California may cut its water rations

As California goes into a possible fourth year of drought, water agencies throughout San Luis Obispo County are bracing for the possibility that they will receive record-low deliveries from the State Water Project next year.

State officials announced earlier this week that they expect to be able to deliver only 5 percent of the system’s normal capacity due to low reservoir levels, diminished snow packs in the Sierra Nevada and environmental pumping restrictions.

Ten water agencies in the county get varying amounts of water from the system that supplies 23 million people and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland statewide.

Morro Bay gets between 80 and 90 percent of its water from the state and will be among the hardest hit, said Dylan Wade, the city’s utility manager. Normally, Morro Bay receives 1,313 acre-feet from the state, but it is now scheduled to get only 180 acre-feet.

“It’s a big, ugly thing,” Wade said. “It’s going to be real tight for us.”

Morro Bay has instituted conservation measures to deal with the annual autumn maintenance shutdown of the state water system. Those conservation measures will likely continue into next year, he said. These include no watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and no washing of driveways and sidewalks, as well as other measures.

Under these circumstances, the city turns to its two alternate water supplies — its desalination plant and groundwater pumps. Most of the water will come from the desalination plant because, at 450 gallons a minute, it can supply about half the city’s needs.

“Up and down the state, it’s a big issue,” Wade said. “In San Luis Obispo County, Morro Bay is hit particularly hard because we don’t have a surface water source.”

Morro Bay also typically uses its desalination plant during the summer when water demand peaks, but it is not a preferred source because of high energy costs and environmental considerations.

In Pismo Beach, Public Works Director Dwayne Chisam is less worried. That city gets only about a third of its water needs from the state project. The other two-thirds comes from Lopez Lake and the Arroyo Grande underground aquifer.

Pismo Beach has a drought buffer for situations like this. Even if the city gets only half of its allocation, that’s enough to cover its needs, Chisam said.

“We don’t anticipate there will be big problems,” he said.

Even though this year’s initial state water allocation is the lowest on record, later estimates could increase as winter storms move through the state, Chisam said. In fact, rain is forecast for the state beginning Sunday.

In addition to drought conditions, a court order recently stopped state water from being pumped from the San Francisco Bay Delta in order to protect salmon and other fish species.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who represents the inland portions of San Luis Obispo County, has co-sponsored a petition that would waive these restrictions and start the pumps back up.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.