Headlines warn that our county is in a Stage 3 extreme drought, and North County is facing an alarming water crisis. The governor has declared a drought emergency for the whole state. Does this mean the city of San Luis Obispo is facing one, too?
Fortunately not. Our city’s water supply is in excellent shape, such that we could keep serving residents and businesses with water in the very unlikely event that we had minimal to no rain for approximately 7 1/2 years, with imposed conservation measures only during the last three years. Why is San Luis Obispo in such a fortunate water-secure position, when the rest of the state is suffering?
Chalk it up to good decision-making and good planning on the part of City Council, staff and active residents over the past 25-plus years. Successive councils have made hard decisions and set policy making multi-source water security a high priority. The city has secured five sources of water: Salinas Reservoir (Santa Margarita Lake), Whale Rock Reservoir (in Cayucos), recycled water, groundwater and most recently, the Nacimiento reservoir. Having a diverse water supply portfolio — in different water sheds — avoids dependence on any one source that may or may not be available during a water supply emergency.
City utilities staff has worked hard over the years to plan how to best acquire, finance, maintain, maximize and conserve your water supply, as well as maintain reliable, high water quality. During the last drought (1986-1992), the city set mandatory conservation measures and established water conserving construction standards. Staff proposed and the council approved financial incentives for replacing water-wasting appliances with low-flow showers, toilets and washing machines. Staff identified and the council approved the city’s secondary water supply, in order to meet peak water demand periods or short-term loss of city water supply sources. This is in addition to our reliability reserve, further explained below.
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The active role of city residents in water policy cannot be overestimated. We have been incredibly effective, creative and conscientious about conserving water. In 1992, voters brought a referendum rejecting participation in the State Water Project, on the grounds of high cost, unreliability and environmental damage to agricultural lands and the Bay Delta, all of which have proven valid over time.
In 1996, voters mounted an initiative to protect the city against drought by establishing a “reliability reserve” requirement in the City Charter. This reliability reserve (20 percent of water demand) provides current residents with an extra buffer for future unforeseen or unpredictable long-term impacts to the city’s available water supply. By council policy, this reserve may not be used to serve future development.
The mainstays of our diverse water portfolio, the Salinas and Whale Rock reservoirs have served the city for over 50 years. The county, by contract with the city, runs the Salinas Dam and water delivery facilities for our benefit. The city runs the Whale Rock Reservoir for the benefit of the Whale Rock Commission, which is chaired by the mayor of San Luis Obispo. This joint-powers agency is made up of Cal Poly, California Men’s Colony and the city.
Our popular recycled water program was established in 2001 and provides water for landscape irrigation to city parks, the golf course and landscaping in new areas as they are annexed. The excess recycled water generated goes into San Luis Creek, as required by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to sustain the endangered steel-head trout population. The city has only four groundwater wells, used sporadically — mostly for construction activity and golf course irrigation. The city has a contractual right to a certain amount of water from the Nacimiento reservoir, which has been delivered to city residents since early 2011. It is operated by the Nacimiento Project Commission, which includes a city council member.
Water is an incredibly valuable, scarce resource, especially during a drought. The law of supply and demand tells us that scarcity drives up the price of any commodity, even water, when demand outpaces supply. Unfortunately, providing adequate protection against drought must be an expensive endeavor.
This fact may not make it any easier to take the “sticker shock” upon opening the utility bill. But residents may take pride in the fact that council, staff and city voters have made a wise investment, an investment in long-term water security for now and for generations of city residents, businesses and visitors to come.
Jan Howell Marx is mayor of San Luis Obispo.