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What the drought means for the East Bay

on February 3, 2014

California is in a drought. Though the Bay Area experienced a few showers this week, far more rain is needed to make a dent in the state’s water shortage.

Last year was the driest on record, and on January 17 Governor Jerry Brown made the drought emergency official. On Friday, the Department of Water Resources director released a statement reflecting the dire situation.

“It is our duty to give State Water Project customers a realistic understanding of how much water they will receive from the Project,” Director Mark Cowin said. “Simply put, there’s not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project.”

While this decision does not affect residents in Oakland and Richmond, all Californians are feeling the drought. No mandatory conservation measures are yet in place for the East Bay, but continuing dry weather may mean higher water and food prices for Richmond and Oakland residents.

Abby Figueroa, East Bay Municipal Utility district (EBMUD) spokesperson, said water recycling, heavy rain in 2012, and conservation efforts made by the district and East Bay consumers mean it is in better shape than many other areas in California.

“We have learned lessons from past droughts and we are better prepared for drought than we have ever been,” she said.

EBMUD’s water stores are in more than half full according to Figueroa. If the drought continues, for the first time EBMUD has the option of tapping into the Sacramento River through a new facility called Freeport. “Freeport has been more than a generation in the making,” she added.

Though EBMUD is entitled to 133,000 acre-feet of water from this source, Figueroa said the agency expects a “significantly smaller allocation based on current reservoir levels upstream.” The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for these water contracts, delayed announcing water allocations until late February.

Residents might notice a different smell or taste to water sourced from the Sacramento, Figueroa said, but wanted to assure customers that the water will still meet all California public health and EPA standards.

If the water district does decide to tap this source, average single-family residential customers can expect to see their bimonthly bill go up by $12. A rate increase of $4 per month is already scheduled for July 1.

The cost of food, especially meat products, may also go up. Betty Walker, executive director of the Contra Costa Farm Bureau, said that livestock farmers have already been contending with the high price and scarcity of hay, many of them opting to thin their herds. “Cattle prices are way up, I expect that would have to be passed onto consumer,” Walker said.

Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, an organization dedicated to agriculture in Richmond, said it is putting in drip water systems and looking at greywater use as a way to get through the drought. Robinson isn’t sure what will happen with urban agriculture projects like school gardens.

“Food crops just need water,” she said.

“Water shortage emergencies are usually declared in May by the [EBMUD] board of directors,” said Figueroa. “However, because this year is so dry, that declaration, a decision to tap the Sacramento River supplies, or a call for increased conservation may occur sooner.

Figueroa said that the board will discuss voluntary water cutbacks at its next meeting on February 11. The board meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, and the public is welcome to come and receive water supply updates. EBMUD’s website also has up-to-date supply and rate information.

For residents interested in learning more about greywater use, Greywater Action is holding a greywater design and installation workshop in Richmond on March 22.

Conservation tips from EBMUD

  • Find and fix leaks. Toilets are a common culprit of indoor leaks. Sprinklers and irrigation equipment are a common source of outdoor leaks.
  • Review outdoor water use. This is a good time of year to consider a more sustainable landscape. Also, we’ve noted an uptick in outdoor water use this winter, probably due to the warmer weather. However, nights are still cool and many plants are dormant this time of year. Customers in the East Bay should continue their winter irrigation schedules, despite the higher daytime temperatures.
  • Upgrade appliances and plumbing fixtures to more water efficient models.

Conservation tips from Urban Tilth

  • Use drip irrigation.
  • Use a thick layer of mulch over irrigation and around plants to keep water from evaporating.
  • Recycle water. Bring a bucket in the shower with you, or reuse bath and dishwater to irrigate your garden. Note: make sure you are using biodegradable soap, and pour this water into the soil around the plant rather than on the leaves.
  • Put up a windbreak to decrease plant dehydration.
  • Water in the early morning.



  1. Denise Svenson on February 6, 2014 at 5:58 am

    Why are apartment complexes still using sprinklers twice a day (even on rainy days) in the midst of such a drought? In my complex, I see a lot of the water landing on the sidewalks, not even on the grass. When will xeriscaping be required for new developments. The lack of foresight is amazing.

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