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As Drought Warnings Rise, Will Local Water Restrictions Return?

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California’s drought continues after a relatively dry winter failed to replenish the snowpack that is the state’s biggest source of fresh water, prompting water agencies to warn of tightened supplies and the need to impose restrictions.

But for this year anyway, home owners in Fresno and Clovis can keep watering their lawns three times a week, officials say.

The three-day watering rule starts April 1 and continues through Oct. 31. Both cities have been on single-day watering schedules over the late fall and winter.

Fresno and Clovis appear flush with water compared with other parts of the state where residents have already been asked to conserve.

Visalia Implements Water Restrictions

The San Jose Mercury News reported that the loss of a big reservoir plus the dry winter prompted the Santa Clara Valley Water District to urge customers to trim their water use, although other Bay Area water districts reportedly are in better shape with no restrictions on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the city of Visalia announced in early March that residents would need to adhere to Tier 2 restrictions that limit sprinkler use to two days weekly, prohibit the filling or refilling of ornamental ponds except to sustain high-value aquatic critters that are being actively managed, and ban the use of outdoor mist cooling systems “related to human comfort.”

Visalia relies on groundwater for its water needs, and the city’s groundwater has been severely overpumped already. The city reports that the groundwater table is 30 feet lower than in 2010, the result of below-average rainfall in all but two of the past 11 years.

And on Tuesday, the State Water Resource Control Board notified 40,000 water rights holders of lower projected water supplies and to plan for shortages and conservation measures. Other water agencies took similar steps this week.

Cities Strike Water Balance

But because Fresno and Clovis have reduced their reliance on groundwater by boosting their supplies of surface water  (water that flows through canals from Millerton Lake and Pine Flat), the cities have become more drought-tolerant.

From Fresno’s early days in the 1800s up until 2005, the city relied on groundwater to meet its needs, but officials recognized that groundwater pumping was rapidly depleting the underground aquifer. In some parts of the county, overpumping has resulted in subsidence, causing land to sink significantly.

Recognizing the city would need alternative water supplies, officials arranged decades ago to purchase water rights to San Joaquin River water through the Central Valley Project and also contracted through the Fresno Irrigation District to obtain water from the Kings River, public works director Michael Carbajal said.

San Joaquin River water users have been told they may receive only 20% of their normal allotment this year, he said. So Fresno will balance that water shortage by pumping more groundwater, which the city has been able to replenish in recent years when surface water allocations were substantial, he said: “We’ve recharged a tremendous amount of water.”

Where the Water Goes

In Fresno County, the most water goes to agricultural and municipal water rights holders, with ag using the most volume of water for livestock, crops and other uses, said Erik Ekdahl, deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights in the State Water Resources Control Board.

According to the board’s data, there are 654 water rights holders in Fresno County who lay claim to water with a face value of $26.5 million. Stockwatering is the No. 1 use, followed by fish and wildlife preservation and enhancement, domestic, recreational, irrigation, fire protection, power, municipal, industrial, aquaculture, and frost protection.

The city’s allocation flows to two surface water treatment plants in northeast and southeast Fresno can treat a combined 84 million gallons of water daily, Carbajal said.

When the second plant went online in 2017, city users were supplied by 105,000 acre-feet of groundwater and 16,000 acre-feet from surface water annually, he said. But as of last year, the city utilized just 55,000 acre-feet from groundwater while boosting surface water draws to 66,000 acre-feet, Carbajal said.

The average California household uses up to an acre foot of water each year, or about 326,000 gallons.

The city of Clovis now is using about 55% surface water to 45% groundwater to supply household and business taps, city sp0kesman Chad McCollum said.

Saving Water

While no restrictions are on the horizon for now, the city is encouraging residents to conserve water, McCollum said.

Fresno’s water conservation campaigns include rebates for replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping and installing smart irrigation controllers, high-efficiency sprinklers, and rain sensors, as well as replacing water-hogging toilets and washing machines with water-efficient models.

And there are even rebates for rain barrels to capture what rain does fall on the Valley.

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