Where’s The Water?

original article appeared in the December 29, 2020 edition of the Tri-City Voice

What a year it has been. From a global pandemic to wildfires sweeping across the state, 2020 has been one crazy ride. As we all look forward with hope and optimism to better times in 2021, there are still several issues we should be concerned about, one of those being the lack of rainfall. What effects is this dry weather having on the environment and on water rates for East Bay residents?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most of the Western half of the continental U.S. is currently experiencing a drought, and conditions are expected to worsen this winter. On December 17, the U.S. Drought Monitor (a weekly assessment of drought conditions run by several federal agencies) released a map showing most of Northern California in a Severe to Extreme Drought.

Globally, 2020 has been one of the warmest years on record, according to NOAA. Climatologists cite climate change as the main factor behind this heat, with global warming causing more extreme weather events, such as the dry conditions and strong winds that fueled the California wildfires. Scientists are also predicting a fairly strong La Nina this winter, meaning less rain than usual throughout the Southwest region.

What does all of this mean for East Bay residents? Well, the outlook is not as bleak as it may sound, according to Robert Shaver, General Manager for the Alameda County Water District (ACWD). “First of all, we’re not using the D-word right now. In Northern California we have either dry years or wet years, and it’s all pretty variable. We plan for that. The last few years have certainly been on the dry side, but it’s not critical yet.”

Water is distributed in California through a complex network of water utilities, roughly divided by region. ACWD, which services Fremont, Newark, and Union City, is just one of 537 special districts that own and operate public water systems throughout the state. Water services are also run by cities, counties, public utilities, mutual water companies, and mobile home parks. They all work together to bring clean drinking water to our homes.

Surprisingly, the lack of rain does not significantly impact water rates. Says Shaver, “Over the past 70 years our ratepayers have invested in a diversified portfolio of water sources. If one of our sources is not having a great year, we have other sources available to us.” ACWD currently has three primary sources of water: the State Water Project (SWP), San Francisco’s regional water system (including the Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct), and local supplies (including runoff from Alameda Creek and treated water from the Niles Desalination Facility).

Water, like any other commodity, can be bought and sold, transferred and banked. During dry years, about 20% of ACWD water comes from Kern County through the SWP, an extensive collection of 700 miles of canals, pipelines, reservoirs and hydroelectric power facilities, making it one of the largest water delivery systems in the world. Critical to the success of the SWP is the runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains, as snow melts and flows in to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. During dry years the amount of snow and rain decreases, giving us less of a supply. But Shaver assures East Bay residents that their water supply is fine. “Our water supply is arguably more reliable than many other places in California.”

So what does affect water rates? According to Shaver, it has nothing to do with the weather. “Like all government agencies, ACWD has long term pension and retiree liabilities that we’re addressing. The Board of Directors is interested in getting that liability off the books.” Other factors include an aging infrastructure and retaining employees in a region where the cost of living has skyrocketed.

In a December 10 meeting, the ACWD Board of Directors voted 3-2 to forgo a proposed water rate increase of 2%. Said Board President Aziz Akbari, “The ACWD Board recognizes the effects the pandemic has on our customers, and our community, during these unprecedented times. We felt the right thing to do, at this time, is to hold off on a rate increase. It’s a way to express to our community that we truly are in this together.” A rate increase of 3% was proposed for 2022.

Providing safe drinking water to a population of over 350,000 during a pandemic is not a responsibility the ACWD takes lightly. Says Shaver, “Our operating expenses are fixed and there are only a few things we can cut to lower costs. But one thing we will not do is make a change to anything that could negatively impact the water quality. We’re very cognitive, each and every day, that we’re dealing with human health and safety.”

Water utilities are also very concerned with balancing the needs of people with the needs of the environment. Global warming is transforming our planet, and we need to be prepared for the future. Says Shaver, “We know we need to be sustainable and good stewards of the environment, because environmental protection is consistent with protecting water quality as well.”

Understanding how our water supply works can be a daunting task. It comes down to putting our trust in utilities like ACWD to get the job done right. Board meetings are open to the public. If you have a concern, attend a meeting (currently on Zoom) or join a water conservation group. It’s up to all of us to preserve what we have for future generations. After all, water is life.

photos courtesy of ACWD

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