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Cosumnes in August

Last week, the Cosumnes River was doing its August impersonation of a moist ditch.

Some would say the drought ended for Rancho Murieta when the Community Services District was able to fill Lakes Calero, Clementia and Chesbro this spring. But with the statewide drought predicted to continue and a phase of the water treatment plant shutting down in September, conservation isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.

When it met last week, the CSD Improvements Committee chose to focus on conservation needs during construction of the high-tech, larger-capacity facility that will replace a phase of the existing water treatment plant. Following the shutdown of Plant 1, scheduled for Sept. 15, the community will rely solely on Plant 2, which has a maximum treatment capacity of 2 million gallons a day. Of that, about 7 percent is used to backwash the filters, Paul Siebensohn, director of field operations, told the committee. He said water demands average 2.1 million gallons a day in September, and, while demand drops in October, there is a lag in cutting back water use.  

“We need to be about 1.86 (million gallons a day) or lower,” Siebensohn said.  The “pedal to the metal” level of production cannot be sustained for very long, General Manager Joe Blake said.

The operational challenge posed by the shutdown was one of a half-dozen reasons for water conservation Siebensohn presented to the committee. Other reasons make a case for returning to a Stage 2 drought response to comply with California emergency regulations to reduce water use 20 percent and limit outdoor watering to two days a week.

“We’re not at 20 percent compared to last year,” Siebensohn said. “We’re only at 17.3 percent. We have to comply with what they mandate. ... We’re not going to get compliance. We have people who are irrigating every day and do not care. ... We’re finding a lot of people that know that Stage 1 is voluntary.” Siebensohn said Stage 2 would give staff enforcement options.

Director Paul Gumbinger said, “Even if you declared a Stage 2, (compliance) is still not going to happen.” Gumbinger said people are responding to full reservoirs, although he personally has cut back watering to the point where his yard is “like a desert.”

Blake said he deals with water “scofflaws” on his bike rides in the community. “We’ve talked to them and most of it is ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ and a lot of f-bombs,” he said.  Blake said there were “some hard-core people, not a lot” whose attitude is “you can’t make me do anything; I’ll pay the bill” and, at the other end of the spectrum, he’s heard from people who want to ban lawns and pools.

During the discussion, President Jerry Pasek was emphatic about not returning to the mandatory conservation requirements of Stage 2 but said he was agreeable to a voluntary reduction of watering days from three to two a week in September to accommodate the water treatment plant project. “Just get off the water shortage issue, which I don’t think you can make a good case for,” Pasek said. “...Just don’t mention Stage 2, because then you’re tying it to the water shortage issue. You’re not tying it to the water shortage issue. You’re tying it to the production reduction need.”

Blake said, “This may become moot. Whatever the governor does shortly ... if they declare it, we can just word it properly in terms of what we need for the water treatment plant. But people will read the article in the Bee or wherever and realize that the governor wants to punish everybody."

In April, the CSD board of directors rejected a staff recommendation to keep the community's drought response at Stage 2. The drought response was reduced to a Stage 1 water alert with a voluntary conservation goal of 10 percent and a third watering day per week was added.

The letter the CSD sent to its customers about the change made it clear the reduction in the drought response wasn’t due to the community’s conservation efforts.  “The Directors took this action because the late season winter storms produced enough precipitation to allow the District to fill the storage reservoirs to capacity,” it read.

At the point the CSD changed the drought response from Stage 2 to a voluntary Stage 1, water use had declined less than 9 percent from the same period in 2013.  Although 2013 is the driest on record, potable water production for the year hit a five-year high of 587 million gallons, according to the CSD annual report on operations.

In recent months, the board has declined to take action on a tiered pricing structure for water, tabled action on a cash-for-grass program that would pay residents to remove lawns, and reduced spending for conservation outreach by $43,000 in the 2014-15 budget.  The CSD continues to offer rebates on high-efficiency clothes washers, water-saving toilets, drip systems and rotator head sprinkler systems.

The CSD initially declared a Stage 2 drought response in January and set a 20 percent reduction in usage as the target. At the time, the community's reservoirs -- Calero, Chesbro and Clementia -- were 60 percent full and Cosumnes River flows were less than a third of the 70 cubic-feet-per-second threshold for diversion into the community's reservoirs. The CSD can divert water from the river from November through May.

If the CSD hadn't been able to divert water to fill its reservoirs, the community could have run out of water by early fall, a consultant informed the board. The situation was potentially more dire than the '76-'77 drought that has shaped CSD water planning and policies.

The rainfall in February and March that enabled the CSD to fill the reservoirs didn't end the statewide drought emergency.

At this time, the reservoirs are higher than last year, but the river is low.

At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Siebensohn said current predictions at this point are for the drought to persist or worsen. “They’ve completely backed off the El Nino.”

Pasek responded, “Nobody has a clue.”

On Thursday, the National Weather Service lowered its estimate for the possibility of an El Niño weather condition this winter to 65 percent and said it's looking like a weak El Niño, occurring in the late fall and early winter.

Weak El Niño events don't necessarily deliver extra precipitation in this part of the world, the Weather Service said.

In fact, weak El Niño events have meant below-average precipitation in Northern California nearly as often as they've meant wetter winters. Going back 60 years, four El Niño winters have yielded above-average precipitation while three have come in under the average, the Weather Service said.

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