May was chilly in Los Altos, with lower daytime temperatures than March and April. We had normal rainfall, but it’s not much as we enter the dry summer of our Mediterranean climate.
Deliveries of surface water are reduced due to our 4-year drought. Groundwater overdrafts continue, with nearly 2,000 dry wells reported in California. Agriculture and urban users have been told to reduce water usage. Each household in our town has to reduce water usage 32% below 2013 or face surcharges at least double our normal rate, but this approach punishes good behavior by applying a surcharge to those who have been conserving water.
Los Altos Weather
May was chilly, with the average high temperature below normal, cooler than March and April, and the same as February. Cooler weather reduces water needs.
Notice that our overnight low temperatures have been consistently above normal. In Los Angeles, this reduced clouds and fog, which in turn reduce summer heat and drought.
In ecosystems, fog drops water directly on plants. And when the water collects on the plants, it then drops into the soil and is available for the plants to use. Fog, and clouds that are higher than fog, also shade the sun, and that allows plants more time to use the water they’ve collected from the fog. In cities, fog and clouds that are higher than fog — overcast clouds — are important as well, because they regulate surface temps.
We received normal rainfall in May — .64 inches, slightly higher than the normal of .48 inches. Almost all the May rain (.6″) came in a single storm. If the storm had missed us, we would have gotten only .04″ in May, illustrating the high variation in our rainfall this year. Our cumulative rainfall since January 2013 is still about half of normal.
We’ve started the dry summer of our Mediterranean climate, when we normally get almost no rain for four months. November is the next month when we normally get an inch or more of rain. With little rain during our warm summer, conserving surface water and groundwater is the best we can do.
Drought impact on groundwater
With deliveries of surface water being reduced due to the drought, it is estimated that farmers will pump more groundwater to make up for 70% of the reduced water deliveries.
As groundwater is overdrafted, wells are going dry. “As California enters the fourth year of a record drought, its residents and $43 billion agriculture industry have drawn groundwater so low that it’s beyond the reach of existing wells.” In California’s Tulare County, “more than 1,000 water wells have failed. Farmers are spending $750,000 to drill 1,800 feet down to keep fields from going fallow. Makeshift showers have sprouted near the church parking lot.”
In California Farmers Dig Deeper for Water, Sipping Their Neighbors Dry, the New York Times tells of farmers digging deeper wells as wells go dry due to groundwater overdrafts. In addition to wells going dry, canals that distribute water are being impacted by ground subsidence due to groundwater overdrafts.
Sack Dam is the place on the San Joaquin River where surface water finishes its long journey from the north and is diverted onto the farms of Mr. Michael and his neighbors. Because Mr. Michael’s farm is a parcel from the Miller farm, established in 1858, he has high-priority access to surface water. That is particularly important now, because in times of scarcity, these senior water rights holders — generally, farms established before 1914 — get their water allotment before farms with lower-priority rights, like those owned by Mr. Hundal.
But now there’s a problem for all the farmers, no matter what rights they have to surface water: Heavy drilling by farmers near Sack Dam is causing the land to cave in so much that the water is having trouble taking its normal path. Further subsidence will make it hard for water to get through Sack Dam to Mr. Michael’s farm and those of his neighbors.
“Water traditionally flowed with gravity,” as Mr. Michael put it. “It isn’t going to run uphill.”
Measures to reduce water use
California is ordering agriculture users to reduce their use of water.
In the 1976-77 drought, the state ordered growers with some of the oldest water rights in California to stop pumping from many rivers and streams. Now, in a sign of the spreading pain of another punishing drought, regulators are preparing to do the same thing.
The State Water Resources Control Board halted diversions last summer by many so-called junior rights holders — those whose claims date back only as far as 1914. In the last month, the board ordered some 9,000 junior rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins to stop diversions this summer.
Now the board is expected soon to move further up the rights pecking order and require that some with pre-1914 claims shut off their pumps.
Urban users have been ordered to cut water usage by 25%. Because of our above-average water usage, Los Altos customers have been ordered to reduce water usage by 32%. Our local water retailer is implementing this by ordering users to cut back 32% from their individual usage in 2013. Each household is given a monthly budget that is 68% of their usage in the same month of 2013. There is a surcharge of double the highest water rate if you fail to achieve this.
This approach hurts users who have been conserving water all along. For example, our yard doesn’t have a lawn. We landscape with California native plants that don’t require much water. We only water by hand as needed. Our water usage has been increasing during the drought, as the plants receive less rain and we compensate by giving them more water. Because of this conservation, we had low usage in 2013, and now we’ve been ordered to reduce another 32%.
Our water retailer has an appeal process for low water users, but it appears we don’t qualify. An appeal for low water usage requires low water usage in 2014. Our water retailer didn’t say this at the public meeting a month ago. In early 2014, our mature oak trees because they were stressed by the drought. They need water in the winter, and we didn’t want to risk 50′ trees that took decades to grow. We watered them; however, this watering pushed us over the threshold to qualify for an appeal.