Water Shortages: Learning from 1977

by | Jul 31, 2014

reicherdt, klaus, waterless coWhat is interesting about the California drought currently impacting the area is not necessarily the severity of it. Instead, it is how the state seems to be handling it in stride, with relatively minor impact on communities. While some industry sectors are definitely being impacted—and we may not have seen the worst—compared to the last “major” drought in California (1976-1977), there have been considerable changes for the better.

One of the big differences is that, compared to the current drought, the 1977 drought involved two very dry years 1976 and 1977 with 1977 being the then-driest year on record.

The current drought began with a modestly dry year in 2012, followed by a very dry year in 2013. While the previous drought appears to have been much more severe, when you consider how much the population has grown in the state—from about 20+ million people in the late 1970s to more than 35 million today—the current situation should be more dire and impact more people; however, it is not.

In 1977, water rationing was in place. In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, along with mandatory rationing, steep pricing measures were taken, there was no watering of landscaping, putting bricks in toilets and other intensive conservation programs were implemented with the goal of reducing the amount of water to as little as 44 gallons of water per person per day. From these efforts, water consumption was cut by a staggering 63 percent.

So far, no such actions or mandatory restrictions have been implemented and, according to David Guy, former head of the Northern California Water Association, this is likely because of the following reasons:

  • In Southern California, Metropolitan Water District and its member agencies have developed an “amazing portfolio of water resources,” allowing them to tap water supplies in more areas of the state.
  • Similarly, San Francisco and Contra Costa Water District in Northern California have access to more water sources and water storage facilities.
  • East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) has access to storage in Lake Pardee and it is now using its dry year water for the first time from the Sacramento River.
  • Santa Clara Valley Water District has an aggressive groundwater banking program that captures its water supplies from both the Central Valley and State Water Projects.

Commenting on these developments, all of which began as a result of the 1976-1977 drought, Guy says, “Urban water purveyors should all be commended for their leadership in developing water portfolios that serve them and their customers well during these dry periods. This did not happen by accident. These agencies have all made significant strategic investments in their portfolios and particularly, their storage reservoirs that they are all calling upon this year.”

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