EBMUD employee Mark Bolton at Camanche. Photo: EBMUD
EBMUD employee Mark Bolton at the dried-out Camanche Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley. Photo: EBMUD

Hosing down your driveway, watering your yard more than twice a week, or washing your car with a hose without a shutoff nozzle are forbidden in Berkeley, as the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) faces its worst water supply in nearly 40 years.

These are a few of the new mandatory conservation restrictions announced last week by the utility district, which is seeking a 20% water reduction for all of its 1.3 million customers, compared to 2013.

The yard watering must be before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. and not within 48 hours of a measurable rainfall, and sidewalks can’t be washed either.

Water restriction is only one step being taken by the East Bay’s largest supplier of water to deal with the driest California skies in more than a century. A variety of pricing strategies, water theft fines, and the rare practice of buying water are also on the table.

Check this EBMUD drought page for a summary of new and proposed laws

“We’re facing the lowest reservoir levels since 1977; our reservoirs combined are at half full,” said Abby Figueroa, senior public information officer at EBMUD for the East Bay district.

Also effective July 1, EBMUD will charge excessive-use penalties for single family residential customers who use more than 984 gallons of water a day, which is four times the district’s average residential water use of 246 gallons a day.

The excessive use penalty is $2 per water unit (748 gallons) above 984 gallons.

“It really depends on what people do in the summer. That’s when they use the most water so have the most opportunity to cut back,” Figueroa said. Last year, also during drought conditions, utility district customers cut their water use by 12%.

“This year we’ve asked for 20%, recognizing that some people are as efficient as they can get,” Figueroa said. “Our focus this summer is people who are using water outdoors.” In addition to household use, this includes parks, golf courses, shopping centers, and all outside irrigators.

Drought fatigue, or people letting up on conservation as the crisis gets old, is a growing concern, Figueroa said. “It’s a slow-moving emergency so it gets tiring to see the same thing year after year.”

And EBMUD will start fining people who steal water, such as from water hydrants or by rigging water meters. The fines start at $1,000 for the first violation, $2,000 for the second within a year, and $3,000 for every violation after, within the same year.

This new water theft ordinance will be effective at the end of May.

“It’s not a new problem and not a drought-relief problem,” Figueroa said, explaining that people steal water in dry and wet years. “But when there’s a drought the district believes we need to get tougher with any misuse of water or tampering with the system.”

Photo: Kate Ter Haar
New rules mean yard watering must be before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. and not within 48 hours of a measurable rainfall — many locals have already replaced lawns with drought-tolerant alternatives. Photo: Kate Ter Haar
New rules mean yard watering must be before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. and not within 48 hours of a measurable rainfall — many locals have already replaced lawns with drought-tolerant alternatives. Photo: Kate Ter Haar

Last water year third driest in California in 109 years

Utility district water years end Sept. 30. The last water year (2013-2014) was the third driest in California in 109 years of record-keeping, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which monitors rainfall. This year is headed toward worse.

On Jan.17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the state. In early April, he ordered a first-ever mandatory statewide 25% water reduction. This order, among other things, calls on water agencies to adjust their rate structures to encourage conservation.

Two other pricing changes are in EBMUD’s spotlight. At its June 9 meeting, the district’s board of directors will consider:

  • A rate increase for all customers
  • A drought surcharge of up to 25% for customers across the board on the water flow charge only (there’s also a service charge per bill)

If approved, these would also take effect July 1.

The increased dollars will go almost entirely toward buying more water, Figueroa said.

“That’s the reason behind naming it a uniform charge to everyone, no matter how much you use. No matter how much you use, we still need to bring in more water.”

EBMUD, which gets its water from the low-running Mokelumne River in the Sierra, recently bought 33,250 acre-feet of Sacramento River flow from the US Bureau of Reclamation under a standing contract. The price: $75 per acre-foot.

“That’s the cost of the water, not the cost of delivering the water,” Figueroa said. “The cost to EBMUD is a lot more than $75 per acre-foot.”

Last year was the first time the district tapped this purchase option, she said. This year’s purchase maxes out EBMUD’s allotment of the relatively cheap back-up supply.

Another dry winter will mean draconian restrictions

The district is also negotiating with a few irrigation districts to buy water at the remarkably higher price of $700 per acre-foot.

“The water comes at a significantly higher cost for EBMUD than our normal water supplies, but purchasing this water is necessary to protect our customers and our local economy,” said General Manager Alexander R. Coat, in a press release.

The goal is to buy up to 65,000 acre-feet as soon as possible, which is about a four- to five-month supply of water.

If the 20% reduction isn’t achieved by the end of September and planned purchases of water don’t go through, reservoirs will be one-third full come fall, Figueroa said.

“We’re very concerned,” she said. “If we have another dry winter we’re looking at draconian restrictions. Unprecedented. We haven’t lived through anything like that before.”

This story is part of Berkeleyside’s special drought-related coverage. Stay tuned as we examine the impact and implications for Berkeley residents of this historically dry time.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...