San Franciscans have learned to save water during California's epic drought.
Unless the winter brings a deluge of rain and snow, The City may be asked to save even more next year.
If the winter does not brings “buckets” of rain — quite a bit more than the half-inch that fell on parts of the Bay Area last week — the 10 percent voluntary water-use cutbacks that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's 2.6 million customers have largely achieved will be only the beginning, water officials said last week.
If only moderate rains fall, 2015 could be another year of voluntary conservation. If the coming winter is bone-dry again, mandatory water rationing by next summer is a distinct possibility, said Steven Ritchie, the SFPUC's assistant general manager for water.
And so far, initial weather forecasts indicate that “Californians cannot count upon a wet winter,” according to the State Water Resources Board, which is charged with managing the state's 414 urban water suppliers.
At the start of the fourth year of the California drought — a water year starts in October, when the rainy season comes (at least in theory) — the Tuolumne River that provides San Francisco and millions of other people throughout the Bay Area its drinking water is at its lowest level in more than 300 years, water officials said Tuesday.
“The Revolutionary War was the last time the Tuolumne River was this low,” said Ritchie, citing geological evidence.
The last three years are officially the driest-ever since hydrology records were first kept 97 years ago.
The City was slow to save water this year after Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Ed Lee made calls for Californians to cut their water use.
Water use continued as normal for a few months, prompting officials to warn of impending 20 percent water use cutbacks unless conservation was taken seriously.
That message resonated in The City and among the SFPUC's other municipal water customers, including Palo Alto and San Jose. Water use through September throughout the SFPUC's system hovered at about 217 million gallons a day, well below the last five years' average of 250 million to 260 million gallons a day, according to SFPUC data.
San Francisco's water reservoirs, including its main Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, are at just under 59 percent capacity, according to the SFPUC.
That makes The City much better off than many other places in California — most other reservoirs in the state are at 30 percent capacity or less.
Other places in California have begun aggressively policing water use, hiring water cops to sniff out scofflaws washing down driveways or irrigating lawns outside of allowable times. Violators can be fined up to $500 per instance.
In San Francisco, fines have yet to be levied, Ritchie said. The SFPUC has received 414 citizen complaints of water waste, and out of those, 182 water customers have received initial warnings to not waste water.