‘Every drop counts’ amid record dry year in East Bay

'Every drop counts' amid record dry year in East Bay
In the El Sobrante Valley, EBMUD uses the San Pablo Reservoir as a water storage reservoir. (Photo by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

As the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) forges ahead with providing water and sewage treatment services around-the-clock for 1.4 million customers, the public utility is taking steps to conserve water while asking its customers – residents, businesses and industrial alike – to  join the effort amid the driest year on record for the East Bay.

The challenges are not something locals haven’t overcome in the past, according to EBMUD Board Member Lesa R. McIntosh, a Richmond resident who recently spoke with the Standard about her agency’s strategies to respond to yet another ultra-dry year. McIntosh notes that in 1970, the utility’s service area included 1.1 million customers using about 220 million gallons of water per day. The 1976-77 drought led to severe mandatory water rationing, and prompted EBMUD to invest nearly $1 billion since to diversify and increase water supplies. 

Lesa McIntosh

Customer have done their part, too. Today, more customers (1.4 million) are using far less water per day (about 155 million gallons). Last year, East Bay residents and businesses used 13 percent less water than compared to water use in 2013, at the beginning of the last drought, according to EBMUD.

A mix of conservation along with EBMUD’s ongoing work to grow its water supply portfolio can result in more flexibility down the road, McIntosh said. That is why, when the director speaks with local residents about the issue, her message is adamant: “Every drop counts.”

“It’s more than a drop in the bucket when we all conserve by changing habits, fixing leaks and limiting outdoor watering,” she said.

It isn’t only families or local restaurants, barber shops and gas stations needing to do their part. EBMUD has its own plans to protect its water resources, from recycling efforts to infrastructure improvements.

Stage 1 Drought declared

Most the water Richmond and West County customers receive originates from the Mokelumne River, which travels about 95 miles via the Mokelumne Aqueduct from Pardee Reservoir in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. In the El Sobrante Valley, EBMUD uses the San Pablo Reservoir as a water storage reservoir. The Mokelumne Aqueduct supplies about 1.4 million customers in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties with water.

EBMUD relies on snowmelt and runoff from the Sierra Nevada for most of its supply and, as of June 22, that supply was 51 percent of average. EBMUD reservoirs were also 64 percent full. Following what EBMUD called the second driest year on record in the Mokelumne River watershed and the driest year on record in the East Bay, the EBMUD Board of Directors voted to declare a Stage 1 drought shortage at its April 27 meeting. Directors also voted in favor of purchasing supplemental water supplies from the Sacramento River and asked East Bay customers to voluntarily conserve, with the goal of a cumulative 10 percent in East Bay water reduction.

McIntosh, who represents Ward 1 covering residents in Richmond and surrounding communities, said EBMUD’s pursuit of a diverse water portfolio and focus on climate change adaptions are reasons for optimism moving forward. As part of its preparations, EBMUD is investigating projects to increase supplies for dry years, such as long term water transfer agreements, groundwater banking, partnering in the expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir and investing in water system upgrades to reduce leaks, she said.

Currently, EBMUD has a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a supplemental water supply from the Sacramento River, gaining water via the Freeport Regional Water Facility at times like these. Also EBMUD says it typically stores a six-month emergency supply in local reservoirs.

“We are updating our Urban Water Management and Water Shortage Contingency Plan, which provides a framework for meeting water needs into 2050,” McIntosh added. To read more about that effort and to participate it in, click here.

Industrial water recycling

Among the tools in EBMUD’s conservation toolbox is water recycling, or treating used water and reusing it in irrigation or industrial operations. The agency’s most significant water recycling efforts have been in partnership with the Chevron Richmond Refinery, which has the capacity for about 7.5 million gallons of EBMUD’s 9 million gallons per day capacity of recycled water.

“That can free up enough drinking water to meet the indoor and outdoor water needs of more than 83,000 residents,” EMBUD states.

The RARE Water Project at Chevron’s Richmond refinery can produce 3.5 million gallons of recycled water a day. (Photo courtesy of EMBUD)

About 75 percent of Chevron Richmond’s water use comes from recycled sources. In 1996, the North Richmond Water Reclamation was built to treat secondary-treated wastewater from the nearby West County Wastewater District and supply the recycled product to four cooling towers at Chevron Richmond. EBMUD said the operation is “one of the larger industrial cooling water reuse projects in the nation,” EBMUD said.

Then in 2010, the Richmond Advanced Recycled Expansion (RARE) Water Project was constructed at Chevron Richmond as part of the collaboration that continues with EBMUD.

It total, both operations amount to 7.5 million gallons of recycled water per day, including 4 million gallons per day from the North Richmond plant and 3.5 million gallons per day from RARE, said EBMUD spokesperson Andrea Pook.

The other 1.5 million gallons per day of EBMUD recycled water capacity goes to irrigation and commercial uses in Oakland, Emeryville, San Ramon and Danville, Pook said. The district’s recycled water is highly-treated and “suitable for a wide variety non-drinking uses including irrigation, building cooling, industrial processes, and more,” she added.

“Currently, EBMUD’s focus is to reach major water users in areas close to existing recycled water facilities to maximize water savings,” Pook said. “EBMUD will continue to add new connections in Oakland and Emeryville as well as work on partnership projects with large irrigation and industrial customers across the service area.”

What you can do

Along with industry, commercial businesses and individual households can do their part.

“Check for leaks, take shorter showers, sign up on EBMUD’s web portal to get alerts for leaks and monitor water use, keep your garden healthy [but] water in the morning or at night a maximum of three days a week and watch for and report water waste,” McIntosh said.

Photo by Pablo Nidam on Scopio

EBMUD offers a web page with a wealth of water conservation tools benefiting its customers, from gardening tips to rebates to help with the cost of landscape, plumbing and technology upgrades. A free online portal helps customers track their water use. Saving water can be a win-win: The lower the use, the lower a customer’s bill. That might be necessary for households, as the agency recently raised water rates to pay for facilities upgrades.

It’s among the many reasons McIntosh continues to spread the message that every drop counts. Conservation, in addition to EBMUD’s ongoing work to grow its water supply portfolio, will result in more flexibility down the road so East Bay communities can be better prepared for the future, she said.