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In face of record low rainfall, water officials looking toward conservation

Posted: Wednesday, Jan 15th, 2014

Brian Lockwood, a hydrologist for the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, talks about the lack of rain and the impact on the community Wednesday at the Water Resources Center in Watsonville. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — Several large pumps were whirring away at Watsonville’s Water Resources Center Wednesday, where a byzantine system of filters and settling tanks were producing 8,000 gallons per minute of recycled water.

The destination was hundreds of Pajaro Valley agricultural fields, which consume an estimated 85 percent of the water used from the Pajaro Basin.

On a productive day, the Water Resources Center can churn out 12,000 gallons per minute of recycled water, and is considered by local water specialists to be a saving grace at a time when a meager 3 inches of rainfall has made 2013-14 the driest year on record.

The problem, said Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency hydrologist Brian Lockwood, is that Pajaro Valley residents rely almost exclusively on groundwater, where years of overdraft have caused saltwater from the ocean to intrude into freshwater supplies.

In a normal year, winter rainfall seeps into the ground and helps offset the water drawn for the rest of the year. In addition, groundwater used in South County is offset somewhat by surface water taken from Corralitos Creek.

Both of those are threatened by the dry conditions, Lockwood said.

“It’s not just a record low, but it destroys the old record,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine.”

At the same time, PVWMA has noted a record year in the amount of water it has delivered to its customers, Lockwood said.

Users pumped about 60,000 acre-feet of water in 2013, an increase of 5,000 acre-feet from previous years, Lockwood said.

An acre-foot is the volume of water an acre in area and a foot in depth, or about 326,000 gallons.

Even if rain does come, it won’t make up for a decade of dry conditions, he added.

“We don’t want the public perception to change,” he said. “We would need it to rain for an extended period of time.”

To help deal with the drought, the PVWMA board of directors on Jan. 22 plan to call for a voluntary 10 percent reduction in water usage by residents.

That would include doing things like only watering lawns at night and in the early morning, taking shorter showers and washing clothes and dishes only when the machines are full.

Water officials are also working with farmers to help reduce their water usage.

Officials hope the voluntary reductions save at least 5,000 acre-feet annually.

Lockwood said such a reduction would be difficult to enforce legally and would likely wind up in court.

“We hope that everyone understands that water is a finite resource, and we need to actively conserve all the time,” he said.

For the short term, residents will likely not see a change in water availability, Lockwood said.

If the drought continues, PVWMA officials will look to other water sources such as diverting water from Watsonville Slough and Pajaro River, and utilizing water from College Lake when it’s drained in the summer for agricultural use.

Those ideas, still in the planning stages and subject to environmental impact studies, would bring in another 12,000 acre-feet of water annually.

They would also tax already strained budgets, Lockwood said.

“Conservation is the least expensive to implement,” he said.

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