Newsom declares drought emergency in Santa Clara County, asks residents to reduce water use by 15%

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday urged Californians to cut water use by 15%, and further expanded the state’s emergency drought declaration to include Santa Clara County, along with eight others.

50 of the state’s 58 counties — home to 42% of the state’s population — now fall under the emergency declaration, which essentially allows state agencies to move more quickly and effectively to support drought response measures.

Newsom’s plea for residents to cut water use comes as part of a separate executive order, which the governor stressed is voluntary. 

“I’m not here as a nanny state,” Newsom said at a Thursday press conference. “We’re not trying to be oppressive — again, these are voluntary standards.”

The voluntary 15% reduction applies to residences as well as industrial and agricultural operations.

But while the state’s order may be voluntary, the Santa Clara Valley Water District early last month voted to impose a mandatory 15% reduction in water use compared to 2019 levels; the order leaves it up to local municipalities and private water companies to decide how they’ll impose the 15% cutback on customers.

“We can’t afford to wait to act as our water supplies are being threatened locally and across California,” said Valley Water Board Chair Tony Estremera after the vote to impose the restriction in June. “We are in an emergency and Valley Water must do everything we can to protect our groundwater resources and ensure we can provide safe, clean water to Santa Clara County residents and businesses.”

By voluntarily cutting water usage by 15% compared to 2020 levels, state officials estimate that residents could save enough water to supply more than 1.7 million households for a year.

Newsom urged residents to take “common sense” measures to reduce water usage, including cutting back on lawn irrigation, reducing time in the shower, checking for leaks on properties, installing efficient showerheads and only running full loads of laundry and dishes.

“By the way, [if] you do those things, you also save money,” Newsom said.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District is offering residents up to $3,000 dollars in rebates to replace high-water using landscapes with drought-resilient ones.

Those measures have worked before: In part thanks to the same water conservation practices, per capita state residential water use during the 2013–2016 drought fell by 21%, and still, 2020 per capita residential water use was some 16% below 2013 levels.

State agencies will track California’s monthly progress toward the voluntary 15% reduction.

Locally, the state of the drought is dire.

The U.S. Drought Monitor labels Santa Clara County as being in “extreme drought,” the second-highest ranking on the six-tiered scale. 

Among other symptoms, regions experiencing extreme drought generally see intensified, year-round fire seasons; wildlife encroaching on developed areas in search of food and water; a hard-hit livestock industry; and extremely low reservoir levels.

The county’s largest surface reservoir has been drained and put out of commission for a decade to allow for the Anderson Dam project, which officials say is crucial to protecting against floods in the future.

Imported water supplies, which account for 55% of the county’s water, have also seen a “significant reduction” this year, spurred by the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack.

“If the drought continues into next year, we could face the possibility there will not be enough water to meet basic demands without serious risk of subsidence in 2022,” Estremera said in a statement Thursday.

Subsidence occurs when large amounts of water are removed from ground, which causes it to sink because the soil was partially supported by the water.

“The proclamation by Gov. Newsom amplifies how important it is for all our communities to reduce their water use during this extreme drought,” Estremera said. “Many people reduced their water use significantly during the last drought. Valley Water thanks them for their conservation efforts and encourages everyone to keep up the good work.”

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