increasing ground subsidence. Our local Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) is spending $500,000 on water enforcers and is considering raising our property taxes to help pay for twin tunnels under the Delta to ship water south, where water use increased by 8% this year. The San Francisco newspaper published several suggestions for what we can do about the drought.

As shown below, we’ve had no rain (red bars) the past three months, close to normal.

No Rain in May, June, and July
No Rain in May, June, and July

The problem is that California has had below-normal rainfall for three years. In Los Altos our rainfall since January 2013 has been 31% of normal. With much less rain, we’ve had to increase irrigation so that our landscape plants have about the same amount water. However, landscaping consumes about half of California’s residential water usage. When half our suburban water usage stays the same or increases, it’s difficult to reduce water consumption by 20%, as our governor has asked.

Rainfall Since Jan. 2013 is 31% of Normal
Rainfall Since Jan. 2013 is 31% of Normal

In July our average low temperature was seven degrees above normal, continuing the trend of elevated low temperatures.

July Low Temperature 7 degrees Above Average
July Low Temperature 7 degrees Above Average

There’s been a flurry of drought-related activity in July.

On July 10, the government weather forecast for a rainy winter was downgraded, reducing expectations that the drought would be broken by a wet winter. Strong trade winds usually blow from west to east in the Pacific, causing upwelling in the western Pacific. In an El Niño year, the trade winds weaken, and there’s a greater chance of heavy rains in California. The updated forecast is for a weak El Niño, which doesn’t predict a very wet winter. If this forecast is accurate, our drought might continue into a fourth year.

On July 14, California released a report that we haven’t done well in water conservation: “though the governor asked all Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, water use actually increased by 1 percent statewide in May”.

While none of the state’s 10 hydraulic regions have conserved as much as the governor asked for, most cut back at least 5 percent in May. The biggest exception is the South Coast region, which includes the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, as well as Orange County. There, water use increased 8 percent over previous years.

The state water board approved regulations “to stop: washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle, and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated.” These are good ideas to avoid wasting water, but it remains to be seen if these measures are enough to achieve California’s goal for 20% water conservation.

On July 22, our local water agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, “unanimously approved the hiring of up to 10 temporary water enforcers who will be charged with investigating water waste throughout the county”. Costing $500,000, the enforcers could hired and trained by the end of August. From our rainfall chart, note that from May to September we have five consecutive months of low rainfall, less than half an inch per month. The enforcers will start four months into our dry season and one month before our wet season starts in October and water usage declines.

Per this San Francisco Chronicle editorial, the SCVWD raises funds through property taxes, and the water district is considering increasing our property taxes to help pay for twin tunnels in the Delta to move water south.

California depends on groundwater especially in times of drought. A July 2014 California Water Foundation report states “annual groundwater production in California is approximately 14 million acre-feet, providing approximately 40% of California’s water supply in normal years. In dry years, groundwater can supply 50% or more of the state’s water needs. During drought conditions, such as the 2013-14 drought, groundwater usage can be as much as 65% of the state’s water use.”

A July 27 article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlights groundwater overdrafts in California’s Central Valley. “The ground is sinking because farmers and water agencies throughout the Central Valley are pumping groundwater heavily from far beneath the Earth’s surface to make up for the lack of rain. The problems caused by this sinkage are many, with no easy fix in sight.” Parts of the Central Valley have sunk three feet in the past five years. In 1977, the U. S. Geological Survey found one part of the Central Valley had subsided 28 feet between 1928 and 1977, so overdrafts and subsidence have been going on for decades.

This San Francisco Chronicle article has many suggestions for dealing with the drought.

There are plenty of things that could be done — and should have been done long ago:  

   » Measure and manage all groundwater pumping and use.  

   » Accelerate programs to meter all urban water users.  

   » Implement conservation-tiered pricing to reward efficiency improvements and penalize gross waste.  

   » Require utilities to redesign rates if they are postponing water conservation and efficiency programs because revenues might drop.  

   » Lose the lawn. It is time for green lawns to be permanently replaced by beautiful, but water-conserving, gardens.  

   » Reward water users who have already made great strides at conserving; expand efforts to reach their less-water-savvy neighbors.

   » Accelerate allocation of the state’s emergency drought funds, with priority given to the most proven and cost-effective strategies for saving water: programs for farmers and urban residents to install efficient irrigation systems; incentives to get homeowners to permanently replace lawns, inefficient toilets, showerheads and washing machines; and policies that expand wastewater and storm water use.

   » Encourage residents to engage with local water agencies; to follow their actions and to vote.  

Next year might be wet, but it could just as well be dry. Even in wet years, we have serious unresolved water problems. If we fail to act, we will be at risk of waking up, turning on the tap, and getting nothing but air.

Two local groups sponsored public presentations toward implementing two suggestions: losing the lawn and expanding wastewater use. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) sponsored a talk on losing a lawn, and GreenTown Los Altos (GTLA) sponsored a talk on expanding wastewater use. Click on the presentation links to view the video of the presentations.

On a personal note, our home has no lawn, and our yard is landscaped with water-conserving, California-native plants. I volunteer for CNPS and GTLA, and I produced the two videos from audio recordings and the presentation slides.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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